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Singing Up Our Ancestors
Teaching Myrlin Hepworth’s “Ritchie Valens”

By Linda Christensen

Home > Archives > Volume 28 No.4 - Summer 2014

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Myrlin Hepworth’s poem “Ritchie Valens” is a Swiss army knife kind of poem, providing multiple functions—mentor text for poetic devices; biographic poem to help students praise family members, literary characters, or historical figures; tutor text that examines both racial and language discrimination in the United States; accessible model to launch students’ own poetry.

In the poem, Hepworth tells the story of Valens’ rise to fame, but also his brushes with racism because of his Mexican American heritage. Valens was born Richard Steven Valenzuela, but his producer at Del-Fi records shortened his name to give him “broader appeal”:

Richard Valenzuela,
they called you Ritchie.
Said Valenzuela
was too much for a gringo’s tongue.
Said it would taste bad in their mouths
if they said it,
so they cut your name in half to Valens,
and you swallowed that taste down,
stood tall like a Pachuco
and signed that contract

para su familia para su musica.

In eight months, Valens, who was 17, went from playing in local theaters in his hometown of Pacoima, California, to playing on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. He wrote his own music and

Took an old folk song
from Veracruz,

La Bamba,
Swung that Afro Mexican rhythm into rock and roll, “para bailar la bamba!”

Valens is considered the founder of Chicano Rock.

Hepworth, who is Mexican American and Anglo, works as a teaching artist in Arizona. His poem includes a line underscoring the linguistic racism that still exists 55 years after Valens’ plane tumbled from the sky into Clear Lake, Iowa:

Sang all Spanish lyrics at a time when speaking Spanish
came with a wooden paddle punishment.

In a line close to the end of the poem, Hepworth returns to the same theme:

And America is still trying
to shape you into Hollywood,
still trying to bleach the memory of your skin.
Wrote a movie and said you never spoke Spanish,
even though you understood each cariño your mother
placed into your ears as a child.
The movie chalked your death
up to superstition and Mexican hoopla.

Yes, Hepworth’s poem has it all. I’ve used the poem with freshmen through seniors (and adults) as a model, but it could be used with younger students as well. After my junior class studies the politics of language discrimination, they write biographic poems about literary and historical characters whose native tongues had been lost or severed. After reading August Wilson’s play Jitney, sophomores write poems about people they know whose lives have been disrupted by gentrification. During a break between units, seniors write about people in their own lives they want to praise.

Setting the Mood, Learning the History

When I teach the poem, I play Valens’ signature song, “La Bamba,” and project his image across a large screen as students walk in. Most students are familiar with the song, and some even sing along and dance as they move into their seats. “Hey, I watched that movie with my mom,” Trina remembers. “He’s the singer who died in a plane crash with Buddy Holly, right?” Vince asks. The “La Bamba”’ upbeat rhythm is a great start to any day.

Once students settle into their desks, I tell them that we are going to watch a video clip of Hepworth performing a poem that we will use as a model for our own writing. “Hepworth is writing a poetic biography of a famous singer. You will also write a poetic biography. In this poem, Hepworth tells the story of Ritchie Valens, who sang ‘La Bamba.’ Notice how he tells the story. Think about what pieces of his story stand out for you.” (Of course, my introduction varies depending on the content—politics of language, Jitney, Civil Rights Movement, or personal writing. This introduction is for my juniors.)

Then we watch Hepworth’s amazing performance of “Ritchie Valens” (see Resources). Students fill the post-poetry silence with a variety of comments: “It’s a history.” “He talks about the night Valens died.” “He uses Spanish.”


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