If someone had told comedic actor Richard "Cheech" Marin 40 years ago that he would be in Sacramento Monday to receive an award from politicians at the state Capitol for being a "positive role model," Marin likely would have said: "You're stoned, man."
But Marin is here, the headliner in a group of recipients of the Latino Spirit Awards, given by the California Latino Legislative Caucus on the floor of the state Assembly.
It has been quite a life's journey for Marin to this point, a "trip" in the most satisfying sense of the a marijuana-inspired phrase.
Forty years ago this summer, Marin was one half of the cannabis-fueled comic duo "Cheech and Chong." They starred in "Up in Smoke" in 1978, a cult classic film where Marin and partner Tommy Chong played two stoners who drive a van made completely of weed while wackiness ensues around them.
It was the template for stoner comedy that "Cheech and Chong" built on in subsequent films and comedy albums and that inspired one homage after another by other filmmakers and musical artists. As Rolling Stone magazine wrote last month: "(Cheech and Chong's) collaboration has earned them a Grammy, four gold records, a fat filmography, millions of fans and bragging rights to having made what's arguably the most iconic stoner flicks of all time, 'Up in Smoke.'"
But a "positive role model"? Yeah, life can be a trip with artists like Marin in it. His comedic art has proved to be quite prescient in his home state of California, where marijuana is now legal. But Marin has also always been funny, and socially aware. His comedy was never mean spirited. It was always loving in its portrayal of a culture that has been marginalized by Hollywood and mainstream American society – "Chicano" culture. That is the culture that directly reflects on Americans of Mexican ancestry living in the United States.
It's not a culture that's defined by marijuana. As a member of the culture myself, I prefer a nice IPA to the cannabis that Marin now sells like so many other newly-minted marijuana entrepreneurs. But the sensibilities of America-born people with Mexican roots? Marin brought it and told it with great affection in films such as "Born in East LA,'" which he wrote and directed in 1987. It was a film about an American of Mexican ancestry who gets swept up in an immigration raid and deported to Tijuana even as he yells, in perfect English, "I'm from East L.A.!"
We laughed at the idea of it then, but with Donald Trump in the White House, that sort of thing has actually happened and it isn't funny at all. Marin has been writing, acting and directing authentic truths rooted in social realities that are still playing out today. The hostility and suspicion his amiable, Los Angeles Dodgers-loving character experienced in "Born in East L.A." is an ever-present reality for Latinos who, by virtue of their Spanish surnames, find themselves on the wrong end of an American society. For telling these truths with side-splitting humor, Marin has achieved an enduring admiration from his many fans at this stage of his life.
"There is a great deal of pride and respect that I feel all the time," said the now 71-year-old Marin while sitting in the lobby of the Citizen Hotel on Sunday night. "We connected with the zeitgeist of that society and people recognized it as authentic. You got to see neighborhoods that you didn't see in the movies ever."
Lalo Alcaraz came from one of those neighborhoods, while growing up Chicano in San Diego. Like Marin, who went to California State, Northridge, Alcaraz is a CSU guy who went to San Diego State. He later graduated with an architecture degree from UC Berkeley, but Alcaraz is a known today – and is also receiving a Latino Spirit Award – because he returned to the political cartoons he first drew at the Daily Aztec back in the 1980s.
By the early 2000s, Alcaraz had become the first nationally syndicated Latino-themed comic strip. His art and influence grew. When Disney tried to trademark "Dia de Los Muertos," a Mexican day of remembrance for the dead, Alcaraz called them out on social media. Many others did as well, but Alcaraz had the social media platform to be heard. He penned a cartoon entitled "Muerto Mouse" or "Dead Mouse," that was an unmistakable condemnation of Mickey Mouse as ruthless cultural appropriator.
Disney listened, dropped its bid to trademark a sacred day for some Mexicans, and hired Alcaraz to help Disney and Pixar make "Coco," the 2017 3D computer-animated film based on the Mexican Day of the Dead. The film was a hit, won two Oscars and was lauded for being authentic.
"When the Latino audience came and gave their review of the movie, one woman summed it up by saying, 'I've never seen a movie that is authentic like this," Alcaraz said. "We celebrated that night."
Alcaraz and Marin celebrated together in Sacramento on Sunday night, ahead of getting their awards on Monday. They were like two cousins who had not seen each other in a long time. And despite Trump and a hostility toward their culture, both remained optimistic for a culture where they are rightly celebrated.
"If your cause is right and your philosophy benefits all people, you're going to succeed," Marin said. "There is a great deal of pride and respect I feel everywhere I go and not just from the Chicano community. Black, white, Asian. It doesn't matter. It's amazing how people embrace you."