Cheech Marin talks about “Born in East L.A.,” 25 years later

BorninLAposter

“Born in East LA” movie poster.

The cult classic film, “Born in East L.A.,” written, directed, and starring Cheech Marin, turned 25 this month. The film is considered groundbreaking for its time, as it was one of the firstHollywood films starring a Latino cast, including Paul Rodriguez, Tony Plana, and Lupe Ontiveros. It also brought issues of Latino identity and immigration to the forefront with a sense of humor.

Marin says when he wrote the movie, at 41, little did he know that it would have such an impact on American society. It was a low-budget film, but it grossed nearly $18 million in box office sales. It also triggered the making of a music video — a spoof of Bruce Springsteen’s famous“Born in the USA” — it is now even being incorporated into college curriculums.

I was surprised at the longevity of it, and how it translated into different ethnicities,” says Marin, now 66, about the topic of immigration in the film. “I learned that it’s a very universal experience — it affected a lot of people. [When the movie premiered] was just the beginning for the biggest wave of immigration.”

He says what inspired him to write the film was real life.

“I was sitting at my kitchen table, reading the LA Times — [an American] kid was caught in an immigration raid, and he was mistakenly sent to Mexico, and at the same time, ‘Born in USA’ came on the radio.”

He says the story kind of wrote itself after that.

“I really never knew what ‘Born in the USA’ was about, so I had to go out and get the record,” says the comedian, who was really born a couple of blocks away from East L.A. — in South Central.

He says it was the success of the song which made his movie being picked up by Universal Pictures a little easier.

“It was really interesting with social commentary weaved in — bilingual issues, issues at the border,” says actor Tony Plana. “It made people laugh and also think. You can’t meet one Latino who doesn’t have a copy of ‘Born in East LA.’”

Plana, who played “the thug” role, later renamed “Feo,” says he still gets recognized from playing that character so many years later. He also remembers Marin as a very gracious and collaborative director to work with.

“He was open to ideas, and finding the socially relevant insight into what we were doing, as well as finding the comedy,” says Plana, who has been in a myriad of productions since then, from the movie “Three Amigos” to the TV series “Ugly Betty.”

He says they worked together to make his underdeveloped character relevant in some way.

“We wanted to create the ultimate Tijuana nightmare,” says Plana who played a character who looked like a rat with slicked hair, parted in the middle and gold teeth and dressed in a little bow tie. “At the time, we had a couple of religious scandals going on, such as Jim Baker and Jimmy Swaggart — preachers who sinned publicly. We wanted to satirize them a little bit. We turned Feo into a guy who extorts money in the name of Jesus.”

He says they improvised a lot of the lines they actually used such as, “You don’t have to thank me, you just have to pay me.”

Marin also remembers improvising the scene where he’s standing outside of the bar, during one of his random jobs in Tijuana that he takes to make money to cross the border back to America. He says he just made everything up as normal people walked by.

His all-time favorite scene though was the “wass sappening boys,” where he has to teach non-Mexican immigrants English so they can fit in when they reach Los Angeles.

“When I was writing that scene, I kind of imagined what that alley looked like,” reminisces Marin who filmed in Tijuana for six weeks. “It was exactly as I had pictured in my mind.”

Plana says these humorous scenes really struck a chord in the Latino community and the national community.

“It didn’t give you answers, but it showed the interesting complexity of who we are — specifically Mexican-Americans,” says Plana. “Mexican-Americans tend to lose their connection, and Cheech’s character becomes more aware of what’s going on down there and starts to identify with it.”

He says to him the most powerful scene is at the end, when Cheech starts crossing the border into the U.S. with a plethora of Mexicans.

“It’s almost prophetic in a way,” says Plana. “This is going to continue unless we do something about it.”

Marin agrees that nothing has changed a quarter of a century later.

“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.”

The avid Chicano art collector says he’s considering directing another movie in the future.

