Ritchie Valens Day hit Pacoima Junior High School like a tropical wave, breaking into an explosion of warm and noisy energy, dissolving into an intricate lace of foam.

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On the surface it was no more than typically incestuous Hollywood hype--a publicity stunt manufactured by radio station KRLA to go along with a day of Ritchie Valens music, capitalizing on, while at the same time promoting, this summer’s apparent box-office smash “La Bamba.”

Underneath, though, it stirred strong feelings in a community that isn’t used to outsiders coming to praise its heroes.

The movie portrays the brief career of a Latino teen-ager from Pacoima who recorded three hits in the eight months between his discovery and his death in a plane crash during a 1957 rock ‘n’ roll tour.

Back then, most of the attention fell upon the more illustrious Buddy Holly and J. P. (The Big Bopper) Richardson, who were killed in the same crash. But, 30 years later, the success of the retrospective has confirmed the enduring appeal of the clarion voice of “Donna” and “La Bamba.” It also brought Hollywood’s celebrity world on a jaunt into the real world that produced that star.

Monday’s ceremony at Valens’ old school began at 1 p.m. in front of a mural of scenes from his life.

The mural, incidentally, was painted in 1985, before the movie came along, by a youth gang leader and his charges to build pride in themselves and their community.

For the event, KRLA supplied a restored red-and-white vintage Chevy Impala and a few of the faces from the Valens story.

From the screen came Lou Diamond Phillips, who plays the rock singer. From the real life came Valens’ older brother, Bob Morales, his promoter, Bob Keene, and his girlfriend, Donna Fox-Coots, then Donna Ludwig, who inspired the song “Donna.”

Tributes and proclamations droned on for about an hour over a makeshift public-address system. Nobody really heard a word. Several hundred teen-agers, just let out of summer classes, crushed together around the mural, screaming and jostling for position.

“We love you,” girls occasionally shouted.

Adult men and women stood more sedately toward the periphery, many pushing strollers or holding babies. They stared toward the nucleus of the crowd, imagining more than seeing.

Many said they had known Valens, or were related.

A young woman paced nervously and asked someone, “Do you know if his cousins are here? Because my mother is really close friends to his cousins and my father was really close friends to Ritchie Valens himself.”

Patricia Corona, wearing a dressy black-and-white outfit, said her husband Louie, standing nearby in slacks and a white T-shirt, was a cousin.

“Ritchie Valens’ mother is his aunt,” she said.

Corona wasn’t sure what was going on, though.

“I think Donna Ludwig, the one who is his girlfriend, is going to come later on,” Corona said. “They’re going to fly her in with a helicopter.”

Actually, Donna, now from Sacramento, had already been flown in by helicopter, made her appearance and been escorted away to the street and into KRLA’s mobile broadcasting motor home.

When the ceremony ended, the crowd instinctively drifted that way.

On the sidewalk outside the motor home, the pepper-gray-haired Morales signed autographs and posed for snapshots with his blond wife and a klatch of children. A sleeveless shirt, several tattoos, a squinty eye and a stone stud in one ear gave him the look of a mellowed street tough. He spoke politely and did not contest his treatment in the movie as a drunken and embittered motorcycle heavy.

“I’m just very proud of him,” Morales said softly of the brother whose success, in the movie, causes him fits of rage.

Later, Donna, in a turquoise, pleated outfit, reemerged and gave an interview to Entertainment Tonight.

She said she liked the movie and thought Valens would too.

“He’s there,” she said. “He’s understanding. I hope this will put a smile on his face. It’s long overdue.”

Morales eventually started to lead his family away. But they had to stop and reassemble each time someone with a camera called out, “One more.”

Dozens of people lingered, many telling each other how they were related to Valens.

“I’m Ritchie’s cousin,” said 18-year-old Ernest Reyes. “Ritchie used to stay over with my mom and dad.”

Even after the crowd finally dissipated, three women stood together, chatting lightly.

One of them, interspersing Spanish words with English, told the others she had just remarried. Another said she was still single.

“Lots of kids and no husband,” said the first. “That’s the smart way. Mejor .”

Occasionally, someone walked up and asked the third woman to sign an autograph.

She was Rosie Morales, portrayed in the movie as Bob’s girlfriend and later, she said, his wife of 18 years. They’re still close friends, she said. He had asked her to come.

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“It was nice because I’ve seen a lot of relatives and friends I haven’t seen in ages. This lady who was talking to me? She was married to one of Ritchie’s cousins.”

And, like intricate lace, Ritchie Valens’ cousins returned to their homes in Pacoima.


Los Angeles Times senior writer Doug Smith scouts Los Angeles for the ragged edges where public policy meets real people, combining data analysis and gumshoe reporting to tell L.A. stories through his 50 years of experience covering the city.