Comic Cheech Marin Champions Chicano Art The iconic funnyman rose to fame as one half of the pothead duo Cheech and Chong. Over the years, he has acquired one of the largest collections of Chicano art in the world.

Comic Cheech Marin Champions Chicano Art

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Our summer-long series, California Dreaming, is looking at the hope of economic prosperity verses the realities of the economic slowdown. Lots of people come here with dreams of a better life. Many, like Cheech Marin's grandparents did. Many come from Mexico. You know Cheech, he's one half of the pothead duo Cheech and Chong.

CHEECH and CHONG (singing): Mexican-Americans love education, so they go to night school and they take Spanish and get a "B"...

BRAND: Well, Cheech Marin is pretty rich now and he has used his money to buy art. Cheech has one of the largest collections of Chicano art in the world. Before we get there, let's explain. First, what does the word, Chicano, mean?

Mr. CHEECH MARIN (Actor): Well, Chicano was originally a derisive term by Mexicans to other Mexicans living in this country. And the concept being that the Mexicanos living in the United States were no longer truly Mexicanos. They were something else, they were smaller, they were littler, they were Chicos. They were Chicanos.

BRAND: Cheech's collection is on view now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He recently walked me through the exhibition.

Mr. MARIN: My goal was to expose the main stream to Chicano art, because my theory was that Chicano art was main stream.

BRAND: What do you mean, Chicano art is main stream?

Mr. MARIN: We're the largest minority in the United States, and it's from coast to coast in every single state, growing. We're involved in the largest wave of immigration ever in the history of the country right now. And the thing that distinguishes it from previous waves, is that it's in every single state. Right now, Mexican immigrants are the saviors of small-town America and the linchpin of the economy. You take Mexicans out of the economy, you thing we're going through bad times now?

BRAND: Now describe this painting here, this is...

Mr. MARIN: This is another Frank Romero painting. It's called the "Arrest of the Paleteros." And it's a very funny comic, socially relevant painting. Paleteros are Mexican ice-cream men, and this is an event that really happened in that the city fathers and the Mayor and the police department were trying to clear out the vendors here in Echo Park of Silver Lake. And the irony of the piece is that, Silver Lake, this area is a very dangerous area. It has a lot of prostitution, lot of gang activity, a lot of drugs. And what does the SWAT team do? It descends upon the ice-cream men.

BRAND: So back in the 70's, Chicano artists spray painted the outside of this museum. They couldn't get in.

Mr. MARIN: Yeah. They were tired of being shut out. You know, that was born out of frustration. You have a situation here in this city right now where upwards of 60 almost 70 percent of the population is Latino, overwhelmingly Mexican. This institution derives 35 percent of its funds from the city's coffers, which is 70 percent Latino. And they were being shut out of the museum. They weren't being talked to. They were being stonewalled. You don't exist. You're not artists. We're not talking to you. We're not hanging pictures of your culture on the wall. We're not doing shows by you, and the struggle was to get back to the - to be honored in your home town.

BRAND: And so do you feel that you've been properly honored? That Chicano artists have been properly honored?

Mr. MARIN: It's a start. It's a start. We're just at the beginning of Chicano art. I mean with Chicano experience in this country. We're just really at the beginning of it. And it's going to be the dominant cultural force for the next at least 40 to 50 years, throughout the country. It's fundamentally going to change the character of the country for good.

BRAND: Now we are doing this series called "California Dreaming."

Mr. MARIN: Mm mmm.

BRAND: And, we we're sort of exploring whether or not people are still achieving their California dream, now, during this economy. And I'm wondering what you think of that? What do you think of the California dream? Have you achieved your California dream?

Mr. MARIN: Yeah, you know, I'm here at the County Museum of Art, doing a Chicano show, which was more than a dream, it was a fantasy, considering the attitude of the institution towards Chicano and Chicano art.

BRAND: If you want to see the paintings Cheech mentioned, it's called the "Arrest of the Paleteros," and if you want to hear him talk about other art work in the exhibition, go to our website,

BRAND: Day to Day is a production of NPR News, with contributions from I'm Madeleine Brand.

COHEN: And I'm Alex Cohen.

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