An interview with Gustavo Arellano
One morning, a couple months ago, one of the Alibi's owners handed me some samples of a column called “¡Ask a Mexican!” From what I remember, the first sample was an analysis of Mexican attitudes toward group sex. Another was a primer on Mexican cussing. A third was about why newly arrived Mexicans enjoy American public restrooms so much. My boss wanted to know if I thought the column would be appropriate for the Alibi. My initial reaction: “Are you out of your pinche mind?”
The author was a journalist named Gustavo Arellano, a food editor at the OC Weekly, Orange County's equivalent of the Alibi. Since late 2004, “¡Ask a Mexican!” had answered a couple idiotic questions from readers each week about the subtleties of Mexican culture. The OC Weekly was now offering it up for syndication.
Arellano is hilarious, and his columns are smart, well-researched and subversive. That said, I couldn't help but think that if we ran his column in our paper, an angry mob would storm our offices and lynch us. “¡Ask a Mexican!” might be fine for Southern California, but we all know our little Burque has a conservative streak. Arellano's brand of humor would most likely make a lot of readers very, very angry.
Then again, hey, I'm a pushover, so I eventually got talked into running it. We are an alternative weekly, after all, and, after my initial horror subsided, I did a little more research and soon realized that beneath Arellano's offensive stereotypes and penchant for vulgarity, the column's heart was in the right place.
These are thorny times. The current immigration debate in this country is volatile, to say the least. Most of us understand that we can't all just hold hands, sing a few hymns of brotherhood and pretend everything's hunky-dory. Everything isn't hunky-dory. We've become a polarized nation. Yet the cross-cultural dialog over this polarization has become so watered down with political correctness and hypersensitivity that no one on the national scene seems either able or willing to penetrate to the black, rotten core of the matter.
One of the qualities I admire most about “¡Ask a Mexican!” is that Arellano doesn't skate across the sugary surface of the conflict. He doesn't pretend we're a nation of good-natured, bleeding heart liberals. From day one, his column has embraced the full, terrifying scope of the immigration debate, ramming into it head-on, sometimes with what seems like reckless abandon. Yet there is always a definite method to Arellano's madness.
The Alibi recently talked by phone with our new columnist. During our interview, Arellano spoke articulately about the intent behind “¡Ask a Mexican!,” the reaction it's sparked across the country and why we desperately need this profane platform to explain Mexican culture to the ignorant American masses. Here are some excerpts.
We've received plenty of positive responses to your column, but we've also had lots of angry calls and e-mails from people—both Latinos and Anglos—saying you're promoting hate speech and negative racial stereotypes. I'm sure you've heard this sort of thing before, right? How do you respond to that?
I would tell readers to give me a chance and after a couple readings of my columns they will understand what I'm trying to do. A lot of times I've had reactions, even from people in New Mexico, who have e-mailed me saying they can't believe that I'm promoting racism and all these things. I tell them, “I respect your opinion but just read the column a little more and then you will see what I am trying to do.” Then they read a couple of them and respond by saying, "Wow, thank you so much, now I get the column, and I think it's so great. Keep up the good work."
I've noticed that reaction myself. Your intentions become clearer when you get a little context.
Exactly. You can take anything out of context, but what we try to do right from the start is just slam people and challenge everything they believe about Mexicans. So that's why we run that logo. Of course it's a racist logo. But it's also the Mexican that has been perpetuated by American culture for the past 150 years. This isn't something I just made up.
Ultimately, I like to confound people. I like to challenge people on every level, with every word I use. So another complaint I receive about the column is that readers would like the column if it weren't so vulgar, if I didn't use so much cursing, if I didn't answer questions like "Is there any good Mexican porn?" or "Is it true that Mexican girls will keep their virginity but they'll take it up the ass?" My response to that is, “This is what people are asking me. I'm not making up these questions. People are asking me these questions, and I'm going to answer every question, and every question is ultimately going to be an indictment of the society that produced those questions, which is namely American society.”
How did you come up with the idea for the column?
