Through Slavery, Segregation And More, 'La Bamba' Has Been The Sound Of Survival Sixty years ago, a Mexican folk tune sung entirely in Spanish became a rock and roll phenomenon. Generations after Ritchie Valens, young Latinos are still harnessing its power.

Through Slavery, Segregation And More, 'La Bamba' Has Been The Sound Of Survival

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RITCHIE VALENS: (Singing) Para bailar La Bamba...


"La Bamba." It was the first song in Spanish to hit No. 1 in the United States. But not this Ritchie Valens version. No, the year was 1987, and the band that took "La Bamba" to the top of the charts was Los Lobos.


LOS LOBOS: (Singing) Yo no soy marinero. Yo no soy marinero. Soy capitan, soy capitan, soy capitan. Bamba, bamba...

MERAJI: For our series American Anthem, I'm going to spend the next few minutes talking about why this Spanish language song with roots in Veracruz, Mexico, is still an enduring American anthem. We'll begin in the present or, at least, the not-too-distant past.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Unintelligible).

MERAJI: On an unusually cold and overcast Saturday in October last year, counterprotesters faced down neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Shelbyville, Tenn., and the counterprotesters brought a sound system.

CHRIS IRWIN: And it was a nice one. It was loud. I'm afraid we may have damaged their hearing.

MERAJI: Chris Irwin was one of the organizers. He's a public defender in Knoxville and says they used that sound system to drown out the speakers on the other side of the street with music.

IRWIN: There's this guy we call Angry Santa. And Angry Santa is a KKK guy, unabashed. We've seen him at other rallies. And he starts talking about rounding up all you degenerate whores. And it just occurred to me. I was like, let's try "La Bamba." (Singing) (Unintelligible) La Bamba...


LOS LOBOS: (Singing) Para bailar La Bamba, para bailar La Bamba, se necessita una poca de gracia...


TREVOR NOAH: The absolute best counterprotest I have ever seen.

MERAJI: Trevor Noah saw a video of the rally online and talked about it on "The Daily Show."


NOAH: A white supremacist gets up to give a speech, and he doesn't get punched. Someone just starts playing "La Bamba."

IRWIN: People were dancing on our side. And think about that. At Charlottesville, they murdered that woman with a car. They were violent. They came in with clubs and fire. And we had a thousand people show up - African-Americans, immigrants, Hispanics, brave people. And they're dancing and laughing at them.


NOAH: Even one of the Nazis can't help but dance along. Look at him.


NOAH: That guy totally forgets he's wearing a Nazi helmet. Yeah. He's like, yeah. We're the supreme race, but that is the supreme beat. Come on.


IRWIN: And he was dancing at a Nazi rally with KKK members to a song that was multicultural by its very nature and sound and beat. And when you hit a song and something like that happens, you know on a cellular level this is something that's right for right now. This is it.


MERAJI: As right as "La Bamba" is for these times, it's got a long, long history.


ANDRES HUESCA: (Singing) Para cantar La Bamba, para cantar La Bamba, se necessita una poca de gracia. Una poca de gracia y otra cosita, ay arriba, ay arriba...

MERAJI: Story goes that a 17-year-old Mexican-American kid from the San Fernando Valley named Ritchie Valens probably heard this version of "La Bamba" growing up, sung by Andres Huesca. It was popularized during the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, around the 1940s.

LUIS VALDEZ: If there's any one song that represents the Americas, it is this one song, "La Bamba."

MERAJI: Luis Valdez wrote and directed the 1987 film "La Bamba" about the life and death of Ritchie Valens. Valdez still doesn't know the exact meaning of the title of Valens' most famous song, but he did lots of research for the film and thinks it's a reference to something he calls umbamba from Africa.

VALDEZ: And it was a beat. It was a sound, and that landed on the shores of Veracruz.

MERAJI: Enslaved Africans were brought a few hundred years ago to Veracruz, Mexico. And because cultural fusion has long been a means of survival, African, indigenous and Spanish traditions were all mashed up. And out of that mashup, a musical style was created called son jarocho. "La Bamba" is a son jarocho song.

