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CULTURE MIX

It's a battle won for Cheech Marin

LACMA once turned down showing his art collection. But, no surprise, he persisted.

June 14, 2008|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

For Marin, fighting for Chicano art's rightful place was not unlike standing his ground as a child against schoolyard taunts. Richard Anthony Marin was 10 when his family moved from South-Central Los Angeles to the Valley suburbs of Granada Hills. One day, while waiting to play volleyball, one of his new white classmates called out, "Hey, Blackie, get to the back of the line."

"I just hit him as hard as I could," recalls the actor and comedian, a second-generation Mexican American and son of a LAPD officer. "I was a little kid, but I wasn't afraid of nobody."

Marin, 61, says he got into fights almost daily over racial slurs until he transferred to a Catholic school and the name-calling stopped. Instead of cracking skulls he started cracking open books, pushed by an intellectual rivalry with his cousins back in Los Angeles. They quizzed one another in Latin and competed to prove who was smarter.

Marin nurtured his own art appreciation by poring over art books in the library, studying the masters of classical painting. Those boyhood traits -- his love of art and his fighting spirit -- would serve him well later as a champion of Chicano art.

Marin, twice married, is dating Russian pianist Natasha Rubin. He lives in Malibu and continues to make films, appearing as the priest in the upcoming "The Perfect Game," about the 1957 Little League team from Monterrey, Mexico. And he continues to find thrills in art collecting, with a recent acquisition from up and comer Shizu Saldamando.

At times, he could be the proverbial bull in the china shop. He threatened to wage a public relations war against LACMA over what he saw as the museum's resistance to Chicano art. Art experts across the country, he says, rebuffed his contention that Chicanos constituted a legitimate school of American art. After all, what does a comedian who owns his own line of gourmet hot sauces know about fine art?

"You can argue all you want," Marin recalls responding, "but one day I'm going to put all these paintings up in one room, and you're going to see it."

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"Los Angelenos/Chicano Painters of L.A.: Selections From the Cheech Marin Collection," through Nov. 2, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. (323) 857-6000 or www.lacma.org.

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agustin.gurza@latimes.com

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