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Remembering “Born In East LA” On Its 30th Anniversary

The immigration debate is nothing new. For decades politicians and activists have been fighting over what to do about the rising tide of illegal immigration. In the eighties, police in the Southwest started cracking down on businesses that employed illegal immigrants and deporting them back to their country of origin. It took an artist with a reputation for making movies about smoking weed to be the first to address the issue in film. That man is Cheech Marin and the film is 1987’s “Born in East LA” which turns 30 this week.

“Born in East LA” began as a song on Cheech and Chong’s last album “Get Out of My Room”. They made a music video that got some airplay on MTV. When Cheech and Chong got a pothead divorce, Cheech decided to expand the song into a feature. He stars as Rudy, who was born in Los Angeles but is mistaken for an illegal alien and deported. He was going to pick up his cousin Javier, played by Paul Rodriguez, in a factory that is busted by La Migra. Rudy finds himself in Tijuana with no wallet, no money, and no way to get in touch with his family who is in Fresno on vacation. He tries to call Javier who is confused by the answering machine being under a holographic picture of Jesus, which he thinks is talking to him. Rudy has to do odd jobs in order to raise the money to pay a coyote to sneak him across the border. Most memorably, he is employed to teach some Chinese dudes how to act like cholos. In the meantime he falls in love and has run-ins with some unscrupulous coyotes, (imagine that!). At the end of the movie, he leads thousands of illegals over the border to the tune of Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America”.

The film showed that Cheech could exist without Chong. “Born in East LA” broke him out of the lowrider character he had played for so long. He later worked on “Nash Bridges”, “Tin Cup”, and pretty much every Robert Rodriguez film. The film was also one of the first movies to deal with the immigration issue, although in a humorous way. Perhaps he’s right in the way he dealt with intercultural exchange. Maybe if Cheech taught the opponents of immigration how to act like cholos, we could all come to an understanding?

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