'La Bamba' director Luis Valdez on origins of 1987 hit and why he left Hollywood after controversial Frida Kahlo film

"Somebody had to do it," says Valdez about being called "the father of Chicano film and playwriting."

Photo Illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images, Everett Collection
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Luis Valdez has so much to be proud of over the course of his decades-long career. The 83-year-old playwright, screenwriter, director and actor is considered “the father of Chicano film and playwrighting.”

In the 1960s, he was part of Cesar Chavez’s historic efforts to unionize farm workers, introducing arts into the movement. He was the first Chicano director to have a play on Broadway with Zoot Suit. Robert Rodriguez has hailed him “the first Mexican American film director.”

And this week, his most famous movie, the 1987 Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba, releases a special remastered Blu-ray edition on the prestigious Criterion Collection.

“What's important with respect to the film is that the Criterion Collection is all about preservation,” Valdez tells Yahoo Entertainment commemorating the release. “They preserve films from the past, and there have been hundreds of thousands [of] movies, but only a few get remembered. Only a few get preserved... And this is like a memory bank. This is like the best memory bank there is because you're in good company if you can get into the Criterion Collection.”

Luis Valdez at the 37th Annual Imagen Awards held at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes on October 2, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Gilbert Flores/Variety via Getty Images)
Luis Valdez at the 37th Annual Imagen Awards held at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes on Oct. 2, 2022 in Los Angeles, Calif. (Gilbert Flores/Variety via Getty Images) (Gilbert Flores via Getty Images)

He remains prideful, too, of course of the film itself, which starred Lou Diamond Phillips as the Chicano teenage rock and roll sensation whose life was cut tragically short when the plane he was on with fellow musicians Buddy Holly and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson crashed in Iowa in 1959. Made for only $6 million, La Bamba ultimately grossed over $52 million, grew in popularity on home video and in 2017 was added to the Library of Congress's National Film Registry.

“I've seen it in different countries. It's amazing how it's able to communicate through international borders and people relate to the story in the same way because we're all human,” Valdez says. “It’s the story of two brothers, a sibling rivalry, of the aspirations of youth, the dreams that teenagers can have and the use of the arts and music in particular to transcend any other kinds of problems.

“We were all 16 at one time or another, and all you remember are the insecurities, but he had a confidence that was way beyond his years, and that came through in his music. The guy was cool. He captured the spirit of rock and roll just at [its] inception.”

The beginnings of La Bamba

Valdez traces the origins of the 1987 biopic to one specific date: March 25, 1979. Zoot Suit, his 1978 play set against the backdrop of the 1940s Sleepy Lagoon murder trial and subsequent riots with music written by his brother Daniel Valdez and Lalo Guerrero, moved from Los Angeles (where it played 46 straight weeks) to Broadway.

"It was opening night. And [my brother and I] were pretty full of ourselves saying, ‘OK, we've done the '40s. What can we do in the '50s? And at that moment, we heard music coming from down below. We looked out the window and there was a mariachi group down on Seventh Avenue serenading us. We didn't know that the president of Mexico had sent this group to serenade us on opening night, but they were playing the song that answered our question. We look at each other and we said ‘La Bamba.’"

Daniel Valdez then spent the next five years in pursuit of the family Valens was survived by. “He couldn't find anything. They had sort of disappeared from the San Fernando Valley. He didn't know who to contact. And so he came back to our hometown here. We're in the central coast [of California], close to Monterey, a little town called San Juan Batista, and we have a little dive bar here that's very popular with bikers called Daisy’s Saloon. So one day someone ran over to my brother's house and he says, ‘Hey, Ritchie Valens’s brother [Bob Morales] is over at Daisy's. So Danny rushed over there and he met Bob. And Bob introduced us to his mother Connie. And they were interested. But Connie was a businesswoman and she says, ‘Well, we've had a lot of people come making us offers over the years. Do you have any money?’ And [Danny] said, ‘No, but we have an excellent contact.’"

That was filmmaker Taylor Hackford, whose 1982 breakout An Officer and a Gentleman had just been a major box office hit and earned six Academy Award nominations, winning two. "He was an old friend," says Valdez of Hackford, who'd go on to direct his own acclaimed music biopic, Ray (2004).

"He bought Ritchie's portfolio from the family and also hired me to write the screenplay. And I was hired in November, so by January there was a screenplay," Valdez says. Hackford, who is white, originally considered directing La Bamba but thought Valdez would tell the story more authentically.

"I mean, it fell into place. And by February we had a green light with Columbia Pictures with Guy McElwaine the president. And the fact is that it went very quickly. It took a year from the decision to make the film, to get into production to the moment that we actually started shooting. So that doesn't happen every day. That's just not the way it is. And my experience with movies has been that I can take 10, 20 years to work on a screen project and nothing happens. But not La Bamba. Ritchie's story was meant to be told, and all of the pieces fell into place.”

"The father of Chicano film and playwriting”

“Somebody had to do it," Valdez says with a laugh when asked how he feels about the label so prominent it toplines his Wikipedia page. "I mean, I don't want to blow my own horn in that sense. But you got to understand what a vacuum existed, in theater and in film... But the thing is that it was a wide open territory. It was open for everybody to go.

“And I think that in that regard, what I've done in the theatre happened because nobody else was doing it. And eventually the pressure builds up so that somebody has to do it. I always loved the arts. It was my saving grace for me. It was my way out of poverty, basically… I was a ventriloquist back in high school, and so I had two dummies. One was a Mexican, the other was an Anglo. And I was able to work out my cultural contradictions with these two dummies because I was both of them, and it made me popular in high school. I gave it up when I went to college and decided I needed to be a playwright."