Throughout all of 2004, we used to run a column called "Burning Bush," where we would get the conservative critics of George Bush and run their commentary in our paper. We knew that with the November 2004 election the column would end whether Bush won or Kerry won. So we needed to fill up the news hole for a week.
So one day my boss came driving through the city where we work, in SanTana [In one “¡Ask a Mexican!” column, Arellano instructs readers that “SanTana” is the correct pronunciation of “Santa Ana”], which is statistically the most Latino city in the United States—about 85 percent of the population is Latino. So he's driving down the street and sees this billboard of a Mexican radio DJ who is wearing a Viking helmet and his eyes are crossed. It's the stupidest billboard, but he comes back to the office and describes the billboard to me, and he tells me: “That man looks as if you could ask him a question about Mexicans, and he would be able to answer anything. So why don't you start a column called '¡Ask a Mexican!'?” I thought to myself, “That's a weird idea, but sure, let's do it.”
So I made up the question, "Dear Mexican, why do Mexicans call white people gringos?" And my response was "Dear Gabacho, Mexicans don't call gringos gringos, only gringos call gringos gringos. Mexicans call gringos gabachos.” So we ran the column. We ran the image. We figured it was a one-time-only joke. We knew we were going to get a reaction, but we were only planning to run it that one time.
So the reaction was, I'm sure, similar to what you guys are getting. The reaction roughly fell half-and-half. Half the people loved it and half the people hated it. And it fell also half-and-half along ethnic lines. Half of white people didn't like it, and half of white loved it. Half the Latinos didn't. What we didn't expect, though, were questions. People immediately started sending in questions about Mexicans. They kept sending them and sending them.
Once we realized we were getting a lot of questions, we figured we'd hit some nerves and that we needed to continue this. So we started answering those questions. Then one week we didn't run the column just because of space restraints and we started getting even more comments, "Hey, where is the Mexican? Why aren't you running the Mexican anymore?" Except for special issues, we have run it every week since.
Why do you think your column has hit so many nerves?
One of the things people forget is that the ethnic column has always been a mainstay of the American press. ... I really view “¡Ask a Mexican!” as continuing that tradition. Of course, it's taking it to the extreme position.
The reason we ran it in Orange County is because Orange County has a long history of anti-immigrant policies. Throughout the country, Mexicans are the one ethnic group that Americans have always refused to assimilate. We always talk about immigrants coming to this country and being immigrants but then becoming Americans, like Irish, Italians, Poles, all those groups. Mexicans preceded all of those ethnic groups, but people will always view Mexicans as Mexicans.
The word “Mexican” to Americans is really a dirty word. Mexicans are still viewed as an alien race, and so part of that column is really a joke. But that's what the United States wants to read. They want to read about Mexicans. They want somebody to explain to them what Mexicans are. That's such a ridiculous concept that, of course, I'm going to take it on, but I'm also going mess with it and screw with people's minds as much as possible. There is a lot of racism out there and stereotyping continues. As a child of Mexican immigrants, I'm not going to stand idly by and let people perpetuate those stereotypes. I'm going to go after them with everything I have.
Can you tell me about your parents?
Both my parents come from the central Mexican state of Zacatecas. My mom is is a legal immigrant. She came from Zacatecas, but she has a connection to Orange County that spans back four generations. My great grandpa started picking oranges here in Orange County in the early 1900s. When it was time for him to get a bride, he goes down to Mexico, has babies, and then brings up my grandpa so he could work in the orange fields. So my grandpa grows up here. When it is time for him to get a wife, he goes down to Mexico, gets his wife, and eventually takes his entire family up here. My mom, she came here to this country when she was 9 years old, but she already had ties to Orange County that went back at least 60 years. That's my mom's side.
My dad was an illegal immigrant. He came to this country in 1968 in the trunk of a Chevy along with three other men. They crossed the Tijuana-San Diego border, and they went all the way to East Los Angeles and he remained in that trunk. The funny thing about my dad, though, he ended up becoming a citizen, and he's a truck driver now, and now even he is opposed to illegal immigrants. What I always tell people is that my dad was an illegal immigrant, and now he hates illegal immigrants; if that's not assimilation, I don't what is.
