Next time you're taking the 5 freeway up into the northeastern San Fernando Valley, don't be surprised if you find yourself suddenly humming the tune to "La Bamba." That's because you'll be passing a sign declaring that you're driving on the Ritchie Valens Memorial Highway.
The new freeway designation, proposed by Assemblymember Raul Bocanegra (D-Pacoima), was approved on Aug. 31 by the California State Assembly, officially naming a 3-mile stretch of Interstate 5 between the 170 and 118 freeways after the "La Bamba" singer, who grew up in nearby Pacoima.
"His music inspired and influenced a generation of Chicano artists in our community and throughout the world," Bocanegra said in a prepared statement. "It’s only fitting to name this segment of the I-5 after a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who grew up right here in Pacoima.”
Valens rose to national stardom while still in his teens with his hit recording of "La Bamba," a Mexican folk song he remade as an electrified rock & roll rave-up. It was one of the first songs with Spanish lyrics to be played on American Top 40 radio, paving the way for future Latino rock acts such as Thee Midniters and Chris Montez.
Valens died in a 1959 plane crash that also took the lives of Buddy Holly and J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, when he was just 17 years old, but the influence of his small catalog, including not just "La Bamba" but other early rock hits "Donna" and "That's My Little Suzie," was far-reaching enough to get him inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.
“Ritchie Valens represented the San Fernando Valley with honor and respect; at performances across the nation he would proudly announce he was from the Valley,” said Gil Rocha, who performed with Valens in his first group, The Silhouettes. “Ritchie loved his community, and had big plans to help young neighborhood kids.”
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Bocanegra, who represents California's 39th District, encompassing the Sun Valley–to-Pacoima tract along which the designated stretch of the 5 freeway runs, says his office will work with Valens' family and area nonprofits to organize a dedication event at an undetermined future date.
“Ritchie’s promising career ended prematurely after a tragic plane accident, but his memory lives on through his music and the cultural influences he had on society,” Bocanegra said.