Cheech Marin

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Viewers know him from his movie and television roles, but they may not know that actor Cheech Marin is a serious art collector. Marin has the largest collection of Chicano art in the country, and it’s currently on tour. Watch this special edition of HORIZONTE, as host José Cárdenas talks to Marin about his art collection and how Chicano art is evolving and impacting mainstream art.

Jose Cardenas:
Good evening thanks for joining us. I'm Jose Cardenas. Welcome to a special edition of Horizonte. Actor Cheech Marin is best known for his work in the world of entertainment. But there's a unique side of him you may not know about. Tonight an interview with Cheech Marin talking about his passion for Chicano art and how he's sharing that vision with people throughout the country. An in depth discussion coming up next on Horizonte.

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Jose Cardenas:
The Arizona arts community held this year's southwest arts conference in Glendale back in January. The keynote speaker was actor Cheech Marin. Marin is an advocate for arts and culture and is regarded as the country's foremost private collector of Latino artworks. As an art collector over the years Marin now has the largest single collection of Chicano paintings of the country. Much of the collection is touring the United States providing perspective on how influential Chicano arts has been. I had the opportunity to sit down with Cheech Marin to talk about Chicano arts and culture and his book called Chicano Visions: American painters on the verge.

Jose Cardenas:
Cheech Marin, welcome to Horizonte.

Cheech Marin:
Nice to be here.

Jose Cardenas:
You're very well-known as an actor, of course. But you're also a writer. And you've described yourself as well educated in art from the fifth or sixth grade on. What do you mean by that?

Cheech Marin:
Well, in my youth, I remember distinctly the incident. I was in the second grade and we had gone down to this grand central market. And the teacher asked us to draw our impressions of what we saw. And I drew this huge squash, a big gourd. It was like bigger than me. The teacher looked at it and said, well, you'll never be an artist. And it was crushing. I was so proud of this. It was like a dagger to the heart. I said, well, from that point forward I didn't know drawing or art was something you could learn to do. I thought you either had it or you didn't. So I accepted that I didn't have it at that point. But I really liked art. Growing up Catholic, you're exposed to the liturgical art all the time on the walls of the church. And from when I was impressed by the images. So I just started learning about art. I thought, well, if I can't do it I'll learn about it. So I had a group of cousins who -- we were very academically encouraged by our parents. And we challenged each other to learn stuff. And so I used to go to the library in fifth or sixth grade and take out all the art books and just sit there and look at them and tried to sophisticate myself, actually, as to where I -- I wanted to be able to walk into a room at some point and go, oh, that's a lovely Kandinsky or nice Muro. Like that was going stop happen, a little kid from south central. But it did eventually happen. So that's how I got my start in art appreciation.

Jose Cardenas:
What about your own work as an artist? And I'm talking not just about your work as an actor but also just the visual arts.

Cheech Marin:
You know, I just was never good at it. I didn't have the facility for drawing. And if you didn't draw, to me that was art. Until I got to college. And my last year, my very last semester I took a ceramics class, just to fill out the card. I only had a couple of things to do to get to my degree. And I fell in love with pottery. And I just quit all my other classes. I took out a $900 N.E.D.A loan and did pottery all day and released my inner artist. Then from that time forward I became a profession will potter and moved to Canada and did pottery there. Then eventually got back into music.

Jose Cardenas:
Did you ever go back to that second grade teacher and tell her how wrong she was?

Cheech Marin:
No, she's dead. [laughter]

Jose Cardenas:
Mr. Marin, you're also a writer. You've written many books, including a new one on your art collection. And it's a book entitled "Chicano visions, American painters on the verge." first of all what's the title mean?

Cheech Marin:
I wanted it to be a little bit ambiguous. Because I wanted the reader to provide his own interpretation. Chicano painters are on the verge of a lot of things, emotional breakthroughs, wider recognition through out the country and now the world of just what they are doing. A spiritual edginess a lot of edges And I wanted -- it was taken from the picture of the same name, the women on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Almodovar, the Spanish director. That phrase kind of leaked into the lexicon, really popular. And everybody uses "on the verge" became a very kind of a popular term. And so I used it for this book, much to -- some of the artists liked it and some of the artists didn't like it. Well, I'm not on the verge. I sell paintings for $5,000. I go, well, a lot of people sell paintings for $5 million. So let's get to that point.

Jose Cardenas:
There are essays in the book by you and by several prominent arts professors. It seems that common theme in terms of the definition of Chicano art is it's a bicultural experience. What do you mean by that?

