So there I was in Texas on November 15, 2001, staring into the belly of the beast. I had decided to launch the tour of the Chicano Visions exhibition in San Antonio because it always an important center for Chicano art. The trouble was that some members of the very large and influential academic community had their knives out for me. I had stepped into their arena without the proper authorization, coming into their neighborhood and “throwing my looks around.” Who does this dope-smoking hippie comedian who hung out with a half-Chinese Canadian think he is by coming and telling them what was Chicano art?
In my naivety, I described the show as Chicano art, not as an exhibition featuring works from my personal collection of Chicano art. I didn’t have the proper degrees or gravitas to make that claim. I just put my money where my mouth was and wanted to share Chicano art with the world (which I still do). There were a few professors and students who held on the belief that all “Chicano art” is political. Many were aging-hippie Chicano protestors, of which I was really one of them, but without the unpaid student loans.
During the preview opening, I was literally backed into a corner of the exhibition by three large scary braided-armpit-hair Chicanas wearing overalls. They reminded me of my Aunt Bolita, somebody you would never want to mess with in life. “Where’s all the political art!!” they demanded in heavily tequila-scented breath. I summoned up all my courage and told them where to go … to find it … of which there was quite a bit. I showed them where and, with a weak smile, I told them “I’m even thinking of putting in more” while silently pleading “Let me live.”
Semi-satisfied, they slunk off to the bar. At the end of the night, I announced there would be an open forum the next day at the museum for anybody who had any questions about the show. The three braided armpits at the bar raised a personal fifth-of-tequila bottle and glugged back a salute. One made a slicing motion across her throat.
The next morning, I saw many returned to the gallery and I noticed right away that the audience was sharply divided between young and old. The younger ones were all about learning about the collection, and how to get their own art seen. They had no problem with corporate sponsorship and dismissed the old guard like they would their parents telling them to clean up their room. ”Yeah, whatever. How do you think these shows are going to be put on without sponsorships? Hold a car wash?”
On stage with me were a few community representatives, some artists in the exhibition, a couple of nervous museum officers.
Everybody tried to answer all questions, the dialogue went back and forth, and included as much Spanish slang as possible while still sounding academic. The old-guard political Chicanos looked around, realized they were outnumbered and were being viewed as party poopers. They mentally started to count the minutes until they could go out and get a bowl of menudo for breakfast.
Finally, an elderly lady, who looked like she had been around and seen everything Chicano, asked one of the most important and seminal of all Chicano artists, John Valadez, a question. He was seated right next to me on the stage. The question had a challenging tone. “Given all the issues raised here this morning, and your willing participation in the show, do you still consider yourself a “Chicano” artist?”
John took a slow drink of water. He looked up to the heavens to contemplate all aspects of the question. Then he looked straight at the elder and said, “Only if it bothers you.”
In that moment, John Valadez became my lifelong hero.
You want to know what a Chicano is? I’ll tell you, but it’s probably going to bother you.
~ Cheech Marin
Originally published on June 6, 2012 through Ed Fuente’s “Writing on the Wall” series on KCET Departures and later in the Huffington Post on June 20, 2012. This is the third article in a three-part series on “What is a Chicano” by actor, director, and art advocate Cheech Marin.