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American Anthem: The Staying Power Of 'La Bamba'


LOS LOBOS: (Singing in Spanish).


That, of course, is "La Bamba." It was the very first song in Spanish to hit No. 1 in the United States. And for our ongoing music series, we're going to explain why this Spanish-language song with Afro-Mexican roots is an enduring American anthem. From our Code Switch team, Shereen Marisol Meraji has the story.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Let's begin in the present or the not-too-distant past. Last fall, in Shelbyville, Tenn., counterprotesters faced down neo-Nazis and white supremacists. And the counterprotesters brought a sound system.

CHRIS IRWIN: And it was a nice one. It was loud.

MERAJI: Chris Irwin was one of the organizers. He's a public defender in Knoxville and says they used that sound system to drown out the speakers on the other side of the street with music.

IRWIN: There's this guy we call Angry Santa, a KKK guy - unabashed. We've seen him at other rallies. And he starts talking about rounding up all you degenerate whores. And it just occurred to me, I was like, let's try "La Bamba." (Singing) Da da da da La Bamba...


LOS LOBOS: (Singing in Spanish).


TREVOR NOAH: The absolute best counterprotest I have ever seen.

MERAJI: Trevor Noah saw a video of the rally online and talked about it on "The Daily Show."


NOAH: A white supremacist gets up to give a speech, and he doesn't get punched. Someone just starts playing "La Bamba."

IRWIN: People were dancing on our side. Think about that. In Charlottesville, they murdered that woman with a car. They were violent. They came in with clubs and fire.


NOAH: Even one of the Nazis can't help but dance along. Look at him.


NOAH: He's like, yeah. We're the supreme race, but that is the supreme beat. Come on.

IRWIN: And he was dancing to a song that was multicultural by its very nature and sound and beat. And when you hit a song and something like that happens, you know on a cellular level this is something that's right for right now. This is it.


MERAJI: As right as "La Bamba" is for these times, it's got a long, long history.


ANDRES HUESCA: (Speaking in Spanish).

MERAJI: Story goes that a 17-year-old Mexican-American kid from the San Fernando Valley named Ritchie Valens probably heard this version of "La Bamba" growing up, sung by Andres Huesca. It was popularized during the golden age of Mexican cinema, around the 1940s.

LUIS VALDEZ: If there's any one song that represents the Americas, it is this one song, "La Bamba."

MERAJI: Luis Valdez wrote and directed the 1987 film "La Bamba" about the life and death of Ritchie Valens. Valdez still doesn't know the exact meaning of the song's title, but he did lots of research for the film and thinks it's a reference to umbamba (ph) from Africa.

VALDEZ: And it was a beat. It was a sound. And that landed on the shores of Veracruz.

MERAJI: Enslaved Africans were brought a few hundred years ago to Veracruz, Mexico. And because cultural fusion has long been a means of survival, African, Indigenous and Spanish traditions got mashed up. Out of that mashup, a musical style was born called son jarocho. "La Bamba" is a son jarocho song.

ALEXANDRO HERNANDEZ: This strum to "La Bamba." (Playing guitar).

MERAJI: Alexandro Hernandez is an ethnomusicologist at UCLA and a musician, too.

HERNANDEZ: Listen to it when I mute it. (Playing guitar).

MERAJI: Hernandez says that rhythm is the beating heart of son jarocho.

HERNANDEZ: It is that Afro-Caribbean connection that's been there for hundreds of years mixed in with a little bit of the Espanol and first nations.

MERAJI: Ritchie Valens took that style of folk music from Latin America and turned it into an anthem for the United States of America. His real name was Richard Valenzuela. He came of age when kids were punished in school for speaking Spanish.


RITCHIE VALENS: (Singing in Spanish).

MERAJI: Valens' version of "La Bamba" became a surprise hit, climbing to No. 22 on the charts in 1959. Luis Valdez says Valens took that song to a whole new level.

VALDEZ: And to a whole new audience because that audience was young at that time. They were teenagers, and they were hearing rock 'n' roll. They weren't hearing Mexican folk music. They were hearing rock 'n' roll.


MERAJI: Rock 'n' roll, another musical mashup that, like son jarocho, also has roots in slavery and colonization. And Luis Valdez's film "La Bamba" brought it to new audiences again three decades later with a version by a band from East Los Angeles called Los Lobos.


LOS LOBOS: (Singing in Spanish).

MERAJI: The Los Lobos version of "La Bamba" topped the charts by starting with rock 'n' roll and ending with son jarocho.


LEAH ROSE GALLEGOS: My parents are big fans of Los Lobos, so I just remember hearing the Los Lobos version a lot in the car.

MERAJI: Leah Rose Gallegos is a member of another band from East LA called Las Cafeteras. They represent "La Bamba's" future, taking the hit in a new direction, mixing son jarocho with influences from hip-hop.


LAS CAFETERAS: (Singing in Spanish).

MERAJI: Ritchie Valens sang that to dance "La Bamba," you need a little grace. Denise Carlos raps, this is the rebellious "La Bamba." I don't believe in borders. I cross them." Carlos and bandmate Hector Flores say those lyrics represent how they feel now.

DENISE CARLOS: I will never be authentic to Mexico. I will never be authentic to this idea of Americanism. But I still belong. And our culture as Chicanos and pochas is still valid.

HECTOR FLORES: We're not from Veracruz. We're from right here. We LA kids, and we speak Spanish just as bad as we speak English. And, like, that allowed us to then be proud of "La Bamba" versus, oh, that's just how they box me up.

MERAJI: And the song follows them everywhere. Leah Rose Gallegos was traveling in Thailand with her husband, who is also a member of the group. They got invited to a karaoke birthday party, and everyone who knew they were American had two requests.

GALLEGOS: Do an Elvis song, and do "La Bamba."


GALLEGOS: And we're like, OK. Let's do it.


MERAJI: Bandmate Hector Flores says that's just one example of how people around the world think an Afro-Mexican song made famous by Chicanos is an all-American anthem.

FLORES: That's so dope to me. This song survived slavery, colonialism, and you're damn sure it's going to survive Trump because it lives within us. And we invite everybody to also make it yours.

MERAJI: Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) All my people in the place tonight, everybody come and sing along. Like this, say... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shereen Marisol Meraji is the co-host and senior producer of NPR's Code Switch podcast. She didn't grow up listening to public radio in the back seat of her parent's car. She grew up in a Puerto Rican and Iranian home where no one spoke in hushed tones, and where the rhythms and cadences of life inspired her story pitches and storytelling style. She's an award-winning journalist and founding member of the pre-eminent podcast about race and identity in America, NPR's Code Switch. When she's not telling stories that help us better understand the people we share this planet with, she's dancing salsa, baking brownies or kicking around a soccer ball.