La Bamba singer Ritchie Valens would have turned 80 years old today, and fans of the late rock and roller are paying tribute online. Known for his classic hits like “La Bamba,” “Come On, Let’s Go!” and “Donna,” the legendary musician sadly died at the age of 17 along with Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and pilot Roger Peterson in a 1959 plane crash. The event has become widely referred to as “The Day the Music Died,” thanks to a tribute song about the singers by Don McLean.
Valens was famously played by Lou Diamond Philips in the 1987 biopic La Bamba. Chronicling Valen’s short-lived rise to stardom and sudden death, the acclaimed movie was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2017. Just last week, Phillips responded to someone on Twitter criticizing the Filipino-American actor’s casting as a Mexican-American in the biopic, which was made with the full support of the Valenzuela family.
“Cool! Too bad you weren’t around in 1986 when Chicano writer/director Luis Valdez cast me,” Phillips said. “Or when the Valenzuelas, Ritchie’s family, endorsed me in the role. I’m sure they would’ve appreciated your authentic input. But, orale, ese, better late than never!”
Ritchie’s family, including his brother Bob and mother Connie (played by Esai Morales and Rosanna DeSoto in the movie, respectively) worked with the actors directly to help ensure the characters were portrayed accurately. Valens’ mother even has a cameo appearance in the movie sitting next to him at a family gathering. The family also developed a particularly close bond with Phillips and even started referring to him as Ritchie on set.
When the movie was later screened with cast and crew, Ritchie’s younger sister Connie – who was just six years old at the time of the fatal crash – is said to have freaked out during the movie. As Lou Diamond Phillips boarded the plane in one of the final scenes, Connie grabbed onto Phillips and pleaded with him not to get on the plane, asking why he had to die. She later explained on VH-1’s Behind the Music that this made her realize she never got over Ritchie’s death.
“My brother was a pioneer of rock & roll, despite all the odds being against him,” Connie says in a new interview with Rolling Stone. “He wasn’t the right color, he wasn’t the right size, he wasn’t the right age – but that didn’t matter. He had the right heart, he had the drive, he had the passion. And he paved the way for all people of color and all ethnicities.”
Phillips added: “Ritchie was a rock and roll pioneer, and that is without qualification. His music touched an entire generation. Not only did [his story] speak to a community, it really represents the American dream for Latinos.”
Many fans of Ritchie are also paying tribute on social media. Because he was so young and only just beginning his career in music, we can only think about what could have been if not for the “Day the Music Died.” Though he’s gone, his memory shines just as brightly decades later, and Valens will forever be remembered. Happy heavenly birthday, Ritchie.