Did you know Cheech Marin has his own museum just outside of Los Angeles? The Cheech recently opened in Riverside and it's not a little kiosk in a mall - it's 61,420 square feet and houses his incredible collection of Chicano art, which he’s been collecting for over 40 years. This is an institution of importance and inspiration. I am lucky enough to have gotten to know Cheech over the last dozen or so years and while he is of course one of the funniest people I have ever met, his passion to champion and educate on Chicano art is undefeated, amongst his many talents. Plus, our Editorial Director, Luis, got to ask him the origins of a phrase he’s been using since middle school.
Roger Gastman: So I went to the opening of The Cheech. I left there feeling very inspired. Which is hard to do because I'm so fucking jaded.
Cheech Marin: Oh, good. Thank you. I know what you mean.
I was like, this motherfucker did it. Well, a whole bunch of people did it. Still, you led the charge.
Sometimes, leading the charge is a dangerous place to be in. I was thinking the other day, we had this big gala there, and there were a thousand people in this room. I just thought that, every day, twice that amount of people, 2,000 people, go through The Cheech and get to see Chicano art. That spreads. That big boulder causes ripples all the way across the big pond, so it was a good day.
Think… next time you're performing, you're at a place like Staples Center and look around and, in a little over a week, I filled this place.
It was a combination of everybody's efforts and the support of the community more than anything else. In terms of dollars, everybody can wave their hands and say, "Yeah, I'm in support," but that particular community really came in heavy and supported with the big donations, and that's unheard of.
I've said it so many times, it doesn't matter how many wealthy people you know and how much money you can be supported with, or promised. Being able to get the space and then have the functionality of the space happen is almost trickier than finding the money.
Absolutely. This one literally fell out of the sky on me. I felt like I was in the Wizard of Oz where the house is falling out of the sky, and if I stand on this X, it's going to land on me, so I just stood there on the X and, sure enough, it did. The city came to me. That's unheard of.
It took me a long time to figure out what they were saying. You want me to buy a museum? "Well, you should have your own museum." Yeah, I should have a jet plane, too, but I don't have a jet plane. It was meant to be. I tried my best not to get in the way.
I'm a collector, as you are, of graffiti, street art, ephemera, gang stuff and everything in between. It comes up a lot here… where is all this stuff going to go when I’m gone? What am I going to do with it? I kind of shrug my shoulders. Thinking forward of the legacy, I think you got one of the biggest wins.
Oh, absolutely! I know a couple of other big collectors, like this guy that lives across the street from me. He has this big African American collection, almost the same size as mine, and we met at the pool in our community.
We started talking about this. I said, "Well, I have this deal with Riverside," and he just looked at me with his mouth open, “Is there another Riverside or have they got another building there?” Getting your own museum really just does not happen.
It was fate. It was meant to happen, but it's a long journey. Art doesn't do you any good under the bed or in storage. You have to show it to people.
How can I get a museum? What do I do?
Stand on the X. Wherever you see a big X and a clear space above you, just stand there and brace for impact. It came to me, but there should be a museum housing all this stuff that you collect because it's important art. It has a large enough audience and it's also worldwide at this point. There has to be a dedicated space for that.
You will become a great case study for all of these other cultures that are like, "Fuck! This guy has it over here. Look, it's working. How many people are coming through? Imagine what we can do over here." You've set a bar.
I think that is the new model. It's not elitist museums built in and supported by the richest part of the community. This is as up from the streets as you can get in putting an art collection together.
Don't be afraid of help is a lot of what I'm hearing.
Oh, absolutely. Making movies, you are used to that. It leaves your hands many times during the process. It's not like a writer who sits at his desk and he doesn't need anybody else, or a painter who sits in front of a canvas and doesn't need anybody else's help. These kinds of projects, like making movies, are analogous to that, you need a lot of help. It takes collaboration. I was used to that process, so it didn't freak me out.
You started as an art collector, but you really turned into someone who's preserving culture.
Isn't that cool? We're going to have a discussion about that. The academic part of this museum will turn out to be one of the biggest aspects of it because everybody will get together and figure out what it is because Chicano is a voluntary category. You have to declare yourself a Chicano in order to be a Chicano.
You don't have to pass a test or have a certain amount of paintings or blah, blah, blah. It's a voluntary category, so when the people get that, you can have voluntary rules. This Chicano movement has been going on for close to 60 years, and it's coast to coast. What is even more important, is the influence of Chicano art. It influences a lot of different categories of art and artists who take a little bit of something from it and mix in a little bit of their own
It's like having nacho-flavored Doritos. It's going to be everybody's favorite Doritos pretty soon because there's no more American thing that you can do than sit in front of your big screen TV, eating guacamole with Dorito chips and a Corona and watching the super bowl.
Education was the last thing I was thinking of when I got into what I do with art. I hated the word.
