ST. LOUIS -- Cheech Marin, the grandson of Mexican immigrants, knew racial prejudice growing up in Los Angeles in the 1950s.
But the comic, actor and director -- better known as one half of stoners Cheech and Chong -- refused to acknowledge it.
His traveling exhibit of Chicano art, now more than halfway through its U.S. run, is sweet vindication. "Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge" has set attendance records at nearly every city where it's appeared since the exhibit first opened in November 2001 in San Antonio, drawing a mixed-ethnic audience of 1.3 million.
"Visions," the story of Mexican-American culture as portrayed by 26 of its master painters, is a sign of pride and inclusion for Marin, and "one of the most fulfilling things in my life," he said.
The lifelong art collector owns most of the exhibit's works, created from 1969 to the present. A few pieces were loaned by actors Dennis Hopper and Nicholas Cage.
The show, which opened Friday at the Saint Louis Science Center, takes its name from a once-pejorative moniker.
The word, "'Chicano,' started as an insult by Mexican-Americans," Marin said. "You were no longer a Mexicano, but a chico, a satellite Mexican living here, but it evolved into a sense of pride."
The Chicano art movement, rooted in Texas and California, captures the Mexican-American's mostly urban experience here, but not entirely.
"The Cottonpickers" is realist painter Jesse Trevino's remembrance of a boy and his grandfather picking cotton in a Texas field. Trevino painted it with his left hand, his right hand blown off in Vietnam. The painting was commissioned in 1985 by the boy in the painting, Juan F. Vasquez, who is now a federal judge of the U.S. Tax Court in Washington, D.C.
Late political artist Carlos Almaraz used to work for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, whose struggle spilled into the urban marketplace of boycotted grapes and table wines. His "Boycott Gallo" mural was a community landmark in the heavily Hispanic East Los Angeles neighborhood.
During its national tour, the show has appeared in San Antonio; Washington; Albuquerque, N.M.; El Paso, Texas; Indianapolis; San Diego; Minneapolis, Minn.; Chicago and Houston.
Curator Rene Yanez said that audiences have reacted with both intrigue and curiosity at images and styles they're not accustomed to seeing. Chicano art, snubbed as folkloric and fringe, is only now finding a welcome in mainstream museums.
Muralist Wayne Alaniz Healy's "Pre-game Warm-up" is a nostalgic, almost-Norman Rockwell depiction of East Los Angeles street scenes "before the drive-by shootings there," Marin said. John Valadez's "Car Show" acrylic celebrates the social interaction of teenagers in hot-pink hotpants, high heels and jeans.
Cesar Martinez's "The man who loves women," is the artist's Chicano everyman whose body tattoos give equal billing to a prostitute, a maiden, and Our Lady of Guadalupe. Frank Romero's "The arrest of the paleteros," is a critical look at the arrest of Mexican-American street vendors in LA's Echo Park, while its drug dealers and criminals operate freely.
Carmen Lomas Garza explores her West Texas roots in "Quinceanera," a coming-of-age party for a 15-year-old girl, and "One Summer Afternoon," where even a girl's courtship through a bedroom window is monitored by the family matriarch. In "Tirando rollo, te amo," or "Shooting the breeze, I love you," Texas artist Gaspar Enriquez recalls the elaborate arm gestures that women used to communicate from street level to their incarcerated lovers peering out from the El Paso-Juarez jail.
The exhibit is accompanied by "Chicano Now: American Expressions" where performance and media artists explore family, work, music and other big Mexican-American themes in a 5,000-square-foot interactive multimedia exhibition.
The topics are light and heavy, "part Chuck E. Cheese and doctoral thesis," Marin said, and include a journey in a low-rider, a night at a Texas dance hall, a look at south Texas Conjunto artist Flaco Jimenez' accordion and a widow's recollections of family ancestors whose spirits she enshrined in an artifact-adorned home altar.
After the show closes in St. Louis May 14, it show will travel to San Francisco; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and Los Angeles, before moving to Japan, Spain and other countries still being negotiated.