ALEXANDRO HERNANDEZ: This strum to "La Bamba."


MERAJI: Alexandro Hernandez is an ethnomusicologist at UCLA and a musician himself.

HERNANDEZ: Listen to it when I mute it.


MERAJI: Hernandez says that rhythm is the beating heart of son jarocho.

HERNANDEZ: It's there. It's, like, embedded in the strum itself, too...


HERNANDEZ: ...Because it is that Afro-Caribbean connection that's been there for hundreds of years mixed in with a little bit of the Espanol and first nations.

MERAJI: Ritchie Valens took that style of folk music from Latin America and turned it into an anthem for the United States of America. His real name was Richard Valenzuela. He came of age when segregation was still legal in parts of the U.S., and kids were punished in school for speaking Spanish.


VALENS: (Singing) Bamba, bamba, bamba, bamba, bamba, bamba...

MERAJI: Valens' version of "La Bamba" was actually a B-side, but it became a surprise hit, climbing to No. 22 on the charts in 1959. Luis Valdez says Valens took that song to a whole new level.

VALDEZ: And to a whole new audience because that audience was young at that time. They were teenagers, and they were hearing rock 'n' roll. They weren't hearing Mexican folk music. They were hearing rock 'n' roll.


MERAJI: Rock 'n' roll, a unique musical mashup that, like son jarocho, also has roots in slavery and colonization, a sound of survival now totally synonymous with the USA. And Luis Valdez's film "La Bamba" brought that song to new audiences three decades later using a version by a band from East Los Angeles called Los Lobos.


LOS LOBOS: (Singing) Para bailar La Bamba, para bailar La Bamba, se necessita una poca de gracia...

MERAJI: The Los Lobos version of "La Bamba" topped the charts by starting with rock 'n' roll and ending with son jarocho.


LEAH ROSE GALLEGOS: My parents are big fans of Los Lobos, so I just remember hearing the Los Lobos version a lot in the car.

MERAJI: Leah Rose Gallegos is a member of a band from Northeast LA called Las Cafeteras. And they've come to represent "La Bamba's" future, taking the song in a new direction, mixing son jarocho with influences from hip-hop culture. I met up with the band at their first practice space, Gallegos' parents' house in Highland Park, where they played me their version.

DENISE CARLOS: (Singing in Spanish).

MERAJI: Now, Ritchie Valens sang that to dance "La Bamba," you need a little grace. Denise Carlos sings, "this is the rebellious "La Bamba" because we're Chicanos from East LA. I don't believe in borders. I cross them." Carlos says son jarocho's a style of music where the lyrics are always changing. That's encouraged. It's like free-styling and hip-hop. So "La Bamba" is constantly evolving. She and bandmate Hector Flores say their lyrics to the song represent how they're feeling right now.

CARLOS: I will never be authentic to Mexico. I will never be authentic to this idea of Americanism. But I still belong, and I still am valid. And our culture as Chicanos and pochas is still valid.

HECTOR FLORES: We're not from Veracruz. We're from right here. We LA kids, and we speak Spanish just as bad as we speak English, you know? Like - and, like, that allowed us to then be proud of "La Bamba" versus, oh, that's just how they box me up.

MERAJI: And "La Bamba" follows them everywhere, on vacation, even. Leah Rose Gallegos says she was traveling in Thailand with her husband, who's also a member of the group. And they were invited to a karaoke birthday party. Everyone there knew they were American, and everyone had two requests.

GALLEGOS: Do an Elvis song and do "La Bamba."


GALLEGOS: And we're like, OK. Let's do it.


GALLEGOS: (Singing in Spanish).

MERAJI: Bandmate Hector Flores says he loves that story because it's just one example of how people around the world think a Spanish language song made famous by Chicanos is an all-American anthem, especially right now.

FLORES: You know? And, like, that's so dope to me. This song survived slavery, colonialism. And you're damn sure it's going to survive Trump because it lives within us. And we invite everybody to also make it yours.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: All my people in the place tonight. Everybody come and sing along like this say...

LAS CAFETERAS: (Singing in Spanish).

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