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Comedian Cheech Marin brings Chicano art lesson to UND

Cheech Marin discusses Chicano Art during a presentation at UND's Hughes Fine Arts Center Thursday. Marin's private collection of Chicano art is the largest in the U.S. (Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)

Cheech Marin, the once-mustachioed half of the stoner comedy duo Cheech and Chong, doesn't think people are surprised anymore by his love for the arts.

"The word is out," Marin said Thursday, sitting in a gallery space in the Hughes Fine Arts Center on the UND campus. The 71-year-old Los Angeles native, himself a former potter, was on campus to deliver a lecture on Chicano art, something he's been doing since about 2001. When he's not on tour with longtime counterpart Tommy Chong, Marin has visited more than 50 museums on a national art circuit to speak with fans coming to learn about the subject from a comedian who's lived it.

"They're interested, so I explain it to them—and then their lives are complete," he said with a grin.

Marin started collecting Chicano art in 1985 and has been involved with the scene ever since. He now has more than 700 paintings and other works in his collection, enough to the point where he's partnered with the city of Riverside, Calif., and the Riverside Art Museum to create a new museum space to house it all on a full-time basis.

Marin was playful as he described the collection he's amassed.

"I have the most prestigious collection in the history of the world," he said, "or in the known universe."

With the magnitude of the collection aside, Marin found a packed house when he took the stage at UND. He opened with an explanation of the basics, defining what exactly he meant when he said Chicano, a term with which he identifies. The etymology of Chicano is somewhat disputed, but Marin says the word originated among Mexicans as a pejorative for their kin who resided north of the border. By living in the U.S., Marin said, those people were perceived as "something other than full-blooded Mexican," something less inherently Mexican than those who lived in-country.

Marin said the label eventually lost its stigma and became embraced as a unique identifier in its own right, one that he prefers over the hyphenated Mexican-American. He told his audience that the first he heard of the term was from an uncle who thought he was being gouged by a local auto mechanic.

"He said, 'Yeah, I went to the garage and the guy wanted to charge me $200 to fix this thing. But hey man, give me a piece of tinfoil and a pliers and I'll fix it—I'm a Chicano mechanic,' " Marin recounted to the laughter of the crowd. "I said, yeah, that's who I want to be. I wanted to be someone who can make do and was not going to be ripped off."

That attitude carries over into the art of Chicano people, Marin continued. He projected notable paintings from Chicano artists on a large screen behind him to show the audience what he was talking about as he spoke in passionate terms, imploring the listeners to see paintings in person to capture their visceral nature. He said Chicano art, as a category, is distinguished not necessarily by style or technique, but by its subject. The depiction of a distinct American community might often have a wry sense of humor—much like Marin himself—and an eye for flair, but what Marin said really sets the category apart is the view of Chicanos that it presents in composite through the individual lenses of a multitude of artists.

"When you put all these pieces of the pie together, you get this 360 (view)," he said. "And what you get at the end of that is the sabor—the flavor, the taste of that community."

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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