You want to be outside the box when you start because that's what that art is. It's outside the box by definition, but as it lingers on and grows and becomes a very potent element in the art landscape, you can't push it off to the side anymore. The door won't close in the closet. It wants to come out.
All these other questions come up. How do I deal with it? How do I ensure its legacy? How do I ensure that it is understood as it goes forward and develops as it goes forward? It grows all the time and it changes, and it's like language.
How long into collecting did the educational aspect of it hit you?
Right away. I knew that there was an educational base to it because there had been people that went before me. It was a big academic thing. We're not defined by the census. There was no box on the census that said, Chicano, so you had to invent the term and realize what it is.
There had been a lot of academic stuff done, but I saw the Chicano art scene as moving forward and developing, and that's when I started collecting. I didn't necessarily want to collect big historic pieces. I wanted to collect new stuff by the new artists that were coming and the older ones who were still doing great art, but I wanted to concentrate, as far as my collection, on the next phase.
Is art the greatest addiction of your life?
By far, other than heroin. I've been in it for so long. I don't know if you know the story of my early days? It was my cousins… we challenged each other and I got assigned art. From the time I was about 11, I was pretty cognizant of and educated in Western art. I could go into any room and identify all the paintings.
I was just at the McNay in San Antonio, which is a very prestigious museum in San Antonio, and they were walking me through and blah, blah, blah, blah. I go, "Is that a Rewald?" They looked at me like, "How in the fuck do you know that that's a Rewald?"
I knew that when I was 12, dude, because all my knowledge and the perspective of Chicano art that I have right now is because I knew all that. I knew what a Caravaggio was. I knew who Kandinsky was. That informed my experience with Chicano art. I see what it's built on. I saw that and nobody else did.
People ask me all the time, how should I buy art? Will I make money on it? What's going to happen here? The first thing I always say is, do you love it and does it inspire you? What do you say to people?
I tell them it is a miracle if your art makes money. If that's why you're in for it then collect something else.
If you're going to try to make money in art, it's actually tougher than being an artist, which is a tough gig. You can, I guess, but I never have. I don't know about that experience. I've never sold a piece.
What's the difference between hoarding and collecting?
It's a very fine line. I think the difference is you have to get somebody else to say, "Yeah, this is good stuff, it's not really hoarding.” Somebody, hopefully with a degree in something that can give you validation.
It's the same impulse, between hoarding and collecting.
Do you remember making art as a kid?
No. I was dissuaded from doing any kind of art very young, when I was in the first grade. I was at Trinity Street School in South Central, and we were taken to the Grand Central Market, which was right down the block from our school. Everything that grew on earth was in this market, flowers and fruits and everything exotic. It was like walking into this incredible jungle.
So, when we finished the trip, we came back to the classroom, and our teacher said, "Okay, I want everybody to draw what impressed them the most in the Grand Central Market."
The thing that impressed me were these big banana squashes that were way bigger than I was. I’d put yellow and orange here and made these big banana squashes with a little stick figure of me next to them.
So, the teacher was walking around the classroom and she's commenting on everybody's art. "Oh, that's good. You used all the colors. That's good." "That's very good here. You did only one color." Then she came to my painting, picked it up, looked at it and said, "Well, you'll never be an artist," and it was like a dagger into my heart. I was in the first grade.
I'm like, "Oh, okay," and I just kind of slithered off in the corner so my soul could die in some unlit part of the room. I never tried to make art after. I didn't know art is something you could learn to do. You actually have schools available to teach you how to do things. But it worked out in the end.
You're really good at drawing stick figures like me, probably?
Probably. Just put a hat on, put an Orioles hat on it.
The museum, I'm assuming, will be a large focus of everything you do for the next several years?
Absolutely. It's just keeping it going in the right direction because it can get out of your hands, but you put a good team around that handles every aspect of it and you have a good chance to maintain it. The people that are experts in the museum world, and I've talked to a lot of them at this point, they say, "Well, we'll check back with you in 20 years because that's the minimum amount of time that you have to be open as a museum in order to be considered anywhere near legit."
Twenty years. God, how old will I be? I'll be much older than I am now, and I'm already old. That's the minimum standards, and it should be.
Now you have more reason to live longer?
Exactly. I drink my milk, I go walk around the block and all that shit. I'm fairly healthy. All my family lives to be in their nineties, so I'm looking forward to that. I have a younger wife, and she'll help me out.
That's the secret. Have a younger wife to help you get to 20 years for your museum.
That is the secret, but don't tell anybody else. They'll all try to get younger wives and shit.
Have you just walked around the space by yourself in the quiet and just been like, what the fuck?
Yeah, I do. When we were doing Chicano Visions, which was 14 major shows in major museums over the course of several years, that was my favorite part. After the show was hung a the new museum and before it opened, I would have lunch there in the museum. I would be the only one in the museum. I would just walk around or just sit and look at the paintings.
