Why Cheech Marin’s ‘Born in East LA’ Is Still Painfully Relevant 30 Years Later

In 1987, Cheech Marin (of Cheech and Chong fame) wrote, directed, and starred in Born in East LA. The feature film extended the Bruce Springsteen spoof song of the same name from the duo’s 1985 album Get Out of My Room. It also marked Cheech’s first solo project after his and Chong’s public parting of ways. In the film he plays Rudy Robles, a third-generation Mexican-American who finds himself stranded across the Mexican border, unable to prove he’s an American citizen having left his wallet at home. In a contemporary climate that has seen the immigration debate reach Trump-like levels of hatemongering, this cult classic remains a timely document of what it means to live in the United States as a Mexican-American.

The film’s resonance was put quite simply by Tony Plana, who has a small role as a Tijuana preacher: “It made people laugh and also think.”

Upon its release, the film was met with mixed reviews. The New York Times called it “amiable and plodding,” chiding Marin for his cautiousness, while the Los Angeles Times called it “an across-the-board winner.” The West Coast newspaper proved a more correct assessment. A low-budget film, Born in East LA ended up grossing close to $18 million dollars. More importantly, perhaps, it has since become a must-watch classic for Latinos. Indeed, as early as September 1987, a mere month after it came out, the Los Angeles Times asserted that the film “struck a familiar chord of empathy with both East Los Angeles natives and foreign nationals interviewed” with many of those interviewed admitting to having already watched the film multiple times.

The film’s resonance was put quite simply by Ugly Betty’s Tony Plana, who has a small role as a swindling Tijuana preacher: “It made people laugh and also think. You can’t meet one Latino who doesn’t have a copy of Born in East LA.” The film’s ability to skewer both American and Mexican characters best exemplifies the way it is a film made quite literally at and about the border. It treats money-hungry coyotes with the same loony sense of humor as the undocumented factory workers who get deported alongside Rudy.

In fact, the only characters who are scornfully treated by both Rudy and the script are the L.A. cops who raid the toy factory where Rudy is trying to find his cousin (played by Paul Rodriguez) and the border officer who has no time for “Rudy Roo or Loopty Loo, or whatever your name is!” They are the most extreme cases of the various characters who refuse to understand that despite his look, Rudy was born (as the title tells us) in East Los Angeles.

At the end of its long opening sequence, which has Rudy following a beautiful redhead around Los Angeles in his bright pink convertible VW, Marin offers the film’s theme in its first of many iconic images. The woman, who has been ogled by the camera, Rudy, and passersby alike, finally walks directly towards us, framed by a mural that features the American flag on one side and the Mexican flag on the other. Visually, the film begins with the notion of being in-between.

As Cheech put it discussing the film’s 25th anniversary: “We haven’t come up with a solution. We’re dealing with contradiction and hypocrisy.”

Rudy, who knows little to no Spanish (he’s referred to as a “pocho pendejo” by a fellow deportee) and rocks out to James Brown (while daydreaming of a “La Bamba” mashup), is a child of both cultures, yet equally a foreigner in each. The plot itself has him learn about life in Tijuana as much as he teaches several OTMs (“Other Than Mexicans” in border patrol lingo) Chicano slang to blend in once they cross the border. The constant questions about where he’s from, which have Rudy echo the title over and over again, are all too familiar to second- and third-generation Latinos.

By crafting an entire film around the fact that Cheech’s physical features make him unable to pass as an American citizen, Born in East LA criticizes the hidden assumptions behind such discourses, which were easily satirized in 1987 and have become political rallying points in 2015. Indeed, the most iconic moment in the film, where Rudy leads a large group of Mexicans to flood the border as a hilarious comedic set-piece, embodies the very fears about south of the border immigration right-wing commentators have stoked for years.

As Cheech put it discussing the film when it celebrated its 25th anniversary: “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.” Close to 30 years later, his vision of the border and Rudy’s plight remains as timely as ever.

Born in East LA opened in more than 1,000 theaters on August 21, 1987.