What do your parents think of the column? Do they read it?
They do. They're still mostly Spanish speakers. They've been in this country now about 35 years, and they do know English, but obviously their first language is Spanish. They love the column. My dad just loves all the attention it's getting. My mom has issues with the vulgarity I use, but more importantly she says, "You'd better be careful with that column you're writing, because everything you’re writing is true, and people don't like to hear the truth.”
So they are both pretty accepting?
They're very accepting. One of the things about Mexican culture is it's a great humorous culture. There are so many puns. There are so many dirty jokes. It is a very bawdy culture. A lot of the Mexicans that I have talked to—and I am not talking about people who have assimilated here, I mean the Mexican immigrants themselves—they love the column, because they get those jokes and, more importantly, they don't mind being criticized. They don't mind getting smacked in the face with stereotypes, or at least a discussion of stereotypes. A lot of the people who ultimately take issue with it are people I like to call P.C. pendejos. People who think, "Oh, poor Mexicans."
One time somebody said, "Don't you think you are making a name for yourself at the expense of your race?" And I said: "Give me a break. My race, if I do have a race, crossed deserts risking life and limb to make it in this country with next to nothing, and you are going to tell me that a little column is going to ruin them. Give me a break. Now you are treating them like children.” People are so sensitive about these issues, they'd rather not talk about it. I think that's even more dangerous than writing the column.
These are touchy times. That's what makes the column so interesting, I think. Do you have a sense of your readership? What kind of person is attracted to your column?
The assumption is that because we are in Orange County that only white racists read it, or wealthier white people, but that's not the case. The demographics of the OC Weekly show it to be roughly the demographics of Orange County, which is a third Latino, 50 percent white, and the rest Asian or African-American. So by the demographics of the paper, it's a diverse readership. In terms of the questions I receive, sometimes I can tell the ethnicity based on the last name or the name that they put, sometimes I can't. But I would say that the people who ask me the questions are roughly a 50-50 split between Latinos and everyone else. More importantly, though, when I am out there in the community, when I am out there talking to people, people will come up to me and say, "'¡Ask a Mexican!' that's my favorite column,” and almost always it's people like myself, young Latinos.
You sometimes refer to yourself as The Mexican, right? Obviously there's a lot of irony involved with that, but do you ever ask yourself what kind of credentials you have to write this column? Of course, your parents are Mexican, but what gives you the right to consider yourself The Mexican?
“The Mexican,” of course, that's just playing it up to the hilt. Sometimes I tell people I am the world's primary authority on Mexicans ... but, of course, I'm not. Anybody could write this column. I mean, anybody could try to write this column. But to make it succeed, you need the academic background to do the research, you need to have a wicked sense of humor and, more importantly, you need to have skin like steel. Not only that, you are supposed to have a good familiarity with Mexican culture. I think the reason why the column has been so popular is that I have all those attributes, and I am able to do it week in and week out.
One of the most appealing aspects is that it's actually a very informative column. That's why I eventually agreed to run it, even though it freaked me out a little bit.
(Laughs) There are two things that assist me in research for the column. No. 1, by trade, I'm an investigative reporter, so I know exactly the people to call. I know how to do a story. I also have a Masters degree in Latin American Studies from UCLA with an emphasis in history, sociology and anthropology. So I also have the academic background to do that research.
It's been picked up by the Alibi. I would hope other papers will start picking it up, although obviously a traditional daily isn't going to be running it anytime soon. What do you think the reaction to your column will be outside of Southern California? Do you think the reaction will be significantly different in different areas of the country?
No, I think wherever the column runs, you are going to get the same reaction that happened in Orange County, that's happening in Albuquerque. Initial shock and puzzlement—some people are going to love it, some people are going to hate it. So they'll do their letters to the editor or calls, but then once the column starts coming out regularly, it's going to become a must read.
Especially during these times, which are so contentious and fraught with animosity, when you have a column that's addressing these issues, not in a namby-pamby way but as blisteringly as possible, people want to read that. It makes no qualms about it. The column attacks everybody. Sure, I'll go after white racism, but I'll also go after Mexican racism with the same knife.