Valdez attended San Jose State University, where he won a playwriting contest with his one-act play The Theft in 1961. Two years later, he premiered his first full-length play, The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa.

"I decided I was going to write plays that traverse territory that I had never been touched before. I had the honor of having William Saroyan and John Howard Lawson [the first president of the Writers Guild of America, West] both attend the premiere of my first play. And they were like godfathers that welcomed me into the American theatre. They said, ‘What you have done is you've created a piece of American theatre.’ And that was such a proud moment for me to say ‘Yes, because that's exactly what I was trying to do.’ I was trying to join the ranks of the American playwrights.” 

Valdez could soon feel a movement of cultural awareness afoot, one that La Bamba would play into.

“I was a columnist back in the mid-'60s, 1964. I predicted then that no ethnic group in America has succeeded until it has its poets and novelists and its artists out there expressing what it means to be human. And in that sense, Ritchie falls right into place. He was our songster. He was our poet in that sense, who was able to sing from his soul and from his heart.

Why Valdez didn't direct more movies after La Bamba became a hit

Despite La Bamba's worldwide success, Valdez’s only major directing credit after La Bamba was 1994’s comedy Western TV movie The Cisco Kid, starring Jimmy Smits and Cheech Marin.

“The contradictions are amazing in the business. It's a tough business, and you're dealing with a lot of egos. You're dealing with a lot of game playing. There are a number of contradictions," he says when asked why he didn't direct more films after La Bamba. "One, my parents were elderly [around that time]. They got into the 90s, and they were at the end. My mom died in 1994. My dad died in 1996, and I wanted to be around for them for the last few years. So I wasn't really entertaining the idea of abandoning them and going to L.A. and work on movies while they were dying. So I wanted to be around. So that was one element."

A more significant factor, however, was the experience Valdez had developing a biopic of iconic Mexican painter Frida Kahlo in the early 1990s. The project became steeped in controversy when reports swirled that Valdez was planning to cast Italian-American actress Laura San Giacomo in the lead role.

“They picketed me over the casting issue," he says. "And they referenced La Bamba, and they didn't like the fact that I had cast Lou Diamond Phillips [who is Filipino, white and Native American] as Ritchie. And so the whole idea of racial distinctions came up. And I said, ‘Well, the real Ritchie Valens was Chicano, there's no question about it. But he was a very tall, very husky Chicano with Yaqui [American Indian] roots. His mother was very proud of her Yaqui Indian roots, but obviously enough Spanish so that he was a blend. He looked Italian."

Salma Hayek in 'Frida' (Miramax)
Salma Hayek in Frida. (Miramax)

With the Kahlo biopic, Valdez says his hands were tied by the film's distributor, New Line Cinema.

“And they promised to back me up with any casting problems, but they didn't. They got out of the way. And they let me take the brunt of the criticism. But the fact is that this is before Salma Hayek [who ultimately produced and starred in the 2002 biopic Frida] could speak English. Quite literally, she'd been famous in Mexico, but she couldn't speak English. This is before Jennifer Lopez came about. Jennifer was not yet making movies. So there was no one out there. There were some names that I won't mention, but they weren't box office [draws].

"So I was having real trouble trying to cast it. There were [two leads]. There was Frida Kahlo and her husband, Diego Rivera. So I told the producers, ‘If I get a star for Diego, can that open up the possibility [to cast an unknown Latina actress] for Frida ?’ And they said, ‘Sure.’ So I went out and got Raul Julia to agree to play Diego. I went to New York and pitched him the idea, and he agreed. So I said, ‘That's it.’ And they came back and they still refused. The rumor got out in the Chicano community that I was trying to cast an Anglo as Frida. So they picketed me just at the moment that Raul Julia's pay or play deal was coming up. I was picketed on a Wednesday. By that Friday, the studio was committed to pay Raul Julia a million dollars or abandon the project. So they canceled it on the Thursday. They said, ‘We don't want to offend the Latino community.’ And they left me hanging.

“And so quite frankly, that dispirited me. That disgusted me, quite frankly, because some of my friends were involved in the criticism. And I said, ‘It's not fair.’ I'm not going to take the criticism from Hollywood for not casting Latinos. I have spent my whole life agitating, trying to get Latinos into the movies and on stage, and it's unfair for me to become the villain. So I withdrew for a while, and that was part of the issue, too."

Valdez attempted to revive the project in 1993, but by that time, Hayek was developing her own version of the film, which was ultimately directed by Julie Taymor and costarred Alfred Molina (a British actor whose ancestry is Spanish and Italian) as Rivera.

“We almost got it done. I was in a race with Salma Hayek, but she beat us. She got it done. And congratulations. I love the film and I love her work, and that's fine as far as I'm concerned."

Valdez also hoped to make a biopic about Cesar Chavez, whose migrant labor movement he had joined in 1965, setting up a farm workers theatre troupe.

“It was getting done. But at that time in 1993, Chavez died. I was in Mexico trying to set up deals for movies, but I had to come back and direct his funeral. We had 50,000 people show up in Delano, and I was there with five camera crews filming the whole thing for the union. And that was a tremendous change, also, that we lost Cesar Chavez.

“But the fact is that I was doing other things. I'm also a playwright. I'm a community organizer. I have my own theatre company, El Teatro Campesino. It's not as if I was completely bereft by not making movies. I would've loved to make movies. I would've loved to have done the Cesar Chavez movie, particularly, and the Frida movie. But it wasn't meant to be. La Bamba, by contrast, was meant to be. It happened. All the elements fell into place. And fortunately, it's being remembered.”

La Bamba: The Criterion Collection is now available.