Cheech Marin:
You grew up in two cultures simultaneously if you are by definition Chicano, which is Mexican pastoral meets urban angst. That's kind of the influence. There's a huge Mexican tradition of the arts that they come from meets American pop culture. And we're where those two worlds collide that kind of makes Chicanos and Chicano art. Chicano, really the word started out as an insult from Mexicans to other Mexicans living in this country, the concept being that Mexicans living in this country were no longer truly Mexicanos, they were something less, they were little, they were Chicos, they were Chicanos, little satellite Mexicans living in another country. So it was an insult. But depending on where you lived in the country, depending on how much that insult, I grew up identifying myself as a Chicano because it was the only word that really described me. So when you live in both those cultures, you participate in the phenomenon known as code switching. I heard it all my life. And I never knew what it was. My parents would be speaking English. They grew up in Los Angeles. And they spoke English and Spanish. And they would switch to Spanish for two words then back to English. Not like there was a better word for Laundromat in Spanish than there was in English. And I never knew why they did it. I asked my mother, why do you go back and forth? Well, I don't know. We just do. Then I was in San Antonio one time and a Swiss linguist told me, oh, that's code switching. Code switching? What is that? It's an unconscious automatic device that signals to the sender and the receiver the extent of immersion in both cultures. And it goes back and forth automatically, almost unconsciously. I'm this far. I know this much about this culture and that much about that culture simultaneously. Almost like wearing a reversible jacket. And then switching it all the time. So you grow up in both of those cultures. And it's like -- I think every language you learn you become -- you increase your intelligence by 100%. So bicultural people I think are twice as smart.

Jose Cardenas:
I want to come back to the subject of code switching. But first you describe your first experience with Chicano art is similar to the first time you heard a new Beatles tune.

Cheech Marin:
Yes.

Jose Cardenas:
How were those experiences similar?

Cheech Marin:
I grew up as a musician. I was a musician all my life. And when you hear the Beatles you hear this strain of familiarity. It was built on music that you knew before. I mean, they covered a lot of the early rock and roll tunes but they had a different interpretation. It was something that was so different that it really made it their own. It was in a different realm. It was like they took the electric music and really electrified it. So there was the new and the traditional happening simultaneously. And so when I saw the Chicano painters, because of myself education in art, I recognized the antecedents, I recognized all their influences but it was a new interpretation of it. So it was that same phenomenon. I was seeing visually the same thing I heard with music. I know who they're influenced by. You could see it in the paintings. And I see how they interpret it in a very new way.

Jose Cardenas:
We've talked about the Mexican influences on Chicano art. What about the influence of the Mexican murals in particular?

Cheech Marin:
Well, there are certain groups especially. But most of the painters came out of that tradition of the muralist: Siglo, Orozco, Rivera and it was a social form of art, largely for illiterate audiences in Mexico. The mural stood in for a political awareness. And telling them what was happening in their neighborhoods and their history at the same time. That theme was carried forward by the Chicanos. And that style of kind of political painting was at the inception of Chicano art.

Jose Cardenas:
Professor Benavidez talks about what he calls precursors to the Chicano art movement and he talks particularly about the pachucos and the city of Los Angeles itself. Do you agree with that?

Cheech Marin:
Oh, Los Angeles was a huge influence. It's the biggest center of Mexicanos or Chicanos in the world outside of -- the biggest congregation of Mexicans outside of Mexico. So it was hugely influential, probably because there was more people and they could gather and formulate the ideas that made Chicano art. Which is essential for the development of Chicano art. A place where the artists can go to invent it, basically.

Jose Cardenas:
And the pachucos?

Cheech Marin:
I finally found out what pachucos means. El Chuco is the common name for El Paso. And it means the meeting place, an old Indian term that means the meeting place. Because there was a path basically from Mexico to the United States. And when they would ask "Adonde vas?" what pachuco? So the pachucos were actually the first Chicanos, the first Mexican Americans. They called them pachucos then. And Pachuco culture took from traditional Mexican and the new American influences, the pop influences. The way they dressed, the way they invented. The zoot suit, the hair cuts, the shoes and their cars. They started kind of customizing their cars as the new interpretation of the horse.

Jose Cardenas:
Professor Benevides also suggests that really the birth of Chicano art might well have been when Cesar Chavez turned to Luis Valdez and asked for his support in promoting the farm workers movement. What can you tell us about that?

Cheech Marin:
That's where a lot of the major artists and Chicano arts started. It started as a political movement. They were the visual adjunct of the U.F.W. and Luis Valdez. They made the signs, the posters, the backdrops for the plays for the corridos that Luis did. Their art was highly political. So as such it was characterized as a prop folk art by the museum world. Which means they would get one show and then be shunned from the museum forever on. And that was where I came in. I wanted to move them from being viewed strictly as a prop folk art into fine arts.

