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Walking the halls of the recently opened Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture in California, Gaspar Enriquez felt right at home.
“It’s beautiful,” said Enriquez, one of two El Paso artists whose work is on display at the center, also known as “The Cheech” after the legendary comedian, actor and art collector.
“It was great to be among artists who have shared experiences but have very different stories to tell,” he said about attending the center’s grand opening on June 18.
Enriquez’s paintings, “Tirando Rollo (I Love You)” and “Charolito,” and a painting titled “Toca el Pito” by Jari “Werc” Alvarez, are included in the “Cheech Collects” exhibition at the center’s permanent galleries. The galleries feature nearly 100 works from Marin’s collection.
“It’s important for representation of our culture, of our people,” said Alvarez, who was born in Juárez and raised in El Paso. He now lives in Brooklyn, New York. “I’m honored to be part of a large family of artists who speak the language and create this beautiful art.”
Ben Fyffe, the city of El Paso’s managing director of cultural affairs and recreation, said he’s always proud to see artists from El Paso featured in the national spotlight.
“Gaspar and Werc are two incredible examples of the incredible talent and perspectives that are nurtured by the complex relationships of El Paso, Ciudad Juárez and the border,” he said. “They, along with so many other El Paso artists, are in collections around the world, but it never fails to excite me when local talent is given such a spotlight on a national platform like Cheech Marin’s new museum.”
The Cheech, a 61,420-square-foot cultural center at the Riverside Art Museum in California, houses 500 paintings, sculptures, photos and video pieces.
An art collector for more than 40 years, Marin – whose movie and TV credits include “Up in Smoke,” “Born in East L.A.” and “Nash Bridges” – gifted most of his collection to the center.
The first temporary collection at The Cheech is “Collidoscope: de la Torre Retro-Perspective,” developed in partnership with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Latino. It encompasses almost three decades of work by brothers Einar and Jamex de la Torre, the popular duo whose pieces mix media with blown-glass sculptures and installation art.
Another borderland artist, Sonya Fe of Las Cruces, also has works in Marin’s collection but aren’t currently on display. She recently had a solo exhibition at the Riverside Art Museum.
“In El Paso, with our museums flush with art and artifacts that celebrate the Chicano experience, and a new Mexican American Cultural Center under construction, we sometimes take for granted that this art still is not as avidly collected and displayed as we do here,” Fyffe said.
Art imitating life
Exploding into popular culture during the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 70s, Chicano art often depicts struggle, protest and identity of Mexican Americans and advocates for social and political empowerment.
That’s exactly what Enriquez and Alvarez say they strive to depict in their art – that and the lighter side of things.
His piece, “Toca el Pito,” plays off a double entendre that could be “something naughty or something innocent,” Alvarez said, adding that Spanish language “is alive and it’s masterful.”
“I’ve always been fascinated by the Spanish language, especially how it’s used in the border,” said Alvarez, who started as a graffiti artist. He soon developed into a much sought-after muralist whose work is now displayed on walls across the country – including a 90-by-10-foot mural at the entry of the Stanton Street international bridge in South El Paso titled “El Paso Port-All.”
“The border has always been an in-between space – between borders, cultures and language,” he said.
Alvarez said that while being in The Cheech helps elevate his work and worth, the most important aspect of the center is that it puts the spotlight on Chicano art, history and culture.
“It’s very important for us to be out there, to be seen, to be part of the conversation, to be part of the face of the U.S.,” he said. “But I always carry El Paso and Juárez with me wherever I go. I represent the border and my work represents the border.”
Long representing the border has been Enriquez, whose work depicting people from the Segundo Barrio – including students from his more than 30 years as the art teacher at Bowie High School – has been featured in prestigious museums across the country.
“I saw myself in them and I hope others who share the culture, the language and the experiences of Chicanos, of Mexican Americans, see themselves in my work,” said Enriquez, who was named the Segundo Barrio Person of the Year in 2016.
Enriquez also has four pieces in the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.: portraits of former UTEP President Diana Natalicio, renowned El Paso artist and sculptor Luis Jimenez, acclaimed Los Angeles artist Luis Valadez and “Bless Me Ultima” author and poet Rudolfo Anaya.
Enriquez, who still dabbles in art from his studio in San Elizario, said he hopes The Cheech attracts visitors of all backgrounds and from across the nation.
“It’s a museum of Chicano art but the whole country should see it no matter their background,” Enriquez said. “I came back inspired, ready to do more work.”