Essential Question

How did Ritchie Valens meld traditional Mexican music and Rock and Roll?


Ritchie Valens has become one of the most celebrated Rock and Roll musicians of the 1950s. 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 Mexican 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, and how it illustrates Rock and Roll’s capacity to absorb multiple influences and redefine itself.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • Ritchie Valens’ role as a Rock and Roll pioneer
    • 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. Mastery Objective:
    • Students will be able to explain Ritchie Valens’ contribution to Rock and Roll by comparing the traditional Mexican song “La Bamba” to Valens’ Rock and Roll version.


Motivational Activity:

  1. Tell students that they will be watching a short video featuring three musicians of Native American heritage. Play clip, Fitting In. Ask students:
    • What role did each musician’s ancestral heritage play in their work as a musician? Did it play different roles or the same role?
    • How did each musician describe the impact of their heritage on their musical career? Which of them described their Native American heritage as a motivation for their music?
    • Is there another artist you know of who you feel was inspired by their heritage? How do you know? (For example, students might name Bruno Mars, Jennifer Lopez,  Rihanna, or Bob Marley.)
  2. Optional: If the teacher feels comfortable, they can share the ways their own heritage might have shaped them, and ask student volunteers to discuss their heritage.


  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?
    • Who 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.”
  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 the traditional song with Rock and Roll?
    • What do you think Valens was trying to express when he recorded this song?

Summary Activity:

  1. Ask students:
    • 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.)

Extension Activities:

  1. Writing Prompt: Describe how Ritchie Valens merged Rock and Roll with traditional Mexican music.
  2. Writing prompt: 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 . 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.
  3. 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 Ritchie Valens’.
  4. 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

  • 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 2: Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
  • Reading 3: Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards (Extension Activities Only)

  • Text Types and Purposes 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.
  • Text Types and Purposes 3: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details and well-structured event sequences.
  • Production and Distribution of Writing 4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language

  • Language 3: Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listing.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening

  • Comprehension & Collaboration 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • Comprehension & Collaboration 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.

Career Technical Education Standards (California Model) – Arts, Media and Entertainment Pathway Standards

Design, Visual and Media Arts (A)

  • A1.0 Demonstrate ability to reorganize and integrate visual art elements across digital media and design applications.
    A1.1 View and respond to a variety of industry-related artistic products integrating industry appropriate vocabulary.
    A1.4 Select industry-specific works and analyze the intent of the work and the appropriate use of media.
    A1.5 Research and analyze the work of an artist or designer and how the artist’s distinctive style contributes to their industry production.
    A1.9 Analyze the material used by a given artist and describe how its use influences the meaning of the work. ia, and Entertainment |
    A3.0 Analyze and assess the impact of history and culture on the development of professional arts and media products.
    A3.2 Describe how the issues of time, place, and cultural influence and are reflected in a variety of artistic products.
    A3.3 Identify contemporary styles and discuss the diverse social, economic, and political developments reflected in art work in an industry setting.
    A3.4 Identify art in international industry and discuss ways in which the work reflects cultural perspective.
    A3.5 Analyze similarities and differences of purpose in art created in culturally diverse industry applications.
    A4.0 Analyze, assess, and identify effectiveness of artistic products based on elements of art, the principles of design, and professional industry standards.
    A4.2 Deconstruct how beliefs, cultural traditions, and current social, economic, and political contexts influence commercial media (traditional and electronic).
    A4.5 Analyze and articulate how society influences the interpretation and effectiveness of an artistic product.
    A5.0 Identify essential industry competencies, explore commercial applications and develop a career specific personal plan.
    A5.2 Explore the role of art and design across various industry sectors and content areas.
    A5.3 Deconstruct works of art, identifying psychological content found in the symbols and images and their relationship to industry and society.

Performing Arts (B)

  • B2.0 Read, listen to, deconstruct, and analyze peer and professional music using the elements and terminology of music.
    B2.2 Describe how the elements of music are used.
    B2.5 Analyze and describe significant musical events perceived and remembered in a given industry generated example.
    B2.6 Analyze and describe the use of musical elements in a given professional work that makes it unique, interesting, and expressive.
    B2.7 Demonstrate the different uses of form, both past and present, in a varied repertoire of music in commercial settings from diverse genres, styles, and professional applications.B5.0 Apply vocal and/or instrumental skill and knowledge to perform a varied repertoire of music appropriate to music industry application.
    B5.7 Create melodic and rhythmic improvisations in a style or genre within a musical culture (gamelan, jazz, and mariachi).
    B7.0 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of multiple industry performance products from a discipline-specific perspective.
    B7.3 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of the musician in the professional setting.
    B8.0 Deconstruct the aesthetic values that drive professional performance and the artistic elements necessary for industry production.
    B8.4 Use complex evaluation criteria and terminology to compare and contrast a variety of genres of professional performance products.