This week, California should give thanks for Cheech.
Richard Anthony Marin deserves our gratitude not just because his autobiography, “Cheech Is Not My Real Name … But Don’t Call Me Chong,” is the best California book of this year. We should thank Cheech now because his life embodies Thanksgiving itself: a big, robust meal that includes many different flavors but is ultimately for everyone.
This California entertainer reminds us, happily, that our state’s cultural mainstream is much more interesting and inclusive than we acknowledge. Indeed, Cheech is evidence of a California paradox: To stay in the mainstream here, it helps to start as an outsider. After all, Cheech is still identified as a “cult” figure – one-half of the stoner comedy team, Cheech and Chong, that made the 1978 film “Up in Smoke,” even though his career has been as mainstream as it gets.
Cheech Marin’s new book reminds us, happily, that our state’s cultural mainstream is much more interesting and inclusive than we acknowledge.
The dirty secret of Cheech’s life, as he recounts it, is that he’s a square, a middle-class kid from South Los Angeles. His father was an LAPD officer; his mother was president of the PTA. By his teens, the family had relocated to a white neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley.
Racially and ethnically, he was an outsider in both neighborhoods, so the future actor-musician-writer-comedian did everything: Cub Scout, Boy Scout, altar boy, and straight-A student. He even worked in aerospace – during college at Northridge, manufacturing airplane galleys for Nordskog.
The book’s signature moment – recounted by Cheech as the Apostle Paul might have recalled his trip to Damascus – is when he smoked marijuana for the first time, and found that the allegedly mind-rotting substance expanded his perspective.
He thought: “What else have they been lying about?”
With that, he discovered art, awakened politically, dodged the draft, met Tommy Chong, began playing shows all over the world, and bought a house in Malibu.
Cheech proudly identifies as Chicano and Latino, but sees his heritage as bridge, not niche. The glory of being Latino, he writes, is that you are part of a diverse demographic that contains multitudes. “My face has some kind of international malleability to it. Add your own preferences or prejudice to it, and I could be anything,” he writes.
But some narrow-minded Hollywood types couldn’t see his natural breadth at first. Marin countered by writing his own material, most successfully in the 1987 film, “Born in East L.A.” The movie is quintessential Cheech – framing the Mexican American story as fundamentally American, and demonstrating the absurdities of putting people in boxes.
Cheech’s other strategy was to find roles in middlebrow productions and make them his own. He did a spinoff of “The Golden Girls,” and co-starred with Don Johnson on the police drama “Nash Bridges,” set and filmed in San Francisco. He starred in the premiere of Sam Shepard’s play “The Late Henry Moss,” and became a regular voice in Pixar films, notably as Ramone in “Cars.”
Marin is unapologetic about mainstream success. His book includes an entire chapter on how he became champion of “Celebrity Jeopardy.” By his account, his old partner, Tommy Chong, foundered because he would not evolve to reach audiences.
Marin has made news recently as a leading collector of Chicano art. Riverside wants to turn over its main library for the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art, Culture and Industry. Marin, ever mainstream, emphasizes that “Chicano art is American art.”
It’s hard to call Cheech countercultural now. Antonio Villaraigosa, who performed Cheech’s most recent marriage, is a leading candidate for California governor. In January, recreational marijuana will become legal in his home state.
Now that Cheech is an institution, maybe it’s time to honor him as one. If California created its own Mt. Rushmore, perhaps in the Mojave’s Granite Mountains, there would be many candidates for this pantheon.
But why not start by carving the stoner in stone?
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at email@example.com.