Inside HBO's 'The Latin Explosion' | Asbury Park Press

Inside HBO's 'The Latin Explosion' | Asbury Park Press

Alex Biese | Nov 13, 2015

The documentary "The Latin Explosion: A New America," premiering Monday on HBO, celebrates the last several generations of Latino artists and entertainers and the undeniable impact they've had on American culture. When he found out that
he was going to be one of the performers featured in the film, Cheech Marin had a very specific reaction.

"I thought, 'Well, it's about time you guys woke up,'" the iconic comedian recalled with a laugh.

Marin, who found himself in the global spotlight as half of the '70s stoner comedy duo Cheech and Chong and later cultivated a career as an actor, director, comedian, author and Chicano art collector, is the Mexican-American, California native son of a police officer. Music industry legend Tommy Mottola, executive producer and creator of "The Latin Explosion," said Marin "is definitely part of the fabric of the whole culture, an important part."

"In the early days of Latinos having a hard time breaking through, those two guys (Marin and partner Tommy Chong) broke through," Mottola explained, "because they touched the core of things Americans could relate to … and really scored huge with that, which I thought was brilliant. It was genius.”

"The Latin Explosion" briskly covers more than 70 years of Latino influence on mainstream popular culture, with an early high-water mark being musician/actor Desi Arnaz and his work with wife Lucille Ball on the landmark television series "I Love Lucy."

“There are a bunch of landmarks through the United States (history), especially concerning Latino culture and Latinos in general, that were so enormous that they became invisible," Marin said. "It’s like the elephant in the room, you know? An invisible elephant.

"Look at Fritos. Fritos are the most American chip or snack that you can have, but they’re Spanish. And Desi Arnaz, Jose Ferrer, the list keeps going. The Cisco Kid — there was no more famous cowboy during the days they were making serials than the Cisco Kid.”

Mottola, who grew up in an Italian American family in New York City, recalled that Arnaz "was the centerpiece of our television every day, as well as 90 percent of the televisions in the United States at that time. But for me, growing up in the Bronx, it was as simple as going from one block, where I grew up, to the next block, where I would hear coming out of the windows Latin music because it was a mixed neighborhood. If I walked maybe five blocks more up towards another area called the Grand Concourse, it was a big street, on a Friday night, sometimes you could even see Tito Puente playing music out there in a street fair."

The film surveys the careers of artists such as Carlos Santana, Rita Moreno, Shakira and Pitbull, illuminating how over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, Latino arts and artists have come to help shape and define American society and culture at large.

But, while the film celebrates these entertainers and their accomplishments, it doesn't shy away from the racism and prejudice faced by acts like Jose Feliciano and Gloria Estefan.

“There’s always been prejudice in this country, from when Irish immigrants came and when my grandparents came from Italy and back in the days of slavery," Mottola said. "And now things have evolved, but we still have tremendous issues. And I think right now, this (is a) culture that generally Americans look at as the people who are working for you in the restaurants or doing all the landscaping or doing all the odd jobs that others would do, whether it’s all the hard construction work. (They are) the workforce of America.”

And yet, there are still some candidates and politicians who have decided to cultivate fear of and prejudice against Latinos in the current presidential campaign.

“Those politicians and their complaints are like the cries of the dinosaurs in the tar pits," Marin said. "They don’t want to be extinct! … It’s not that the picture of the reality on the ground is changing, it’s always been thus. What is changing is the realization and the acceptance, not only among the perceived mainstream but the real mainstream of Latinos who are starting to accept that, ‘Oh yeah, we are mainstream.’ They’re getting over that identity.They are not ‘other,’ they are the mainstream. It doesn’t happen overnight.”

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