The cult classic film, “Born in East L.A.,” written, directed, and starring Cheech Marin, turned 25 this month. The film is considered groundbreaking for its time, as it was one of the first Hollywood films starring a Latino cast, including Paul Rodriguez, Tony Plana, and Lupe Ontiveros. It also brought issues of Latino identity and immigration to the forefront with a sense of humor.
Marin says when he wrote the movie, at 41, little did he know that it would have such an impact on American society. It was a low-budget film, but it grossed nearly $18 million in box office sales. It also triggered the making of a music video — a spoof of Bruce Springsteen’s famous “Born in the USA” — it is now even being incorporated into college curriculums.
“I was surprised at the longevity of it, and how it translated into different ethnicities,” says Marin, now 66, about the topic of immigration in the film. “I learned that it’s a very universal experience — it affected a lot of people. [When the movie premiered] was just the beginning for the biggest wave of immigration.”
He says what inspired him to write the film was real life.
“I was sitting at my kitchen table, reading the LA Times — [an American] kid was caught in an immigration raid, and he was mistakenly sent to Mexico, and at the same time, ‘Born in USA’ came on the radio.”
He says the story kind of wrote itself after that.
“I really never knew what ‘Born in the USA’ was about, so I had to go out and get the record,” says the comedian, who was really born a couple of blocks away from East L.A. — in South Central.
He says it was the success of the song which made his movie being picked up by Universal Pictures a little easier.
“It was really interesting with social commentary weaved in — bilingual issues, issues at the border,” says actor Tony Plana. “It made people laugh and also think. You can’t meet one Latino who doesn’t have a copy of ‘Born in East LA.’”
Plana, who played “the thug” role, later renamed “Feo,” says he still gets recognized from playing that character so many years later. He also remembers Marin as a very gracious and collaborative director to work with.
“He was open to ideas, and finding the socially relevant insight into what we were doing, as well as finding the comedy,” says Plana, who has been in a myriad of productions since then, from the movie “Three Amigos” to the TV series “Ugly Betty.”
He says they worked together to make his underdeveloped character relevant in some way.
“We wanted to create the ultimate Tijuana nightmare,” says Plana who played a character who looked like a rat with slicked hair, parted in the middle and gold teeth and dressed in a little bow tie. “At the time, we had a couple of religious scandals going on, such as Jim Baker and Jimmy Swaggart — preachers who sinned publicly. We wanted to satirize them a little bit. We turned Feo into a guy who extorts money in the name of Jesus.”
He says they improvised a lot of the lines they actually used such as, “You don’t have to thank me, you just have to pay me.”
Marin also remembers improvising the scene where he’s standing outside of the bar, during one of his random jobs in Tijuana that he takes to make money to cross the border back to America. He says he just made everything up as normal people walked by.
His all-time favorite scene though was the “wass sappening boys,” where he has to teach non-Mexican immigrants English so they can fit in when they reach Los Angeles.
“When I was writing that scene, I kind of imagined what that alley looked like,” reminisces Marin who filmed in Tijuana for six weeks. “It was exactly as I had pictured in my mind.”
Plana says these humorous scenes really struck a chord in the Latino community and the national community.
“It didn’t give you answers, but it showed the interesting complexity of who we are — specifically Mexican-Americans,” says Plana. “Mexican-Americans tend to lose their connection, and Cheech’s character becomes more aware of what’s going on down there and starts to identify with it.”
He says to him the most powerful scene is at the end, when Cheech starts crossing the border into the U.S. with a plethora of Mexicans.
“It’s almost prophetic in a way,” says Plana. “This is going to continue unless we do something about it.”
Marin agrees that nothing has changed a quarter of a century later.
“We haven’t come up with a solution,” he says. “We’re dealing with contradiction and hypocrisy. We want immigrants to come in, because we want cheap labor and a certain lifestyle, and we want to persecute them at the same time.”
The avid Chicano art collector says he’s considering directing another movie in the future.
“It’s such a tough job directing,” says Marin, who continues to act. “You really have to love the subject matter.”