Gustavo Arellano discusses his life as ‘The Mexican’
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Sitting on the second floor of the Barnes & Noble in Santa Ana on this warm summer evening, I wait. Earlier today, my sister called to excitedly report that the book version of “¡Ask a Mexican!” was finally on sale. She’d brought over two copies and promised to buy more. “Stop it,” I told her. “Strangers need to buy the book. They need to buy it now.” After a day of interviews and blown deadlines, I entered Barnes & Noble looking for ¡Ask a Mexican! It was near the entrance, on one of many tables advertising new releases, on a small shelf between E=Einstein and some random novel. This wasn’t good enough; I grabbed a copy, propped it on top of the other new releases and fled toward the Sudoku section. From there, I watched.
It was a slow night and most customers sped past my book-signing table on their way to whatever brought them there. A couple of them stopped. Hope? Nope. They flipped through the biography of Lee Iacocca and that damned Einstein book. All of the books but mine.
So I took the escalator upstairs and found my seat next to the humanities section that affords me an eagle’s nest view. Only 15 minutes of spying, I promised myself. That was half an hour ago. I flip through a couple of books to kill time. Judy Chicago is overrated, save for Red Flag. Which Persian emperor was the friend of the Jews—Cyrus, Darius or Xerxes? That guy’s full of it—there must be a better reason why the Brits have such bad teeth besides drinking tea. Under the Banner of Heaven: need to buy that book. I eventually do.
After another half-hour, someone finally reacts to my book. A little girl yells, “Daddy, look!” She points at ¡Ask a Mexican! The father shakes his head and mutters something I can’t quite hear. Their dismissive laughs, however, still ring in my ears. I leave the store shortly thereafter, fearing it’s soon going to end.
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¡Ask a Mexican! is now out as a hardcover in bookstores across America. It’s already received a positive review in Publishers Weekly and even earned a mention in the New York Post’s infamous Page Six gossip bible—and the mighty Simon & Schuster publicity machine has yet to begin the Reconquista. The little column about wabs that ustedes love and loathe is about to go national. It already has earned me more money than I ever hoped of making and earned me free shoes from The Colbert Report—and I couldn’t have done it without my loyal readers.
Honestly, though, “¡Ask a Mexican!” wasn’t supposed to go this far. It was a joke, a one-shot deal, a sociological experiment gone spectacularly wrong.
One day in November 2004, OC Weekly founding editor Will Swaim called me into his office. He had just driven up Main Street in Santa Ana, where a massive billboard featuring a picture of a cross-eyed Mexican deejay wearing a Viking helmet loomed over downtown. It was El Piolín, the former Santa Ana resident who used his syndicated radio show to promote pro-amnesty marches last year that attracted millions. But El Piolín was still unknown to gabachos when Will saw that goofy billboard, so he asked me about it. I explained El Piolín to Will—his rise from illegal immigrant to student at Saddleback High School to popular Arizona deejay who returned to Southern California. Will was interested, but something else struck him. “That guy looks as if you could ask him any question about Mexicans, and he’ll know the answer,” Will said, looking outside his fifth-story window toward Main Street. “Why don’t you do it? Why don’t you ask readers to send in questions about Mexicans, and you answer them?”
I laughed. Will had long thought up weird ideas that eventually became amazing stories, but the idea of entertaining reader’s questions about Mexicans didn’t appeal to me. Not because I thought it was racist or stupid—I thought no one cared much about Mexicans. Will persisted. We were desperate to fill our news section the week he saw El Piolín—the Weekly’s long-running column “Burning Bush” was about to end because Dubya had just whipped John Kerry’s ass. Besides, Will promised, we would scrap it if no one sent in questions.
That afternoon, I slapped together the following question-and-answer:
Dear Mexican: Why do Mexicans call white people gringos?
Dear Gabacho: Mexicans do not call gringos gringos. Only gringos call gringos gringos. Mexicans call gringos gabachos.
We called the column “¡Ask a Mexican!” and paired it with an illustration of the most stereotypical Mexican man imaginable—fat, wearing a sombrero and bandoleers, with a mustache, stubbly neck and a shiny gold tooth. This was the logo we used in our Cinco de Mayo issue that year devoted to Mexican-hating in Orange County. No one seemed to appreciate the logo’s purpose at the time, and we patiently fielded complaints from numerous readers. We decided to use Mark Dancey’s illustration again, convinced people would understand the outrageousness of the column.
The reaction was instantaneous. Liberal-minded people criticized the logo, the column’s name, its very existence. Conservatives didn’t like how I called white people gabachos, a derogatory term a tad softer than “nigger.” Latino activists called the paper demanding my resignation and threatening to boycott (those yaktivists and their boycott!). But more people of all races thought “¡Ask a Mexican!” was brilliant. And, more surprisingly, the questions poured in.
"¡Ask a Mexican!” has run every week since, expanding the column to two questions per week in May 2005. Soon after, I began appearing on Los Angeles-based 790 KABC-AM’s The Al Rantel Show to answer questions live on radio. More questions came in. Still, I thought the column was just a silly little thing until the Los Angeles Times called toward the end of 2005 and asked if they could do a story on me. It eventually turned into a Column One, the Times’ famed section for literary journalism. And that’s when it all changed.
