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The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture opens in California

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Cheech Marin is part of the comedy duo Cheech and Chong. He's also an art collector and just opened his own museum in Riverside, Calif. It's no joke. NPR's Mandalit del Barco attended the opening of the country's first major museum dedicated to Chicano art.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: I'm standing outside The Cheech, which is filled with two floors of contemporary Chicano artworks. To welcome his guests, Cheech arrived in a 1962 Chevy Impala convertible in a caravan of lowriders - souped-up classic cars riding low to the ground, made famous in East LA, where Cheech was born.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

DEL BARCO: He was greeted by a group of Aztec dancers, and all day there was a street party to celebrate.

CHEECH MARIN: My heart is swelling at this point, man. This is a dream that I never dared dream, having a museum dedicated to Chicano art. It's the very first one in the world, and you should be very proud.

(CHEERING)

DEL BARCO: With that, he invited the public inside to see the original artworks of artists such as Gronk, Patssi Valdez, Wayne Healy, Frank Romero and the late Carlos Almaraz. During the artists' reception, Marin told me he's been collecting their work for decades.

MARIN: Everybody came up to me and said, hey, you should have a museum. I said, yeah, I should have a jet plane, too, you know, but I don't got either of those. So I just didn't pay attention to this. And this offer came in out of the blue. OK, thank you, you know? (Laughter).

DEL BARCO: City officials in Riverside and the Riverside Art Museum invited him to make his collection into a museum in what used to be the city's public library. It was a unique $14.5 million partnership. But Marin says at first he was skeptical.

MARIN: I don't know. The whole collection and it's going to leave my hands forever? And I need a sign that this is what to do. So help me.

DEL BARCO: He asked how big the modernist building was.

MARIN: Sixty-one-thousand-four-hundred-twenty square feet. And I said, 420 square feet? That's a sign. That's a sign. Thank you, Lord (laughter).

DEL BARCO: Four-twenty is slang for marijuana, something the comedian is known for smoking in the movies.

Four-twenty.

MARIN: Four-twenty - it was a sign (laughter).

DEL BARCO: Marin says this museum is long from the days when he faced pushback for becoming an art collector.

MARIN: Who are you, this doper comedian, to say what's what about Chicano art? You don't have degrees in art. Then they start opening the crates. That's when it changes 'cause I didn't have an agenda that I was pushing, except for art to be seen.

DEL BARCO: And what a collection. The entire second floor is a retrospective of the art by Jamex and Einar de la Torre. The brothers grew up in Guadalajara, learning English as a second language by listening to Cheech and Chong albums.

EINAR DE LA TORRE: We're part of his collection for many, many years. Cheech was like, you're opening my museum. And we were like, what could be better?

DEL BARCO: Their work includes comical blown glass sculptures and layered images that change as you walk past, what's known as lenticular art. For one installation, they constructed a large lunar lander shaped like an Olmec head.

DE LA TORRE: The earth is burning back there, and we're colonizing the moon with this, and there's already taco stands on the moon. A very important element in our work is humor. Maybe that's one of the reasons that we have this dialogue with Cheech.

DEL BARCO: The de la Torres' work is an evolution of the fun and political Chicano art that grew out of El Movimiento in the 1960s and '70s, when Mexican Americans crusaded for social justice and empowerment. In the '70s and '80s, Patssi Valdez was a member of ASCO, a Chicano art collective doing performance art and activism.

PATSSI VALDEZ: I started out being really fed up of the stereotyping of my culture.

DEL BARCO: The Cheech features several of Valdez's paintings, including one called "Room On The Verge." She told me she's proud to be part of the museum.

VALDEZ: I remember somewhere they said Chicanos don't make art, years ago when I was very young. And I'm thinking, yes, we do. We're not just crafters. So I think this museum is going to help prove that.

DEL BARCO: Cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, whose work is in the collection, says the museum is long overdue.

LALO ALCARAZ: Chicano art - it's positive, and it's truthful, and it's beautiful. It's about our people, the land, the politics, everything.

DEL BARCO: Before the public opening, Marin hosted a reception for a who's who of Chicano artists, including Judithe Hernandez, who's been in the art world for 52 years.

JUDITHE HERNANDEZ: This is a nuclear bomb, culturally speaking. This museum has hit people's imaginations and turned the world around for the art by Chicanos and Mexican Americans. It's never had this kind of spotlight before.

DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Riverside, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.