The Art of Chicano Experience

The Art of Chicano Experience

There are some Chicanos who don’t want to be Chicanos – they want to be Mexican-American, Hispanic, or even Spanish. The same thing happened with art about the Mexican-American experience. No one wanted it to be called Chicano.

The first time I went to San Antonio, Texas in 1972, I realized right away that Chicanos were a dominant force. They ran the place; the Mayor, the Chief of Police, even the dogcatcher. But only the young dope-smoking hippies wanted to be called Chicano.

The establishment wanted stay Mexican-American or Hispanic. They worked hard for their place and recognition and didn’t want to identify with the rebels.

You have to want to be Chicano to be Chicano. The hippies took the insult and turned it into a badge of pride. “Yeah, I’m a Chicano, y que?” They also thought they invented the word and that nobody had ever called themselves Chicanos before.

Chicanos and running water are endlessly fascinating. I can watch them all day.

The whole Chicano identity issue was the motivation for something that is now a major part of my life; the collection, promotion, and advocacy of Chicano art.

My interest in art must have started with my Catholic upbringing. Art was everywhere churches with its paintings, sculptures, stained glass, textiles, and fine metalwork. It was for me a portal into another world that was simultaneously soothing and scary. It held me in its thrall and still does.

I wasn’t really good at doing it, however. As a kid, art meant drawing and I just didn’t have a facility for it. I thought you were either good at it or not, like you could either run fast or not, or you were either tall or not. I didn’t find out until later that it was something that you could learn and some people get better at it than others.

But as a kid I decided that if I couldn’t do it, I would study art because I loved it. Beginning at 11 years old, I would go to the local library and check out all the art books. Page after page, I taught myself the history of art, especially painting, and kept doing it. By the time I was able to afford art, I knew what good art was because I was studying it all my life.

In 1985, I made the film “Born in East L.A.” It was my first solo work after being a partner with Tommy Chong for 17 years and at the time, I wanted to learn who and what I was as an individual. It was a journey of self-discovery that led back to my Chicano roots. I started learning more Spanish and hung around with other Chicano actors and artists. Eventually, I was introduced to Chicano artists and painters, many who were around since the mid-sixties. But they were relatively new to me, as was most contemporary art. As soon as I saw those first paintings in person, I realized that these artists were good. Really good. I began collecting their work in earnest.

I had always been a collector of something ever since I was a kid, whether it be baseball cards or marbles or matchbook covers, whatever. I had a mania for collecting. One of the main attributes of a collector is an obsession that becomes an addiction, and I became an addict, for sure. I was in the perfect position – I knew what the art was and I had money to buy it.

What became quickly apparent was they were not getting any deserved recognition from museums and top-end galleries. They struggled and struggled for traction — as most artists do — but had no champion like other commercially successful artists. It doesn’t just magically happen. Maybe with my celebrity and finances I could be that champion, so I started with putting together a touring Chicano art exhibition.

Ten years later, I was struggling like the artists to get the collection shown at a national level. I did my Chicano dog-and-pony show in just about every big corporate boardroom in America. I got close many times, but no cigar.

At one point, the Army was going to sponsor the show. After all, they were the number one employer of Chicanos in the country. (Wouldn’t that just have frosted the cajones of all the political Chicanos? I almost did it for just that reason.) I was about to give up until Target Corporation and Hewlett-Packard Company stepped up to sponsor the show. In fact, Target stepped up for many years to support the show and connect to the Latino community, and for that, all Chicanos are obliged to shop at Target for the next ten years. Hey, it’s a win-win. They have great stuff for reasonable prices. Shut up and consume.

When I finally came back to San Antonio to open my exhibit Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge, I came back as an elder statesman of “Chicano-hood”. Things had loosened up quite a bit. Chicanos were still the Mayor, the Chief of Police, and the dogcatcher, but many of them were my age or younger and grew up being Chicanos with no stigma attached. There were still those old-line viejos who answered to Hispanic, but they were mostly Chamber-of-Commerce types doing out of convenience to keep from confusing the old-line white people.

