Friday, September 14, 2012

Cheech Marin: Born in East L.A.

Hey, it's the 25th anniversary of Cheech Marin's Born in East L.A., a comedy set on both sides of the Mexican-U.S. border. The issues and conflicts fueling its plot and filling out its set pieces remain with us, but certain realities have changed in the meantime, too.

The basics. Mistaken identity due to lack of picture ID causes US-born (chicano) Rudy Robles to be detained in an American customs factory sweep of illegal immigrants in California, whereupon he is shipped to the border along with a busload of detainees, processed and forced into Mexico, quickly having to scrape by in Tijuana. Because he's forgotten his wallet and has no money or driver's license on his person, he must figure out how to get back home despite various obstacles. It doesn't help that he speaks little Spanish. Meanwhile, his cousin Javier (Paul Rodriguez) has arrived in East L.A., speaking little English -- they missed meeting up because of the factory raid.

Overall, Born in East L.A. a fun movie with serious underlying themes. The borderland is depicted as a wild, tumbledown place, with cash and barter a large part of the underground economy. In Tijuana, Rudy develops a working friendship with shady American entrepreneur Jimmy (Daniel Strern) and a more personal one with Salvadoran-born Dolores (played by Kamala Lopez), who's working three jobs and trying to save enough money to move to the US. There's plenty of comic relief peppered throughout the ragged storyline, including cousin Javier's misunderstandings due to language and cultural barriers, and a wall phone temporarily covered by a psychedelic portrait of Jesus at his aunt's house (and from which much Catholic humor ensues). 

From the perspective of twenty-five years later, a few major social changes between then and now jump out. First is a shift in perceptions about gender roles and sexual orientation. Second is a major shift in communications technology: mobile phones and internet use, wireless devices in general. Many of the comic mix-ups in Born in East L.A. revolve around coin-operated payphones and "collect" cross-border calls. Third is a substantial shift toward greater Latino/Latina political clout, as evidenced in both major U.S. political party conventions in 2012. Let's not forget two other related developments: the expansion of Latin American communities throughout much of the United States far beyond the southern international border states and specific urban areas, and the increase in "show me your papers" ID laws from Arizona to Alabama. Indeed, for all these reasons and more, watching Born in East LA nowadays is a particularly relevant and rewarding experience.

Today's Rune: Signals.              


WAS said...

Nice review of a movie I remember but never had the stomach to see. It's funny but just yesterday I was sharing Tijuana stories with a friend and I mentioned those ubiquitous TELNAR pay-phones on every block that look like something from the Soviet Union circa 1955. When I was there no one used them, although everyone from rico to mendigo had the proverbial cell phone surgically attached to their heads. I guess no one wanted to make a phone call to the past.

Charles Gramlich said...

25 years? My god. I saw it when it was released. Geeze.

Erik Donald France said...

Thanks, dudes ~ TELNAR . . . ha! There are still a handful of payphones in and around the TexMex borderlands also, similarly unused.

Now a phone call to the past would be useful if we could get interviews and truth tales. I'd like to place some of those calls myself.

jodi said...

Erik, Has it really been that long? O.K. Nothing like C n C to mark the passage of time! My brother can do a perfect imation of those two!