The Smithsonian Latino Center recently honored Cheech Marin with a Legacy Award for his commitment to Chicano artists. He spoke with former magazine intern David Zax.
WEB EXCLUSIVE - Extended Interview
People think of you predominantly as an actor, but you've done a lot of other things.
Yeah, I was the product of a catholic education in both religious and secular terms. I was interested in a lot of subjects from very early on. And that's uniquely Chicano, because every Chicano I knew always had three jobs.
When did you first start taking an interest in Chicano art?
As a kid, I used to go to the library and take out all the art books. By the time I discovered Chicano painters in the mid-'80s, I recognized that these guys were really world-class painters, but they weren't getting any attention, which was good in one sense in that I could get their work for cheaper! [laughs] And then bad in another sense in that nobody knew who they were. That was my biggest concern, that here was a school of world class painters, and they were not getting any shelf space.
Was there one moment as an art viewer where you were really moved by what you saw?
Oh, there's so many moments. Every time I saw a new painting I liked, it just knocked me out, I was, like, "Wow." Seeing the painters come along to produce a masterpiece, and the works leading up to it, what they were perfecting, and their vision and their ability to convey those ideas—it was like discovering King Tut's tomb.
Were artists surprised that half of the Cheech and Chong duo that maybe they grew up with was suddenly an art collector?
No, they were very happy because—"Hey, there's an art collector—with money!" [laughs]
Is there an affinity between the art you saw and your experience as a Chicano performer and artist. Do you feel there's a similar vibe or spirit running through out?
Absolutely, there was a reverence and an irreverence simultaneously—that really characterizes Chicano. It is sophisticated and naïve simultaneously, sometimes in the same symbols that they use. It's multilayered all the time. And that's exactly the way that I work: there's the obvious layer, there's a sub-layer and there's a much deeper layer. It's a combination of high and low art at all times.
With your career, how have you mixed reverence and irreverence? I think of your song "Mexican-Americans."
That's a perfect example. It was very naïve, here was a very naïve thought, there was a guy who was even singing out of meter, and he's trying to be earnest, but he's uncovering real sentiments, real thoughts, that exist. "Mexican-Americans don't like to just get into gang fights; they like flowers and music and white girls named Debbie too." It mixes the high and the low, the serious and the stupid—but the truth.
What challenges face the next generation of Latino artists and performers?
The challenges that face any artists and performers, how to reflect truly their culture that they come out of, the times that they've seen and the ability to point them out in any kind of manner, so my manner has always been to stick it in their coffee, you know. I think the message is best stuck in there and under subterfuge, you know, so they don't taste it or hear it or see it, but they get the feeling of the message. So I think it's a much easier—comedians, that's their stock in trade, to make it funny, and then, you know, you think about it later.
Do you feel that you've had some success with touring your show?
Oh, it's been a huge success. We've basically established attendance records in every single venue we've gone into. It's been an enormous success, both popularwise, attendancewise, critically, actually moving cultural identity. When we first started, the debate was, "Well is there a Chicano school of art?" And it started, "Well no, there's not, it's folk art, that's agitprop folk art." And then very quickly in the tour the critical consensus came around to, "Not only, yes, there is a Chicano school of art but where does it fit in the art firmament," you know? So that changed right away.
Did you know you'd be an entertainer from childhood? Were you a class clown?
I was a teacher's worst nightmare: I was a class clown who got straight A's.