The summer of 1987 was a great time for Mexicans in Southern California. Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela delivered his last decent season before wearing out his arm. Three million paisanos enjoyed amnesty gracias to Ronald Reagan. La Bamba burned up the screen, and its soundtrack by East Los Angeles’ Los Lobos offered multiple songs of el verano. And Cheech Marin put Latinos on the big screen with Born in East L.A., a low-budget comedy about a Chicano who mistakenly gets deported to Tijuana that opened strong, grossing more than $17 million at the box office.
Nostalgia for those days helped Born in East L.A. become a cult classic in the years and decades that followed. Every Chicano in Southern California had a VHS copy to relive the laughs. Families switched between watching Vin Scully call Dodgers games on KTTV-TV Channel 11 and reruns of the movie on KTLA-TV Channel 5. And to this day, the faithful recite the film’s iconic lines, from Marin’s laidback “Waas sappening?” to Tony Plana’s seething “Get behind me, Satan!”
Marin wrote, directed and starred in Born in East L.A., his first solo foray away from the dopey Cheech & Chong movies. But the film came out of the legendary duo’s antics; the script expanded on Marin’s hilarious 1985 parody of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” off their Get Out of My Room comedy album. The film still holds strong all these decades later, not only thanks to that timeworn adage of what’s old is new again, but also because it stands as a time capsule of a different, seemingly kinder era of illegal immigration.
Marin played Rudolfo “Rudy” Robles, a third-generation Chicano who struggled with Spanish. His mom (played by the late, great Lupe Ontiveros, in one of her few non-maid roles) tells him to pick up his border-crossing primo (played by Paul Rodriguez) at a downtown toy factory while she’s out of town in Fresno.
Back in those days, la migra went by the name Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The agency raided the factory, found Robles hidden in a giant teddy bear and gave him an on-the-spot citizenship test by asking who the president was. “The guy in the cowboy hat, he used to be on Death Valley Days,” he stumbled, confusing Reagan for John Wayne (even though Reagan in fact hosted the Western serial). Having left his wallet at home, the INS dismissed Robles’ “I was born in East L.A.” pleas and hauled him off to Tijuana.
On the other side, an INS agent ran Robles’ name through the system and found an older man by the same identity without papers, but with an extensive arrest record, including three arrests in Santa Ana. With Robles’ fate sealed, he took odd jobs in Tijuana to scrounge up enough money to pay a coyote for a ride back over the border. He meets Jimmy, a sketchy gabacho hustler, who puts him to work as a doorman for the Dragon Rojo Bar, an orange seller and a teacher of East Los street culture for “OTM” (Other Than Mexican) immigrants hoping to cross.
Marin’s Born in East L.A. served as the comedic counterpoint to the Gregory Nava-directed 1984 drama El Norte, about Guatemalan immigrant refugees (who can ever forget the line “I really like your pants”?). Even though he’s on hard times, Robles gives an orange to a poor, hungry boy, eventually giving his entire cart to the boy’s family and underscoring the poverty that moves people to migrate (they return the favor by using the fruit as weapons when he gets assaulted). When Robles finally earns enough cash to head back, he selflessly gives up his spot in the back of a truck to an older woman who would be separated from her husband. Rather than work more odd jobs, he rounds up an army of immigrants, including Dolores, his new Salvadoran girlfriend, to storm the border by foot to Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America”—a funny, Americana moment of triumph.
This mix of pathos and pendejadas confounded gabacho film critics when the movie debuted. “Rudy’s route home is ludicrous, but then so is much in a film so ambiguous about ethnic stereotypes it might just as well have been made by insensitive Anglos,” wrote Richard Harrington in the Washington Post. Those reviewers missed the burrito for the beans. Alongside Marin’s funny yet heartwarming immigration tale is one that weaves through the assimilation experience. In TJ, Robles can’t find the Spanish word for “napkin,” but he jams “Twist and Shout” with street musicians who hear the chord progression of “La Bamba.” (He then turned them into the hair-metal Rudy and the Nuevo Huevos Rancheros and did a sick cover of “Purple Haze,” but that’s another story.)
Sadly, the film’s big anniversary comes at a time few Latinos will recall with nostalgia. Thirty years later, the real ludicrousness lies in anti-immigrant hysteria run amok, not Born in East L.A.‘s script. A scene of a mad dash at daylight along the California border is an unthinkable punchline after years of fencing and ramped-up border security thanks to President Bill Clinton’s Operation Gatekeeper in 1994. Even the film’s own Paul Rodriguez turned vendido, voting for Mitt Romney, whose immigration plan asked immigrants to “self-deport.”
Four years later, Donald Trump rode his “Mexican immigrants are rapists” trope all the way to the White House and ended the deportation deferments for many youth who crossed after Born in East L.A. debuted. It doesn’t take more than one peek at pro-Trump “Build the Wall” memes to know they share nada with the subtly subversive humor in Marin’s film.
It’s enough to make anyone stop and ask, Waas sappening?
Gabriel San Román is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and the tallest Mexican in OC. He also once stood falsely accused of writing articles on Turkish politics in exchange for free food from DönerG’s!