We threw the best art opening party in years. Los Lobos played and there was free beer, tequila, and food. There were many Chicano converts that opening night.

But, in true Chicano fashion, there was also controversy and it all centered on the use of the word “Chicano.” Many museums were averse to using “Chicano” because of its political implication and history. It was like inviting the crazy cousins to the party. To them, Chicanos were fist-waving, placard-carrying, headband-wearing, dope-smoking protesters picketing anything with the word “Chicano” that they didn’t inaugurate. They especially didn’t like sponsorship, which they felt co-opted their identity to serve corporate America and enslave them to beer or whatever. There was a Chicano-wide protest against Coors, which they felt discriminated against Chicanos in their hiring practices. Now we couldn’t eat grapes or drink Coors beer. Was life even worth living now?

They demonstrated against any and all events that had a cactus, an eagle or an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe that they didn’t originate or approve. Fair enough. I didn’t want to be defined by somebody else outside my group, especially some establishment type and end up being lard-less ”Hispanic.” (Besides, a Chicano event was not considered a success unless it was picketed and protested by other Chicanos.)

So the end result was Chicanos were excluded from mainstream museums. Who needed the headache? The museums labeled Chicano art as “Agitprop folk art” and dismissed it into a handmade art ghetto that had its time and “see you later.”

Then a funny thing happened. The artists kept evolving, which goes to the heart and soul of what a Chicano is.

Like its art, “Chicano” is an evolutionary term. Each generation has as much right to define what a Chicano is as any generation that came before them. One of the main aesthetic characteristics of Chicano is traditional Mexican meets contemporary America. It’s where they meet, influence each other, and create something totally new. That’s where Chicano identity is born. As soon as a Mexican crosses the border and establishes a home in the U.S., they are a Mexican tadpole on their way to becoming a Chicano frog.

So can a Mexican become a Chicano? Sure! I think that as soon as his or her experience and length of residence in this country outweighs his or her Mexican experience, then upon declaration: “Sas que”, you’re a Chicano. For example, is Carlos Santana, born in Mexico but the majority of his life here, a Mexican or a Chicano? It can be argued that he is a citizen of the world – a true Chicano expression.

In Los Angeles, inner-city Latino youths have been calling themselves “Chicanos” no matter what Latin American country they come from – Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, wherever. They have redefined Chicano as being engaged with American culture while still retaining Latino roots. They recognize it as an evolutionary step in an immigration process. Either that or they got tired of explaining that “Honduras is not part of Mexico, homes”.

The academic world has a mania for codification. They would like the official “Chicano Period” to be from 1964 to around 1978, and then break it up into when the “Post-Chicano Period” and then the “Neo-Post Chicano Period” would begin.

I take a much larger view of the Chicano experience. It’s still in its infancy and we still don’t know what form it will take. The important development in Chicano history will be the next generation. This current wave of immigration is different than all other previous migration patterns in that it is happening in all states simultaneously. It is longer confined to the West and Southwest. There are large Latino communities everywhere – New Hampshire, Mississippi, Ohio. It doesn’t matter. They are everywhere and 80% of them are under the age of 25.

The question is what are these new Chicanos going to look like, act like, and be like? When a Mexican also lives as a Kentuckian, what is that going to produce, y’all? If they are raised in the Hamptons, will they wear white or turquoise after Labor Day?

The country is about to undergo a fundamental change and it will be for the good. Latinos are bringing in a much-needed new wave of fresh energy that will propel the country forward in the years to come. They came here to work, so stop hating on them.

Like those Mexican-American youth in the ‘60s and ‘70s used Chicano to revisit Mexican culture, today’s Mexicano youth are using Chicano to become part of American-Mexican culture. That keeps Chicano experience and Chicano art an evolving concept.

~ Cheech Marin

Originally published in the Huffington Post. This is the second article in a three-part series on “What is a Chicano” by actor, director, and art advocate Cheech Marin.

Image Credit: “El Segundo” by Carlos Donjuan, 2009 (acrylic on panel, 10″x 12″). Courtesy of Cheech Marin Collection.