“It’s such a tough job directing,” says Marin, who continues to act. “You really have to love the subject matter.”

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“Selena,” the movie, 15 years later

Actress Jennifer Lopez, who plays Selena in the movie “Selena,” performs with her band in one of the scenes from the movie. (RICCO TORRES/AFP/Getty Images)

Actress Jennifer Lopez, who plays Selena in the movie “Selena,” performs with her band in one of the scenes from the movie. (RICCO TORRES/AFP/Getty Images)

Tejana singer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, known to the world as “Selena,” was taken away much too early at the ripe age of 23. As she was nearing the height of her cross-over music career, she was murdered by her fan club president, Yolanda Saldivar.

In 1997, just two years after her death, Gregory Nava wrote and directed the biopic, “Selena,”about the Tejana star’s life. This film tugged at the hearts of all who watched, because it consoled thousands of fans still mourning their idol’s death, and it also created new Selena fans of people who had never known of her before.

“She reached the English audience through the movie,” says Constance Marie, the actress who played Selena’s mom 15 years ago. “It took her mainstream.”

“Selena” will be making its 15th anniversary appearance kickstarting HBO’s New York International Latino Film Festival on August 13. Although it was nominated for a Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition and a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical or Comedy motion picture for Jennifer Lopez, it actually won four ALMA Awards.

The successful film included a Latino-studded cast, including a 28-year-old, Jennifer Lopez, in one of her first feature film roles; Edward James Olmos, who played Selena’s dad; Constance Marie, who played her mom; and Jon Seda, who played Chris Pérez – Selena’s band and soul mate.

Constance Marie still remembers vividly that time in her life when she was cast to play Marcella Quintanilla. The award-winning actress from Los Angeles says she had never even heard of Selena before trying out for the movie, but she was hoping for the lead role.

“I watched videos of her over and over and became a fan while watching them,” says Constance Marie. “Then all of a sudden I had the thought ‘Oh my god, she’s not with us anymore!’ I became a fan and realized she was gone all in a week, and I began to cry.”

When she was told she wasn’t going to play Selena but her mother instead, she says at that point she felt grateful for any opportunity to get Selena’s story out — regardless of the role — the best that she could.

“We all had to sit down and meet the people we were playing,” recalls Constance Marie. “We had to learn how they carried themselves…I needed to connect with and absorb who Marcella Quintanilla was.”

Seda says he practiced with Chris Pérez for many hours and tried his best to mimic him as much as he could.

“It would take years to be able to play as amazing as he can,” says Seda. “Although I respected the fact that he didn’t want to come to the set because it was just to emotional for him, I felt the only way to do him justice and let the world see how great a talent he is was to have him do the solo, and I’m glad he did!”

Constance Marie concurs it was a tough time for everyone. Sometimes, in the middle of interviewing Mrs. Quintanilla, they would both break down and cry.

Constance Marie also had it rough, because her call time was four and a half hours earlier than the rest of the crew. She says being only two years older than Jennifer Lopez, a lot of makeup was needed to look like her mother.

Seda says the recently-late Lupe Ontiveros also had a challenging role — playing the woman who killed Selena and making her one of the most hated women in the world.

“I think she was an unbelievable woman, and I think it was really difficult for her to play that role, because people didn’t deal well with her death,” says Constance Marie. “She was very gracious, and she handled it really well.

There was also controversy about the Puerto Rican Jennifer Lopez being chosen for the role of Selena, rather than a Mexican-American.

“I was really upset about that,” says Constance Marie who worked at a time when Latinos weren’t getting Latino roles. “Everybody should have been so thankful that an actual Latina was actually playing her…”

She says Jennifer Lopez, who often hummed Selena’s “Dreaming of You” on set — bringing the cast to tears –  accomplished a huge undertaking.

“To imitate someone who could sing, but she also had to dance, I don’t think anybody could have done it better — not even myself,” says Constance Marie. “I think Jennifer just picked up the baton that Selena threw out there and kept running with it.”

