These September Tuesdays, the vault has paid respect to celebrities lost to us this year. To close our In Memorium series I have chosen to honor an actress who has most definitely been seen by anyone who’s ever turned on a television or watched a film. One of my favorite That Ladies, Lupe Ontiveros, who passed away just two months ago.
Rudy (Cheech Marin) is a mechanic born and raised in East Los Angeles. Rudy still lives with his mom (Lupe Ontiveros) who, as she leaves for Fresno, asks him to pick up his cousin Javier (Paul Rodriguez) from the factory. Simple enough until La Migra, that’s the INS, a.k.a. the United States Immigration and Naturalization Services, raid the factory and toss Rudy into the truck along with the factory’s undocumented workers. Having left his wallet at home, Rudy’s dumped in Tijuana where his American attitude and poor Spanish language only get him into more trouble. That is until he meets Jimmy (Daniel Stern), an American expatriate hustler who can get him back across the border, but only once Rudy works off Jimmy’s fee.
I chose Born in East L.A. to commemorate Lupe Ontiveros, but had forgotten she has only one brief scene near the beginning and then she’s just a voice on an answering machine in one other scene. A simple role, but she’s not alone in her bit part. The recognizable faces of Jan-Michael Vincent, Noble Willingham, and Tony Plana also appear all too briefly. Each serves the sole purpose of furthering the plight of our central character Rudy.
Rudy’s deportation relies on the thinnest of premises; the absence of his wallet and the prejudices of “The Man.” Written and directed by Marin, he picks only superficially at racism, homosexuality, and the devout just as he picks on Rudy’s own background as a born-and-bred East Los Angeleno. Marin instead crafts Born in East L.A. as an affable and silly series of situations saddled with a romantic subplot involving the lovely Kamala Lopez as an El Salvadoran waitress named Dolores. Sadly, the romance is as underwritten as the social commentary.
Despite its weaker elements, Marin is extremely entertaining as Rudy. Watching him repeatedly fail to cross the border or yuck it up while doing the latest odd job from Jimmy is entertaining. Though it’s been twenty-odd years ago since I’d seen Born in East L.A., Rudy’s two brief run-ins with Plana’s Feo and his tutelage of the ‘Waas Sappening’ boys are so memorable that I still find myself quoting them. The soundtrack also features Marin singing a parody of Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., a song which was apparently the inspiration for Rudy’s cinematic adventure.
So what if this fish-out-of-water tale isn’t up to the richness of a Shakespearean play or even as hilarious as Carlin’s scathing social commentary? Marin’s Born in East L.A. is surprisingly great for easy laughs when that’s all you’re looking for.