Texas Chicanos Shine in New Cheech Marin Museum in Riverside, California
As you enter the new Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture—be prepared. The two story glass sculpture by the de la Torre brothers will take your breath away. The glass and plastic installation, homage to an Aztec deity Coatlicue, silently greets visitors. San Diego/Tijuana artists Einar and Jamex de la Torre, known as the de la Torre Brothers, succeed in making the lenticular images of a woman, a superhero who protects the earth, relevant to modern-day society fighting for a greener existence. The glass and plastic beauty is spectacular. Beyond this symbolic figure of mother earth follows a feast of Chicano art, a transformative artistic enlightenment.
The provocateur of this exciting collection of outstanding Chicano art is Richard Anthony “Cheech” Marin. Cheech’s success as a comedian, actor, writer and producer over the past fifty years gave him the resources to fulfill a dream of collecting, preserving, and exhibiting Chicano art. Cheech began his comedy and acting career in the late 1960s after moving to Canada. While writing about rock and roll music for a Canadian magazine, he met Tommy Chong in Vancouver. Cheech was on assignment when he went to interview Chong for a story about the up and coming comedian featured in local venues. They hit it off and decided to form a duo-comedy team performing in night clubs and comedy clubs. Their career took a favorable turn with their first film Up in Smoke in 1978. In 1987, Cheech wrote and directed his best known film, Born in East L.A.
Cheech began collecting Chicano art in the late 1980s. His interest in Chicano art occurred at a time when Sean Penn and Madonna purchased George Yepes’ “La Pistola y El Corazón” in 1989. The painting “Pistola” gained additional notoriety when it was used for the cover of an album by the popular band, Los Lobos de East Los Angeles. Cheech acquired a similar image by Yepes, although the original painting was created in a smaller
Tejanos, Latinos, Mexican Americans, and Chicanos are well represented among the 44 artists in the current exhibit, including nine artists from Texas. I viewed works by the following Texas Latinos: Gaspar Enriquez [El Paso], Benito Huerta [Houston and Fort Worth], and Joe Peña [Corpus Christi]. I took special notice of the artists from my San Antonio community: Cesar Martinez , Rubio, Vincent Valdez [San Antonio and Houston], Jacinto Guevara, Adan Hernandez, and Marta Sanchez [Philadelphia and San Antonio].When asked about his interest in collecting Chicano art, Cheech often mentions a fondness for the works of Los Angeles artists Frank Romero and Carlos Almaraz during the late 1980s. Soon after buying their works, he also collected George Yepes of Los Angeles. My first introduction to Cheech’s passion for collecting Chicano art was in 2001 when he brought the outstanding exhibit “Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge” to San Antonio. In collaboration with the San Antonio Museum of Art, Chicano Visions debuted in the Alamo City before traveling to 15 U.S. cities.
One of the featured works in Chicano Visions “Tirando Rollo” by El Paso artist Gaspar Enriquez tells a story of El Paso youth “chatting aimlessly, or speaking earnestly with a friend.” I was pleased to see this work by Enriquez now in The Cheech Museum in Riverside. Although several works by prominent San Antonio artists exhibited in Chicano Visions in 2001, including Mel Casas and Jesse Trevino, were on loan for the SAMA exhibit, they are not a part of the current Cheech Museum collection.
San Antonio is well represented in the Cheech Museum today. Among the first paintings visitors see in the first floor exhibit are four paintings by Jacinto Guevara representing his own Eastside home and Bravo Records in San Antonio, and a home in Echo Park, California. Guevara, originally from East Los Angeles, has lived in San Antonio for the last 25 years. Guevara is principally a portrait, architectural, and landscape artist. The majority of his works are on birch wood. Guevara noted that Cheech first purchased his work in 2013, but he estimated that Cheech has purchased more than twenty of his paintings.
Prior to Cheech’s visits to San Antonio in preparation for the Chicano Visions debut, he purchased works by Vincent Valdez, the youngest participant in the SAMA exhibition. Valdez’s powerful rendering “Kill the Pachuco Bastard” debuted in the 2001 exhibition and is featured prominently in The Cheech Museum in Riverside. Adan Hernandez’s dark subjects, “La Bomba” [diptych:1992], and “Drive-by-Asesino” [diptych:1992] were also in the 2001 San Antonio exhibit and are currently part of The Cheech Museum.
Prior to 2001 Cheech acquired numerous paintings by the talented border artist Cesar Martinez, a native of Laredo and resident of San Antonio. Among the six Martinez paintings included in the 2001 exhibit hosted by the San Antonio Museum of Art were ”Sylvia with Chango’s Letter Jacket”  and “Hombre que le Gustan las Mujeres” . These two paintings and a third painting from his “Bato” series occupy an entire wall in the newly completed Cheech Marin Museum in Riverside.
While in Texas prior to the Chicano Visions exhibit of 2001, Cheech also acquired “La Lechuza” by Rubio [listed as Alex Rubio in the Chicano Visions 2002 publication]. Rubio’s work “La Lechuza” also known as “The Owl Woman,” is currently on display in Riverside. Rubio, a native of San Antonio, has a close working relationship with Vincent Valdez and mentored him in the late 1980s when both were painting murals in the Westside barrio of San Antonio.
I have been interested in Chicano art since the early 1970s, and although I recognized the majority of the artists in The Cheech Museum, several of the artists were new to me, notably Tejano artist Joe Peña. Before becoming an artist, Peña worked in art galleries in New York City where he gained a broad knowledge of modern American art. In 2010 Peña moved back to his hometown of Corpus Christi and started painting. His paintings of food trucks in the Cheech exhibit were especially intriguing. His three paintings show night scenes that focus on the food trucks, but also feature the individuals who cook and serve popular Mexican food.
Cheech discovered Corpus Christi artist Joe Peña in 2010, including him in the 2011 publication, Chicanitas: Small Paintings from the Cheech Marin Collection. Prior to 2010, Peña had participated in only a few exhibits beginning in 2008 with shows in Houston, San Antonio, and Corpus Christi.
“The Cheech” is one-of-a-kind museum in the world, or as Cheech will say, in the Universe. It serves not only to conserve Chicano art, but to educate Chicanos and non-Chicanos alike about the history, culture, and traditions of the major portion of the Latino population in the United States. The collaboration of the city of Riverside, Riverside Art Museum and art collector Cheech Marin serves as a model for other communities and leaves us wishing for greater exposure to the rich artistic creations of Chicanos.
Copyright 2023 by Ricardo Romo. All images photos of art work courtesy of Ricardo and Harriet Romo.