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Park Renamed for Music Legend Valens

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ritchie Valens, the Latino kid who was born in this working-class neighborhood and grew to become a rock ‘n’ roll legend, gained new distinction Wednesday when a Los Angeles city commission agreed to rename a neighborhood park in his honor.

The unanimous vote by the Recreation and Parks Commission was applauded by a handful of Valens’ relatives and friends, some of whom wore T-shirts with his name and smiling face emblazoned across the front and back.

“Oh, God, I’m so happy,” said Ernestine Reyes, an aunt of Valens who attended the meeting clutching photos of him.

City Councilman Richard Alarcon, whose northeast San Fernando Valley district includes the park, supported the name change, saying it would give Pacoima residents a sense of pride in the success of a native son.

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“It’s a simple gesture by the Recreation and Parks Commission to tell the community of Pacoima that they do produce people of substance, people to look up to,” he said. “Ritchie Valens was one such person.”

The only controversy was over a suggestion by recreation and parks officials that the park be renamed the “Ritchie Valens-Paxton Recreation Center,” to maintain the geographic reference to adjacent Paxton Street.

But Alarcon and Valens’ family and friends shunned the idea, saying there is no need to retain the Paxton name.

“I don’t think that anyone who has used Paxton Park in the past 10 years knows who Paxton was,” Alarcon said, referring to Catherine Paxton Maclay, the daughter of a wealthy landowner who developed the area in the late 1800s.

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The commission agreed and dropped the Paxton reference. “I think the councilman is wrong,” said Commissioner LeRoy Chase. “No one who has used the park in 20 years knows who Paxton was.”

Valens, who was born Richard Valenzuela in Pacoima, gained fame in the 1950s but died at the age of 17 along with Buddy Holly and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson in a 1959 plane crash that is still considered one of the greatest single tragedies in popular music history.

Valens became a teen idol on the strength of such hits as “Come On, Let’s Go” and “Donna,” a love song about his high school sweetheart.

But he is probably best remembered for “La Bamba,” a rock rendition of a Mexican folk dance that was on the flip side of “Donna.”

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Valens received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1990 after the movie “La Bamba” recounted his life, reviving interest in the young musician. A few years later the U.S. Postal Service issued a 29-cent stamp with his likeness.


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