Essential Question

How did Ritchie Valens meld traditional Mexican music and Rock and Roll, marking the birth of Latino Rock?


In many ways, Ritchie Valens was an unlikely person to become known as the “father of Latino Rock.” His recording career lasted less than a year, cut short in February 1959, when he was killed in the same plane crash that took the lives of Rock and Roll star Buddy Holly and disc jockey/musician J.P. Richardson (better known as “The Big Bopper”).

Valens released only two singles during his lifetime. The second, featuring the love ballad “Donna,” soared to No. 2 on the Billboard Pop singles chart and established Valens as a rising star. Newspaper accounts of his death referred to him as “a young sensation… rapidly becoming one of the hottest singing talents in the country,” and even “the next Elvis Presley.”

But it was the B-side of that single, featuring the traditional Mexican wedding song “La Bamba,” that secured Valens’ legacy. The lyrics of the song were entirely in Spanish, sung over a tune that would have been immediately recognizable to most Mexican-Americans. Born Richard Valenzuela to a Latino family in Southern California, Valens had played the song growing up and with various bands at school. His biographer reports that he may have been reluctant to record a Rock and Roll version of the song, both because he thought it might be disrespectful to the original and because he didn’t speak Spanish very well. But his recording, driven by Latin percussion, enjoyed commercial success — particularly for a single’s B-side – cracking the Top 40 and peaking at no. 22.

In this lesson, students will compare Valens’ version of “La Bamba” to a traditional version of the song, and examine how Valens was able to successfully incorporate a Latin feel into a mainstream Rock and Roll recording. They will further evaluate why the song became influential, paving the way for later artists to develop and explore the genre of Latino Rock, and how it illustrates Rock and Roll’s capacity to absorb multiple influences and redefine itself.

View More


Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • Ritchie Valens’ role as a pioneer who merged traditional Latino music with Rock and Roll
    • The origins of Valens’ “La Bamba” as a traditional Mexican folk-dance song or huapango
    • Highlights of the brief career of Valens, who died at age 17 in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, in 1959
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Evaluate and compare two different musical interpretations of the same song


Motivational Activity:

  1. Ask students if they know what country or region their families originally came from. Poll sample answers.
  2. Discuss:
    • What are some of the cultural traditions from this country or region that you may have learned about from your parents or other relatives? (Possible answers may reference types of food, language, dress, music, etc.)
    • Have you learned about any of the traditional music from this country or region? If so, what have you learned? Do you enjoy it? Does it have relevance in your life?
    • Do you consider your heritage an important part of your daily life? Why or why not?
    • Are you able to fold your family’s cultural traditions into your everyday interests, or do they remain at a distance?


  1. Divide students into pairs. Distribute Handout 1 – Ritchie Valens Biography to each pair.
  2. Instruct pairs to read the handout aloud to each other, alternating by paragraph. Each student should follow along as his/her partner reads, underlining key words and phrases.
  3. After all groups have finished reading the passage, discuss the following:
    • At the time of his death, what kind of music was Valens best known for? Who appears to have been his primary audience?
    • Why do you think he recorded under the name Valens rather than Valenzuela?
  4. Play the excerpt from the song “Donna.” Briefly discuss:
    • How would you describe the style of the song?
    • Whom do you think the song was popular with? (Refer students back to the reading and the fact that “Donna” was Valens’ biggest chart hit.)
  5. Distribute Handout 2 – “La Bamba” Listening Template to students. Explain that you will play two song clips, and that as they listen they should fill in as many parts of the listening template as they can.
  6. Play the short video excerpt of the traditional version of “La Bamba.”
  7. Ask for volunteers to share what they wrote on the template, particularly about instrumentation, vocal style, lyrics, language, tempo, and mood.
  8. Distribute Handout 3 – “La Bamba” to each pair. Have students read it to each other as they did with the first handout.
  9. After all groups have finished reading the passage, discuss the following:
    • What kind of song is “La Bamba”? Where was it traditionally performed?
    • What do the lyrics of the song suggest about its purpose?
    • Where might Ritchie Valens have heard this song?
    • Why might Valens have started playing this song as a teenager?
    • Based on what you know about Valens, are you surprised that he decided to record a version of this song? Why or why not?
    • Why might Valens have been reluctant to record the song? Why might he have wanted to record the song?
  10. Play the Valens version of “La Bamba” (Note: this link will open to the official song on YouTube, we suggest loading the video before class to avoid showing advertising during class.)
  11. Ask students to record their observations on the listening template.
  12. Discuss:
    • Is the song recognizable as the same song played in the traditional version? Why or why not? What about the two versions is similar?
    • What are the major differences between Valens’ version and the traditional version? (Be sure to emphasize the guitar line and the strong beat.)
    • Would you describe Valens’ version as a Rock and Roll record? Why or why not?
    • How does the song combine elements of a traditional Latin song with Rock and Roll?
    • What do you think Valens was trying to express when he recorded this song?

Summary Activity:


  • At the time of his death, Valens was known as a teenage Rock and Roller in the style of Elvis Presley, yet today he is best remembered for “La Bamba.” What do you think accounts for this?
  • “La Bamba” is included on Rolling Stone’s list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” (at No. 354). Why do you think the song is regarded in this way? What has made it so influential?
  • Do you think Valens would record under the name “Valens” or “Valenzuela” if he were still alive?
  • What does the success of “La Bamba” suggest about the ability of Rock and Roll to absorb different musical influences? How has this ability helped Rock and Roll expand its audience?
  • Can you think of other influences absorbed by Rock and Roll? (Note: Help the students consider how Rock and Roll has absorbed Country, Hip Hop, Folk, or any other genre that comes to mind.)


Imagine that you are Ritchie Valens, and that you have been able to read about the success of your recording of “La Bamba” and its influence on Rock and Roll. Write a journal entry in which you describe your reaction to the success of the song and being dubbed the “father of Latino Rock.” Are you surprised? Is this something you set out to do? How do you feel about being thought of in this way? Be sure to make specific reference to sources discussed in this lesson.

Writing Prompt:

How did Ritchie Valens merge Rock and Roll with traditional Latino music?  Why is he often referred to as the “father of Latino Rock”?


1. Have students read the Rock’s Backpages article “Chicano Rock,” by Bill Millar. Have them research one of the artists mentioned in the piece and write several paragraphs comparing that artist’s music and career to Richie Valens’.

2. The band Los Lobos covered “La Bamba” for the 1987 biopic about Ritchie Valens, also entitled La Bamba. Their version reached no. 1 on the Pop chart in the United States. Ask students to compare Los Lobos’ version both to the traditional version and to Valens’ version.


Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text

  • Reading 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Reading 3: Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.

College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects

  • Writing 2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12

  • Speaking and Listening 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions

National Standards for Music Education

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Select: Choose music appropriate for a specific purpose or context.
  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate  musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.

National Core Arts Standards


  • Anchor Standard 7: Perceive and analyze artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard 8: Interpret intent and meaning in artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard 9: Apply criteria to evaluate artistic work.


  • Anchor Standard 10: Synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make art.
  • Anchor Standards 11: Relate artistic ideas and work with societal, cultural and historical context to deepen understanding.

Want to take a peek behind the curtain?

Join us at TeachRock Backstage, the online professional learning community for educators to discuss teaching and learning.