It was like having your kids home from college. They're going to come in and you're going to be able to exchange with them and see where they've been up to and, "Oh, you look different here than you did in the other museum," it really gave me an appreciation for what those paintings meant and how they were enjoyed by people.
At the end of the day, the collections played in over 50 museums, which is unheard of for a private collection. But my special day was when I went in there before it opened and ate my lunch and just walked around. It was the most special time.
Right now, the current space, The Cheech, when we were there, I saw the parking a-frames. “Parking for The Cheech is full.” I'm just like, that shit is real. There's parking signs that say it even before walking in the building.
So far, 2,000 people a day have gone through this museum. A day! They want to go there, man, it's like this is something that they were very hungry for. My final goal in this particular instance is to make Riverside an international art destination.
Whenever I'm talking to people and someone says, "What have you been doing? I'm coming to LA. What's going on?” I tell the story of going to The Cheech. I tell them, “Don't be afraid to drive to Riverside from LA. Go there. You'll come away with a few artists you had no idea existed, because I did.” You're not going to get that walking away from The Broad or MOCA. This is just completely different. I've told so many people. I'm sure everyone that's going there is saying the same thing.
Well, thank you, Roger. That's very kind of you. You've been a fan since the beginning and a supporter, and I really appreciate that. Believe me, I do. Yeah, you're not going to see another museum like this, nor should you. A museum should be unique.
I’m assuming a lot of people just haven't been in museums in years or just haven't been to one when they go to The Cheech.
I would think that. When we were on the road during the big tour, a great deal of the people had never been in a museum of any kind. It's a hometown thing now because we're in the Inland Empire, which is the biggest. Riverside can now claim it as their own, which is a real good feeling.
It's because everybody was involved in this. I couldn't have just showed up with a collection and said, "Here you go. Turn on the sign." No, it took a lot more than that, and a lot of these organizations in town, they came together to make it what it is because what I realized is that I signed up for a lifetime of fundraising, more than anything, because we want to do programs there.
Anytime you need someone to run their mouth about graffiti I'm ready.
You'll be the first guy I call, dude.
LUIS: Cheech, I always felt like your film, Born in East LA, had this genuine undertone where you were being funny, but at the same time looking out for immigrants, no matter where they came from. The ‘Waas Sappening’ scene, where you were teaching Asian immigrants how to assimilate to life in East LA has always been one of my favorite scenes you’ve written and a phrase I’ve been using with my brothers since I was 13. What inspired that scene and how do you feel the film’s message translates now as opposed to back then?
It is as prescient as anything that I've ever done right now. It has as much influence and validity as the time I made it, maybe even more so right now because that process is continuing. You see the human side in that film, Born in East L.A.
The line, ‘waas sappening’, comes from my group of cousins. When I was maybe 12, we started talking about language. That particular phrase, ‘waas sappening’ started showing up in our vocabulary, so we said, "Well, where do you learn this?" You got to go to East LA Linguistics, man. That's the place where you can learn it!
So when we were making the movie, I said, here's a place for it. That's what you do as an artist. You get influenced by things or you find things that you keep in your mind or in your collective memory, and then when in time there's a place for it, you know exactly where it goes. That's an example of that. Everybody related to it, I was really happy with that.
You started off talking a little bit about a group of cousins, and you just mentioned that same group of cousins again. Is that group still around, and what did they think of the museum?
None of them have been to the museum yet. Our lead cousin, Louie, has passed on. He was just the most brilliant guy. There was another cousin, Rayjean Castro, who went on to be the first recipient of a doctorate in Chicano studies at Harvard University.
My cousin, Lollie, was a high-ranking nun, at Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, and she went on to be a big mucky-muck there. Then there was me. The little puppy, trying to catch up with the big dogs running, it was an intense group. They were very smart.
Louie, my cousin, got a scholarship to grade school. I'd never heard of that. Grade school, middle school, high school, University of Tokyo, all those things, he was the leader. He assigned his topics. I got assigned art. That's how I learned about art. Rayjean has passed on and Lollie and I aren't getting any younger.
I'm starting to realize what the impact of legacy is. It sounds like a nice word, oh, you have a legacy, but when you realize what that legacy is and how it affects people going forward and, if it's a good enough legacy, it affects the culture.
Everything you said hits home so much. I will continue to tell everyone to visit the museum.
Bring them so they know they don't lose their way. We’ll have you come and speak to us as soon as we can and remember, Waas Sappening!
The Cheech Center | 3851 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside, CA 92501 | (951) 684-7111 | riversideartmuseum.org
Images courtesy of Riverside Art Museum and Luis Ruano.
This story was originally published in the first issue of BEYOND CONTROL. BEYOND CONTROL is available, free of charge, at CONTROL Gallery, BEYOND THE STREETS Flagship Los Angeles and for online reading here.