A Man as a Caricature: Cheech Marin

Today i went to a special event organized by the center for mexican american studies that featured the film screening of Born in East L.A and a talk with director and actor Cheech Marin. Although i didn’t know anything about the career of this artist, the posters that advertised the event called my attention. An expressive face with a thick mustache and a baseball hat reminded me of a kind of Groucho Marx persona with a latino twist. Eduardo, a friend of mine from Laredo, Texas, surprised by my ignorance told me that Cheech was a famous Mexican American icon. His films were popular during the 1970s and 1980s and lately he became known as one of the most important collectors of chicano art. After talking to more American friends, i realized the huge size of Cheech popularity. Everybody knew about him, and especially they knew about a series of film comedies that featured the Cheech and Chong duo.

Watching Born in East L.A was, therefore, an introduction for me to the Chicano world. The film is a straight forward romantic comedy with a simple plot that consists in the deportation, by mistake, of a Mexican American citizen named Rudy to Tijuana, Mexico, and his struggle for returning to his native Los Angeles, in the USA. Because Rudy couldn’t prove that he was American (he forgot his wallet at home), his only option becomes to pay the services of a coyote. In order to get the money for those services, Rudy ends being exploited by an American entrepreneur that pais him very little. In the different jobs he takes, Rudy has the opportunity to meet the local workers from Tijuana and a beautiful Mexican woman.

Although i found the film entertaining and some of the gags called my attention for the unique blend of mexican humor with american culture, it was during the question and answer session that followed the screening that i became aware of the comedic mastery of Cheech Marin. His speech was engaging and he kept talking, throwing anecdotes, making jokes, even if there were no questions from the audience. He revealed himself as a multi talented artist, musician, director, comedian, singer, voice actor, and activist. I was totally amused by the expressiveness of his voice and his capacity of generating moments of laugh by just making a face, opening his eyes, saying a word with an especial modulation or making a loud sound effect (he makes many voices for Walt Disney animated films).

Cheech was emphatic about going with the fluke in his career, taking every other kind of job that was available, grasping every opportunity he had. He appeared as one of those entertainers who are able to take any position and make it work. Born in East L.A. is a clear example of his ability to become a director and a writer right away. I was happy to hear him talk about the use of outlines in this movie and the totally lack of a screenplay or fixed text. Such outlines or scenarios have been used by many cinematic comedians since the early days of Mak Sennett and its origins can be traced to the italian Commedia dell Arte in the 16th century.

Cheech Marin is an interesting impersonation of the Mexican American stereotype. As a second gerneration immigrant, he is a successful example of the realization of the american dream. Indeed, he remains as an authentic hybrid that combines the american and mexican cultures becoming something new. Concerned about the politics of immigration, in several occasions during his talk, Cheech mentioned statistics about immigration and argued that the majority of the population of this country will become latino and especially mexican american in the next 100 years. He said that a baby explosion is about to happen and those babies will embrace a different culture. Although his earlier films portrayed him as a stoner, he has been able to diversify his career and to raise identity and immigration issues in his performances. In Born in East L.A there are several moments and gags that deal with the condition of the mexican workers. Although at first, this laughable moments could be judged as derogatory of the immigrants, they end being also empowering and subversive. The laugh they generate it is also a criticism of the american white culture.

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