I have to call Cheech back and ask him to repeat what he just said.
That's become a mantra I'm forced to repeat every 60 seconds or so, like some bad stoner giggle session where subjectivity goes goofily awry-the kind Cheech Marin could have done in his sleep, back in his days working with Tommy Chong.
"This is always a dead spot," Marin explains about his horrible cell phone reception, as he drives through Malibu on Pacific Coast Highway. The first scene in Cheech & Chong's Up In Smoke was filmed on that strip of road, but I stuff the urge to make some lame reference about "double bubble."
The long strange trip for East L.A. native Marin-from countercultural drug icon to independent filmmaker-slash-crossover television star-is as unlikely as any. Since his meteoric rise in the 1970s as the hippie-vato half of Cheech & Chong, he's now become, officially, a philanthropic participant in the arts of the highest order. Marin owns the largest private collection of Chicano art in the U.S.-a bonafide national cultural treasure.
These days, his collection is one half of the two-part, 15-city traveling tour called Chicano , showing now through September, with one exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego downtown and another at MCASD's La Jolla gallery. Marin's collected paintings are framed in the sublime exhibit titled "Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge."
It's a broadly aimed political and personal history exploding on canvas, using both traditional and abstract narratives, allowing the radical and conservative to coexist, co-opting community values and institutions by their very nature. (Target and Clear Channel are, after all, two of the tour's sponsors.)
Highlights include the Chicano noir of East L.A.'s Adan Hernandez, the Tex-Mex monitos of Carmen Lomas Garza's work, the postmodern evolution of Glugio Gronk and Carlos Almaraz, and a total of 26 pieces curated by Rene Yanaz.
Marin says he's always wanted to hijack the traditional gallery showing, to turn the clichéd art world into a new ritual that Chicano artists can use and exploit. That culture-jacking impulse permeates Chicano .
The other attraction of the tour-a 5,000-square-foot multimedia exhibit called Chicano Now: American Expressions-features so-called "code switching" as its rampant, almost redundant raison d'etre. Filling the three-story MCASD building in the America Plaza trolley station, Chicano Now includes a replica low rider "ride" for kids, roadside diner booths with working juke boxes, and push-button displays featuring Chicano food, fashion and historical heroes.
There's also no shortage of what I like to call Mexotica -Chicano or Latino-based phenomena that have become American pop culture icons, like the movies of Robert Rodriguez or anything having to do with Dia de los Muertos. One wall features "Who Am I," a useful guide to the ethnic identity of Chicanos, Mexicans, Latinos and Hispanics. Dozens more audio-visual tools invite the public to "celebrate the often overlooked Chicano contributions to mainstream America."
As someone of mixed Anglo and Chicano heritage, it's ironic seeing our heritage presented in the same way kids might learn about early gothic painters or hominids on the savannah.
"A little high-falutin', vaguely self-serious, right?" I ask Cheech. "Like this uppity use of the phrase "code switching'-that's just a polite term for "fuckin' with the gringos' heads,' right?"
"No, not really," he responds, laughing.
"It's more a matter of combining all your influences simultaneously. Code switching is not hiding something. It's communication in two languages. It's really an automatic checking device. Many times it's unconscious. When you're painting, you're putting in symbols you've learned from world art or classic forms. You're just combining the two. It's like wearing a reversible jacket."
Or having Hewlett Packard sponsor an art tour called Chicano?
"Exactly," Cheech says. "I mean, we had to go into the boardrooms and do our little dance to get this funded. And in the end, it benefits both of us. We gain from switching our codes to corporate interests, and the companies gain by knowing who their target audience is and hitting with something positive. They could be putting their money behind a lot worse things than an art show."
Marin says he started to feel obligated to share his collection when he'd accumulated so many works that he couldn't store them all.
"Right after I finally had a regularly paying gig-the Nash Bridges job," he explains. "It was always hand-to-mouth before that. I'd go out on tour with the traveling show back in the old days, and once in a while I'd find artists I was into, and I'd buy pieces here and there and send 'em home while I saw the world as a starving artist myself.
"But, as an actor, a regular gig means so much. It gives you a solid foundation, finally, to do what you want."
That a banal television cop show funded the philanthropic endeavors of an ex-druggie-hippie cholo-now that's a code switch of prodigious irony.
"Yeah," Cheech chuckles softly, his voice again cutting in and out. "But, hey, it always cracked me up that the two icons they picked for stoner culture were a low-rider vato and his Chinese-Canadian friend!"
"Did you get that last one...?" he asks before END CALL yet again displays on my cell phone.