Until this day, Constance Marie says she has only seen the film once.

“I cannot watch it in its entirety,” says the woman who more than a decade ago embodied the mother of a legend who still lives. “I am a mother, and I can’t even imagine it happening to me.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

Latina Leaders: Optometrist and philanthropist says if you don’t like your job, volunteer

Owner of AshramChic, Veronica Ruelas (center) with business partners – her sister, Jennifer Ruelas-Lauro (left) and Caroline Abramo (right) (Photo/Kristina Puga)

Owner of AshramChic, Veronica Ruelas (center) with business partners – her sister, Jennifer Ruelas-Lauro (left) and Caroline Abramo (right) (Photo/Kristina Puga)

For Veronica Ruelas, it was just a matter of seeing life through a different pair of glasses. She says she didn’t always love her job as an optometrist. It took her having an “Eat, Pray, Love”moment and deciding to study yoga in India, four years ago, which changed her perspective on her life and career.

Today, she is not only an optometrist at ArtSee Eyewear in New York City’s Financial District, she also founded Third Eye Vision – a sustainable clinic where international doctors can come to treat and provide training to the local hospital doctors and staff in an underdeveloped section of India. In order to run this clinic at no cost to patients, she started her own line of ashram clothing and accessories called AshramChic.

“I wasn’t happy with what I was doing for a living so I started googling ashrams,” says the 40-year-old New Yorker. “Before I knew it, I was on my way to an ashram in the Bahamas with a tent — the chicest tent I could find.”

The tall, half Dominican and half Puerto Rican-Mexican doctor, who grew up in a rural part of New York, seems to do everything with a natural sense of style and elegance.

“I wanted to make sure if I was having epiphanies, it’d be in a nice place,” says the fashionably colorful Ruelas.

She says four years ago, her yoga missions became her focus. She lived like a gypsy for about two and a half years, putting her belongings in storage and traveling from ashram to ashram. During this time, she learned the karmic yoga principle of giving back.

“As soon as I started volunteering is when I started falling in love with my career,” says Ruelas. “I had a renewed passion when I wasn’t getting paid for it.”

She says now, when she hears people complaining they don’t like their job, she tells them to start volunteering.

“Life is very fair that way,” she says. “It shows what you put out, you get back. It’s a very balanced equation.”

She says she originally chose the field of optometry as arbitrarily as she was choosing what dress to wear. The only thing she says she was sure of was she wanted to be a professional.

“To know what you want to do, you really have to know yourself,” says Ruelas who just now feels she is fulfilling her destiny.

During the last year and a half, she says she feels like she has finally made a home for herself in New York City.

“I wake up at about 5:30am, and I make hot water with lemon,” says Ruelas about her daily yoga morning ritual. “Then I meditate – sometimes only five minutes…I write in a diary the things I’m grateful for and then set my mantra for the day.”

Mantras such as, “I am fun,” and “I am patient,” is a central point to Ruelas’ life and business. Not only does she pick one for herself every day, she also includes them on the brightly-colored beaded bracelets she makes for Ashram Chic.

Most of the time she says she reminds herself to “Go slow.”

She says this is very important in keeping herself balanced while running her three companies.

“I talk to banking guys about meditation,” says Ruelas about the difference just taking 10 minutes to breathe slowly at your desk can make. “Now I realize when you pause, you get more done. You’re more focused.”

She says we also have so much to learn from our abuelitas.

“Abuelitas are the biggest karmic yogis,” says Ruelas. “They put their dreams aside for us…yoga in its highest form is giving back.”

She says when you start helping others, you don’t think about your problems anymore, and answers come.

“Don’t give up, follow your heart, and volunteer,” recommends Ruelas. “Go back to what you wanted to be when you were little. Do what you enjoy doing and help others do it…Show up, let go, and watch the outcome.”

Uttarkashi 2011 from ThirdEyeVision on Vimeo.

Originally published on NBCLatino.com