Dozens of well-wishers cheered as Cheech Marin’s convertible inched through the parking lot behind his new, namesake museum in Riverside on Saturday morning.
Mostly Latino fans snapped photos and shot video from feet away as Marin waved from the backseat of the 1962 Chevy Impala. One bystander reached out and fist-bumped him. Another fan called out happily: “Cheech, what’s going on!”
“We are!” Marin replied.
In this majority Latino city, Mexican Americans were rightly at the center of it all for a change as the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture hosted a sold-out opening day with 1,800 reservations and a long line to enter.
Artisans and vendors sold wares from booths along Mission Inn Avenue. Musicians performed on a temporary stage. Dancers from Ballet Folklorico de Riverside twirled in formation under colorful pennants strung across the avenue as hundreds watched.
Latin oldies wafted from boomboxes along the sidewalk and from lowriders on display in the parking lot behind The Cheech.
“Some of these cars are a piece of art too,” said a proud David Novelo of Ontario, who was polishing his already gleaming 1958 baby-blue Impala a half-hour before the museum opened.
His buddy Art Meza, wearing a Chicano_Soul T-shirt, was there with his 1950 Chevy Fleetline and his daughter Sophia, 6. (She has a car seat in the back.)
Meza has taken her to the Getty Center and the Palm Springs Art Museum, all “to open her mind” to art and to her potential, “that seed to know you can create.” The photographer from Eastvale added: “She may go home today and make a drawing.”
I walked around the back and spotted Riverside Mayor Patricia Lock Dawson in a bright orange dress, standing incongruously on the loading dock waiting to be admitted through the rear entrance.
A man with long hair and a longer beard, shuffling with a cane, called up as the door opened: “I’m VIP. I’m Tommy. Will you let me in?” The door closed. “Guess not,” he mumbled.
No, he wasn’t Tommy Chong, once Cheech’s other half in Cheech & Chong, but nice try.
Marin arrived with a small entourage. A few other VIPs followed. After a delay as handlers checked with other handlers, I was cleared to enter. I had started to wonder if I’d have to rap on the door and stage-whisper, “C’mon, man. It’s me, Dave.” To which whoever was on the other side would reply, “Dave’s not here.”
(Everyone was joking to me about Cheech & Chong’s most famous routine after my interview with him.)
I walked in after Jose Medina, the state assemblyman from Riverside who got a crucial $10 million in state funds for the museum in 2018, as well as donating personally along with his wife, Linda Fregosa.
“It’s much more amazing than I had ever imagined: the space, the artwork,” Medina told me, standing near an interior entry wall bearing his name. “This week has shown the impact The Cheech is going to have not only in Riverside but on Latino art in California and the United States.”
Medina continued: “The fact that Riverside can be the center of that is amazing to me.”
Outside, the mayor offered welcome remarks to a crowd packed onto the lawn before Marin exited to join her.
“My heart is swelling at this point. This is a dream I never dared dream,” Marin said.
He said he was thrilled to be able to share his art with the community.
“Bring your friends and relations. Even if you just bring your relations,” he added, “that’s fine. We’ll meet our quota.”
Saturday was the culmination of days of buildup, including a “Chicano Gala” on Friday night. The dedication was on Thursday, which not only promoted the opening but got the speeches out of the way.
On a small stage inside the museum that day, the mayor presented Marin with an oversized, ceremonial key to the city. Marin joked: “I’d have been satisfied with half a key.”
His next remark: “So how do you like ‘stoner art’ now?” — a reference to the failed candidate who had decried state funding for “a stoner art museum.” Marin got a round of applause.
But the museum is no joke. Said to be the first in the United States devoted to Chicano art, it’s made up of 500 paintings and other works donated by Marin, who built his collection over four decades.
Media coverage that week, Marin said Thursday with some awe, had included “the front page of the Arts section of the New York Times” (written, incidentally, by Riverside native Patricia Escárcega), “the arts section of the L.A. Times, the front page of the Riverside…Press…” he said, faltering.
“Enterprise!” some in the audience called out.
“The most important one,” a chagrined Marin said. (I wouldn’t disagree.)
The Cheech’s full impact and influence will only be clear in time as programs develop. María Esther Fernández, the museum’s artistic director, is bursting with ideas, as is Marin himself. Obviously The Cheech won’t be like art museums that mount an occasional show of Latino art.
“We’re doing this every day, not every few years or every few months,” Fernandez told me.
The second floor is devoted to a retrospective by brothers Einar and Jamex de la Torre, “Collidoscope,” consisting of eye-popping, mind-bending sculptures and lenticular art. Until now, the only spaces devoted to Mexican American art were community centers, not a museum, the brothers say.
“I applaud Riverside for having the courage and fortitude to make this happen,” Einar told me Thursday. “It really needed to happen in the United States and congratulations to Riverside for being the city to do it.”
In the main gallery Saturday, I struck up a conversation with Raymond Hitchcock. An art fan and retired contractor, he bought a ticket as soon as they became available six months ago because he wanted to be here opening day.
Hitchcock drove up from San Diego on Friday and stayed over so he could arrive at the museum refreshed.
“This collection is overwhelming,” Hitchcock said, calling the iconic artists on display — Frank Romero, Carlos Almaraz, Judithe Hernández and more — his culture’s Vermeers and Rembrandts.
“I wish my mother was alive to see this collection and share this,” Hitchcock said. “She was Mexican. I don’t think she ever saw any representations of her life when we went to art museums.”
So San Diego was in the house. Highland Park in L.A. was as well, in the person of Noelle Reyes, who owns an art-focused gift shop and community space, Mi Vida.
Marin acquired many of the works directly from the painters starting in the 1980s. Seeing such iconic works all in one place and in person was such a thrill, “my arm hairs are standing up,” Reyes told me. “And it’s Cheech. It’s our people, by the people, for the people. It means a lot to me as a Chicana.”
Of the museum, Reyes marveled: “When he bought these, the artists probably never thought something like this would exist.”
But, against all odds, it does.
David Allen writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday; Dave’s not here the other days. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.