Jose Cardenas:
One of the quotes in the essays that really struck me was Harry Gamboa's quote that Chicanos are viewed essentially as a phantom culture. We're like a rumor in this country. Do you agree with that assessment? Do you think that's changing?

Cheech Marin:
I do agree with, that yeah. Because 99.9% of the country does not know what a Chicano is, much less what their art looks like. And so my theory is that you can't love or hate Chicano art unless you see it. And so it is changing because of in large part two things. On the art scene, I've just completed a 5-year huge major museum tour of Chicano art. So now Minneapolis and Indianapolis and Washington, D.C. and Florida know what Chicano art is. And also the huge influx of Mexicans throughout -- outside of their traditional boundaries of the southwest and west. The Mexicans are in every single state now. And they're having a culture grow there. So that's why -- I mean, we're in the middle of the largest wave of immigration ever in the history of the country right now. And overwhelmingly Mexican. And so that's going to be hugely influential. And Chicano is going to take many many different faces in the future. Because what does a Michigan Chicano look like or a Mississippi Chicano or North Dakota? It's not going to be kind of the same mold that has preceded it. So it's going to be very different. And as all these workers come into the country and work and are established here, we're going to get huge, overwhelming wave of people entering the middle-class that are going to be the predominant force in American culture.

Jose Cardenas:
Now, we've been talking about Chicano art. But one of the essays focuses in particular on the different experiences that Chicana artists have had from those of their Chicano compatriots and also how that's affected that work. How would you describe that?

Cheech Marin:
I think Chicana art is more feisty. Because they've had to be. You know, they got tired of getting the beer and tortillas for the guys. We're a very macho culture. But there's an innate sensitivity that goes along with it. I find the women much more edgy than the men. And that's changing, too. But there is an equality that happening now. It was always a big debate, do you call it Chicano or Chicana art? What is the politically correct term? I think the best one now they have the Chicano and the end letter is the at, you know, like the dot-com at. An o with an a in the middle of it. So I mean I don't care. From my, point of view I don't care if you call it Chicana or Chicano, as long as you call it.

Jose Cardenas:
When you're talking about that edginess of Chicana art, are you referring to someone like Carmen Lomas Garza?

Cheech Marin:
Carmen Lomas Garza is more traditional I think. She is kind of the grandma Moses of the group. She has art that's reminiscent or nostalgic of her growing up in Texas. I would say Diane Gamboa, Margaret Garcia. Who else? Lysa Flores. Some of those women are much more edgy as to their themes.

Jose Cardenas:
I thought of Carmen -- because of some of her work, for example, pelionedas.

Cheech Marin:
Oh yea, the fight. But she uses a real folky style which I really like. And her reminiscences take place in a specific time and place. And her youth.

Jose Cardenas:
Let's talk more specifically about your collection. You mentioned earlier that it has been on tour for about five years. That's of your collection?

Cheech Marin:
Primarily of my collection. I think there's 84 paintings in the tour. And 65 come from my collection.

Jose Cardenas:
How did you decide what to include in the exhibition?

Cheech Marin:
I wanted the biggest one. You know, very early in the process I realized that at some point I was going to do a tour. And from my experience that impressed me the most was large art, large paintings. I remember growing up and during that process when I was looking through the books in the fifth or sixth grade I'd always come across Rembrandts. "The night watch" was a painting of a various gild members sitting around the table, looked like cigars in a cigar ad Dutch masters. Oh, the Night Watch. I'd see it in a lot of books. This is a nice painting. I finally made my way to Amsterdam to the Rice museum and I turned the corner and there was a night watch. And it was the hugest painting I had ever seen in my life. It covered the whole wall. It was such an overwhelming experience. Like, wow, does that make an impression. It was huge. It was 30 feet by 10 feet. It was like -- I couldn't believe the dimensions of it. I went, my god. And so in the back of my mind when I started putting this collection together I thought, the thing that makes the impression the most is large large canvasses. And fortunately, the Chicanos paint on a large scale. They like to be monumental. So it was easy to collect those pieces, because they were left unsold because nobody had room in their house for a 24 by 12 painting. What are you going to do with it? So it worked out well both ways.

Jose Cardenas:
You just said that Chicanos like to paint in large scale. Does that explain the role that murals have played in the Chicano art movement?

Cheech Marin:
Well, sure. Because it comes out of their Mexican tradition of communicating some political and/or neighborhood and/or community need. And that's where the essence of Chicano art started is in voicing that need. So they got used to painting on a large scale. At first it was walls and then it was canvasses. But canvasses are expensive. So you had a lot of different kind of variations. You have -- I've seen Chicano paintings on old sails, you know, just to have a canvas to paint on.

