“La Bamba” visits campus for first CITA event

By Alexandra Kukulka

“La Bamba,” a 1987 biopic about the late rock ‘n’ roll musician Ritchie Valens, celebrated its 25th anniversary with Columbia when its three lead actors came to the college to chat with students.

Esai Morales, Elizabeth Peña and Lou Diamond Phillips visited the college for two events on Oct. 15 and 16, at which they discussed the film’s cultural significance with students and members of the Hispanic community. On Oct. 16, they spoke at this year’s first Conversations in the Arts series.

The “La Bamba” CITA event, held at 322 E. Illinois St., was part of Columbia Night at the Chicago International Film Festival. During the event, the cast addressed an audience of Columbia students and community members.

“‘La Bamba’ is timeless,” Phillips said during the panel discussion. “This was a tale about the American dream. This is a true American story and tragedy. There is a cultural aspect, which I really think spoke to people.”

The film is about Valens’ sudden rise to fame as a musician and his tragic death in an airplane crash.

Phillips said the film resonates with audiences because it is relatable. The film’s characters pursue their own dreams but remember the importance of family, he said.

Peña said her character, Rosie, is an example of the power of family bonds. In the film, her husband, Bobby, played by Morales, verbally and physically abused her, yet she stayed with him and bore his child.

“I would have kicked his butt immediately,” Peña said. “But, [Rosie] doesn’t … because [she] is his partner.”

Peña added that she will always remember filming the orchard scene, in which she picks peaches as Ritchie comes home from being on tour, because she had been a city girl her entire life and it was the first time she had experienced a rural setting.

At the Oct. 15 event, which was  held in the 623 S. Wabash Ave. Building and was only open to students, staff and members of the Hispanic community, the cast explored the topic of interethnic dating. In the film, Phillips’ character Ritchie, who was Hispanic, dated a nonhispanic girl, Donna, whose father did not approve of their relationship.

Phillips recalled on a similar experience he had in college and said this type of discrimination still exists but is veiled behind

good manners.

Morales said “La Bamba” was the first film to show the humble side of Hispanic culture, something he said he wants to see more often, because Hollywood tends to play on Latino stereotypes.

“I don’t see [Latino] stories being told in ways that reflect our humanity,” Morales said. “I see us often [used] as spicing to the story … we are more than condiments. We have [stories] that Americans can identify with and enrich themselves with.”

Morales said the film wouldn’t have been the same if Bobby wasn’t such a complex character. In fact, the film almost had a different dynamic altogether because Morales originally auditioned for Ritchie, while Phillips prepared for the role of Bobby.

“One of the reasons that the film was successful was because I was the dark side of Ritchie Valens,” he said. “Ritchie Valens was the light side of Bobby. We were two sides of the same entity.”

The cast also gave students advice about how to be successful actors. Phillips said it is important for them to already consider themselves actors and follow their passion. Peña told students not to compare themselves to others and should strive to be unique.

However, Morales told students to quit now because it is tougher than ever to break into the business.

“I say that with a heavy heart because if you are meant to be [an actor], you won’t listen to me,” he said.

The three actors shared insight into their current and upcoming projects. Morales has a recurring role on the Starz mob drama “Magic City,” in which he plays a Cuban general. Peña recently finished shooting the film “Blaze You Out,” which is about a young woman who has to save her sister from an underground heroin market. Phillips is working on Season Two of “Longmire,” a western about a widowed sheriff.

According to Eric Winston, vice president of Institutional Advancement, it was his idea to bring the cast to Columbia. He said he is a big fan of the movie and already knew Peña’s manager and Phillip’s publicist, who helped arrange the event.

“I think that students benefited [from this event] because they get a chance to see, to hear and to reach out to these professionals … and to hear some circumstances that they need to be aware of when pursing this profession,” Winston said.

Rosalina Mota, a sophomore theater major, said she enjoyed the event and that the discussion about Hollywood’s Latino stereotypes resonated with her.

“I thought the event was informative and inspirational,” Mota said. “I got some insight into [professional acting] and the questions I came with [were] answered.”