St. Louis Cheech Marin, the grandson of Mexican immigrants, knew racial prejudice growing up in Los Angeles in the 1950s.
But the comic, actor and director - better known as one half of stoners Cheech and Chong - refused to acknowledge it.
His traveling exhibit of Chicano art, now more than halfway through its U.S. run, is sweet vindication. "Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge" has set attendance records at nearly every city where it's appeared since the exhibit first opened in November 2001 in San Antonio, drawing a mixed-ethnic audience of 1.3 million.
"Visions," the story of Mexican-American culture as portrayed by 26 of its master painters, is a sign of pride and inclusion for Marin, and "one of the most fulfilling things in my life," he said.
The lifelong art collector owns most of the exhibit's works, created from 1969 to the present. A few pieces were loaned by actors Dennis Hopper and Nicholas Cage.
The show, which opened Friday at the Saint Louis Science Center, takes its name from a once-pejorative moniker.
The word, "'Chicano,' started as an insult by Mexican-Americans," Marin said. "You were no longer a Mexicano, but a chico, a satellite Mexican living here, but it evolved into a sense of pride."
The Chicano art movement, rooted in Texas and California, captures the Mexican-American's mostly urban experience here, but not entirely.
Late political artist Carlos Almaraz used to work for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, whose struggle spilled into the urban marketplace of boycotted grapes and table wines. His "Boycott Gallo" mural was a community landmark in the heavily Hispanic East Los Angeles neighborhood.
During its national tour, the show has appeared in San Antonio; Washington; Albuquerque, N.M.; El Paso, Texas; Indianapolis; San Diego; Minneapolis; Chicago; and Houston.
Curator Rene Yanez said that audiences have reacted with both intrigue and curiosity at images and styles they're not accustomed to seeing. Chicano art, snubbed as folkloric and fringe, is only now finding a welcome in mainstream museums.
Muralist Wayne Alaniz Healy's "Pre-game Warm-up" is a nostalgic, almost-Norman Rockwell depiction of East Los Angeles street scenes "before the drive-by shootings there," Marin said.
Cesar Martinez's "The man who loves women," is the artist's Chicano everyman whose tattoos give equal billing to a prostitute, a maiden and Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Carmen Lomas Garza explores her West Texas roots in "Quinceanera," a coming-of-age party for a 15-year-old girl, and "One Summer Afternoon," where even a girl's courtship through a bedroom window is monitored by the family matriarch. In "Tirando rollo, te amo," or "Shooting the breeze, I love you," Texas artist Gaspar Enriquez recalls the elaborate arm gestures that women used to communicate from street level to their incarcerated lovers peering out from the El Paso-Juarez jail.
The exhibit is accompanied by "Chicano Now: American Expressions" where performance and media artists explore family, work, music and other big Mexican-American themes in a 5,000-square-foot interactive multimedia exhibition.
After the show closes in St. Louis on May 14, it will travel to San Francisco; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and Los Angeles before moving to Japan, Spain and other countries that are still being negotiated.