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I’m back at the Santa Ana Barnes & Noble. I can’t resist. A sales clerk told my sister the store ordered 20 copies of ¡Ask a Mexican! There were 18 the Friday I visited, two of them bought by my sister. I wait around. Again, no one even looks toward my book, let alone flips through it. I finally walk to the stack of books and count 14. Good.
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I’d like to think my column spread across the country on its own. But I’m realistic: It took the Times to make me acceptable to America. The profile (written by my LA Weekly hermano Daniel Hernandez) became an internet sensation. It was the most-viewed and most emailed story on the Times Web site for days. I started receiving email from across the country—almost all of it positive. Radio and television shows wanted to book me. Agents called like the sharks they are—dozens of them, film and literary. One man kept calling me, convinced he could make me into the next Cantinflas. The Times invited me to submit editorials for them, a gig that eventually became a contributing-editor role. And then came the talk shows: Nightline, Today, The Colbert Report and so many others that I’ve lost track. Shortly thereafter, newspapers began picking up the column—it now runs in 23 weeklies, with a combined circulation of 1.35 million. The reaction in each market has been just like that in Orange County—outrage, followed by condemnation, followed by acceptance and concluding with popularity.
Thanks to this attention, I was able to land a two-book deal (the second one—a history of Orange County—arriving fall of 2008!) with Scribner. Colleges and organizations began inviting me to speak about the column; in one case, the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies asked if I could serve as a mestizo Bob Barker for their Ask a Latino! game show. I agreed, spent a week in beautiful, sultry Miami and made the crowd laugh.
It’s at this point my detractors lambaste me as a Tío Taco, a Latino who uses his ethnicity for profit. It started almost immediately after my Times profile: Times Calendar writer Agustín Gurza was so upset by the story that reporters who do profiles of me always call the man up for some choice criticisms. When my book deal was announced to the staff, one of my colleagues cried out of admitted jealousy. I’ve heard reports of Chicano-studies professors slamming my work in class, of high-minded Hispanics calling Librería Martinez in Santa Ana (where I begin my book tour) and demanding that store owner and 2004 MacArthur Foundation fellow Rueben Martínez pull my book from his renowned shelves.
And woe to those who admit liking the column. A reporter jokingly blamed me for losing out on a prestigious fellowship because she expressed affinity for ¡Ask a Mexican! to a panel of judges who weren’t too pleased. An Oregon man was suspended from work without pay for five days because he showed the column to a co-worker. Too many of my friends have had to defend me against outraged strangers.
It can get tiring defending the column, yet “¡Ask a Mexican!” now marks me like a big cactus on my high forehead. My mug has been broadcast enough times to where I get recognized by strangers about once a week. This isn’t an inflated sense of ego on my part; it’s the truth. Just recently, as I was eating at a great Islamic Chinese restaurant, a young man came up to me and asked, “Are you the Mexican?!” I just smiled.
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The Mexican. I still find it hilarious that me of all people became “The Mexican.” My first language might have been Spanish, my parents unassimilated Mexican immigrants, but I grew up with no particular appreciation for my mother culture.
While my peers dressed in tight jeans and tejanas in emulation of our papis, I was more comfortable in Doc Martens and Converse. While hundreds of Mexican students returned to Mexico every Christmas, I stayed home. In fact, I’ve visited Mexico (Tijuana doesn’t count) exactly four times—twice as an infant, when I was eight, and just after I graduated from Chapman University in 2001. My heart might beat to the brassy rhythms of banda, but the dreams are solely in English. Because of that, family and friends have ridiculed me all my life as a pocho—a Mexican who has lost his culture. I didn’t care—still don’t.
Honestly, I never really gave a thought to my Mexicanidad. But as I went through high school and college, my perspective changed. The year 1994 brought on Proposition 187, the resolution crafted by the Huntington Beach-based California Coalition for Immigration Reform, which would’ve denied benefits to illegal immigrants and their children.
Two years later, Loretta Sanchez beat longtime incumbent Bob Dornan in a congressional race; Dornan claimed illegal immigrants fueled Sanchez’s victory. And just as I transferred from Orange Coast College to Chapman University in 1999, Anaheim Union High School District trustee Harald Martin made international headlines because he wanted to sue Mexico for $50 million for the district’s educating the children of illegal immigrants. Children like me.
I didn’t understand where all the hatred came from. I still don’t. Oh, I know the historical and sociological aspects of xenophobia, especially when it comes to Mexicans in the United States. But I’m part of that invading horde anti-immigrant activists rail about, and I just don’t see the doomed America they do. But as soon as I joined the OC Weekly as a freelancer in 2001, I realized few in Orange County agreed with me.
And I’ve learned since then, especially with the spread of “¡Ask a Mexican!”, that racism against Mexicans exists across the country—even in God’s country, Northern Nevada.
With politicians trying to hitch their star on bashing Mexicans, with aspiring candidates of other ethnicities feeling it necessary to declare they came to this country “the right way” and with no end in sight to the ploy of exploiting U.S.-Mexico border policy by demonizing folks like, well, me and my folks, the best weapon in this war is parody. That’s right, Reno, hate it or love it, “¡Ask a Mexican!” is our mirror. And the fact it now appears in these pages shows that the Truckee Meadows, like the rest of the country, is thinking like good ol’ depraved Orange County, for better or worse.
Now, go buy the book, cabrones: I can only lurk around Barnes & Noble so long.