Jose Cardenas:
And in fact, in your book you mentioned that perhaps one reason for the wall art that's a staple of the Chicano art movement is because they couldn't get their work into the galleries.

Cheech Marin:
Exactly. Every large painting that I have usually was never shown. Then I'd go to the artist' studio or their house and they'd oh, I have it rolled up here somewhere. Or they would have it behind a couch in a big roll. It was the first time they unrolled it in a long time. So what do you do with that? The only real logical thing is to put it on tour.

Jose Cardenas:
In your book, what's your favorite piece and why?

Cheech Marin:
I don't really have a favorite piece it. Changes all the time. I mean, truly. I have favorite artists that I will mention. But the favorite piece? I do have a favorite piece. There's one painting by Wayne Healy called Una Tarde en Meoqui, it's a painting of a wife's hometown and a backyard barbecue scene. And I just love the way the painting is painted. And I love the feeling it evokes from the painting. And I always keep it around me. It was hard to put it on tour.

Jose Cardenas:
Now, I don't want to get you into trouble so I won't ask you for your favorite artist in terms of representing Chicano art. But just give us some examples of those artists you think best represent the Chicano art experience.

Cheech Marin:
You know, they all do in a certain different way. What I realized when I started kind of formulating this idea that there was a Chicano school of painting was, what aspects characterize it? How do you identify Chicano art? And I came to quickly realize that it wasn't a stylistic concern. There wasn't a certain way they painted. Like the impressionists or the expressionists or they didn't look like Hudson River valley schools. What bound them together as a school was they all had aspects of the experience of being Chicano in this country. Told from a myriad of different viewpoints.

Jose Cardenas:
As the Chicano experience in the United States itself changes, do you think that Chicano art will change?

Cheech Marin:
The essence of Chicano for me is evolution. And Chicano art and Chicanos are continually evolving. We're now in our fourth generation of Chicano artists. And what they paint and how they paint is evolving with every generation. There's a certain segment of the Chicano academic population that wants to kind of segment the experience. And well, Chicano happened during this period, from these ten years then there was post Chicano. I think that that's a very narrow view of it and not very far sighted. Because I think the Chicano experience is ever evolving. And it will keep evolving. And every generation that comes in has just as much right to say what is Chicano as any generation that went before it.

Jose Cardenas:
Do you expect it will become more mainstream, making its way into the galleries?

Cheech Marin:
If it is exposed more, yeah. Absolutely. If it is exposed more and if it's good. The only reason this tour was a huge success -- this tour was a huge success. We broke attendance records in every single museum we went to. Every single one. We did almost 1 million people at the Smithsonian, just that one museum. And it was not because there was a dearth of Chicano arts, which there was, and people hadn't seen it. But because it was good art. People are drawn to good art. And so you do those numbers not by appealing to your cultural base but by expanding beyond those borders and appealing to everybody. I mean to be the biggest museum show in the history of the Indiana state museum, you can't count just on Mexicanos or Chicanos in that area. That means everybody came.

Jose Cardenas:
Cheech Marin you've done so more in your life than your second grade teacher probably ever expected. Actor, writer, doing some animation now. What's your next big project?

Cheech Marin:
I want to rest. No, I want to keep doing what I'm doing. I love the creative process. I love being involved in a project. I have a dream to kind of start writing novels. So I've started that. And that's such a hard discipline. You have to actually do it, you know. You have to get up every morning and write. And that's the Chicano part kicking in. That has something else to do. But I'd like to keep writing. And I like to keep traveling with the collection. And adding to the collection in the next 20-years. We're starting to take it internationally now. We have a show in Madrid in March. And we're negotiating for five shows in Japan. And I'll just keep doing that. And I'm collecting and showcasing new artists. My collecting is dependent on my being employed. Because I'm not a philanthropist of the ilk that says well, send over 2,000 pounds of art. I have to be working in order to collect art. And so I want to keep working so I can do that.

Jose Cardenas:
Cheech Marin, thank you for joining us on Horizonte. We hope to have you back to talk about your novel when it's done.

Cheech Marin:
Well, that would be good. Thank you.

Jose Cardenas:
To see a link to more images from Cheech Marin's book go to our website, azpbs.org, and click on Horizonte.

Jose Cardenas:
Thank you for watching this special edition of Horizonte. I'm Jose Cardenas. For all of us at Horizonte, good night.

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Cheech Marin: Author, actor, Latino Arts advocate;

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