¡Ai yi yiiiiiiiiiiiiii!

The Reconquista will not be televised, but Gustavo Arellano will

My first recollection of the skinny kid with jet black hair, horn-rimmed glasses and the same basic ensemble he wears to this day—pressed tan slacks, buttoned-up short-sleeve shirt and well-worn tennis shoes—was when he showed up randomly in the newsroom, palling around with a reporter he’d previously helped as a source. Before long, the kid, a local, settled into an unoccupied newsroom desk to help the rest of us out and, as he so sincerely expressed, soak up our collective journalistic knowledge. He eventually started banging out crude copy; back in those not-so-long-ago days, he was green but had drive to burn. He quickly became so festooned to his newsroom perch that we not only had to give it to him permanently, we also had to actually—gulp—pay him.

Fortunately for us and our teensy-weensy editorial budget, an Association of Alternative Weeklies’ diversity grant soon came along after—you read that right: after we’d officially hired the kid. Fortunately for the kid, he now out-earns all of us, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he’d still out-earn all of us if you added all our teensy-weensy paychecks together. Gustavo Arellano is certainly more famous than all of us put together—or, as today’s cover story puts it, “Almost famoso.”

And it doesn’t surprise me a lick.

Shortly after he was a full timer at OC Weekly (the Orange County alternative newsweekly where he still works and where I used to), Arellano was writing weekly dining columns, reviewing live rock en español shows, taking down dirty Latino politicians, doggedly exposing what he calls “pedo-priests” shielded by the hierarchy of his own beloved Roman Catholic Church and tossing in assorted sports stories and CD reviews and calendar picks of the week.

Marveling early on at how hard he worked and how many bylines he managed to get in each week’s paper despite no formal journalism education—his undergrad degree from Chapman University is in film, his masters from UCLA is in Latin American studies—I remember remarking out loud to someone in the newsroom, “That kid is going to be more famous than any of us some day.” What did surprise me was how quickly some day came, prompting me to revise my prediction to, “That kid is going to be president some day.”

Of course, what put him on the map—or, more precisely, the national-media radar—was his now-syndicated weekly advice column, ¡Ask a Mexican!, which begins its SN&R run today and, like its author, is smart, off-putting and funny as hell.

As with Ann Landers or Savage Love or our relationships column, Ask Joey, ¡Ask a Mexican! owes its existence to the curiosity of readers. Language barriers, the rules of polite society and fear of getting punched in the nose prevent many of us—and by “us” I mean “all people who are not Mexicans"—to openly ask about the ways of our brethren from the south, or formerly from the south, or never from the south but always here, or here long before “us” not Mexicans.

The questions to Arellano/"The Mexican” vary from the gentle ("Why don’t Mexicans ever go to the doctor?"), to the racist ("Why is it in their nature for Mexicans to steal?"), to the profane ("Why can’t I get a Mexican woman to swallow my cream?"). Rather than recoil in high-mindedness, political correctedness or wash-their-mouths-out-with-soapedness, The Mexican gives it right back. A gabacho wondering why Mexicans choose American swill like Bud Light over good Mexican beers was informed that picking up the bad-brew habit is just another form of assimilation. He told the aforementioned racist that Mexicans rob to make up for Americans stealing half of Mexico in the Mexican-American War. And his advice to a gabacha wondering how to make her new Mexican boyfriend relax around her? “Give him a blowjob.”

I could tell something strange and wonderful was happening when I’d meet people at parties shortly after the column debuted and, once they discovered where I worked, they’d give me questions to pass on to the Mexican, some naively genuine, others unwittingly racist. I’d also hear from folks who disagreed with his answers. I’d hear from whites who thought The Mexican was racist. I heard from Mexicans who thought The Mexican was racist. And I heard from Mexicans who thought The Mexican was racist but whose even-more Mexican parents couldn’t get enough of The Mexican.

It remains a toss-up whether ¡Ask a Mexican! has as many fans as it does detractors, but it received so much notice right out of the gate that Arellano quickly found himself in demand as a local broadcast-media pundit on Latino issues—hell, any issues. After the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page, Column One profile on him in late 2005, he was shot into the media stratosphere, becoming in demand on national talk shows, network and cable-news programs and even Comedy Central’s satirical The Colbert Report, whose writers were so inspired they triumphantly brought back the host’s mambo- and chicas-loving alter ego Estefan Colberto for the occasion.

Arellano was fortuitous in that his media exposure coincided with the escalating national debate over immigration and, frankly, there just weren’t that many Mexican pundits to turn to. There still aren’t. So while ¡Ask a Mexican! has allowed countless among “us” to vent, that venting actually turned The Mexican into a national media spokesman on all-things-Latino.

Well, that and a lot of shameless self promotion. Not only is Arellano the most shameless of the shameless self promoters I have ever known in this business, he also is the most self-aware of his own shamelessness, which I find kind of cute.

Not everyone in the newsroom agreed. The OC Weekly offices are rather Spartan—it doesn’t have a quiet room or one of those manufactured sets that allow reporters to openly participate in radio and TV interviews. So to be able to better hear the voices in his headset and not disturb his neighbors, Arellano would routinely crawl under his desk to conduct his confabs. But all that did was produce an amplified muffle. Combined with the multiple camera crews that would set up over his desk for English- and Spanish-language TV news reports, the commotion left many colleagues none too pleased.

Before the L.A. Times story was put to bed, the reporter showed a copy to Arellano’s then-editor, Will Swaim, the man who actually invented the column as a one-off joke. Swaim was so ticked that he was not credited as the creator in that draft that he pulled me aside and asked if I thought he should say something to Gustavo, who could then say something to the Times reporter. “Naw, let the kid have his glory,” I replied. “It’ll still be good for the paper.” The final print version gave Swaim his props.

I still remember the tears that streamed down OC Weekly’s brilliant former political/nightlife /it’s-all-about-me-me-me columnist Commie Girl’s face when she found out about Arellano’s two-book deal with Simon & Schuster. As the Girl herself, Rebecca Schoenkopf, will tell you, those were not tears of joy but jealousy. At least she expressed herself openly; other staffers routinely would complain to me privately about Gustavo this and Gustavo that, their language peppered with insinuations that our boy suffered from the ol’ inflating-head syndrome. It didn’t help staff morale when Mike Lacey, the top editor and co-owner of the New Times chain that inherited OC Weekly as part of its acquisition of Village Voice Media in 2005, dubbed Arellano his “franchise player” before other news staffers at a liquor-soaked meet and greet.

Funny, even newspaper barons can get burned. I just caught Arellano on the NBC Today show predicting the political demise of L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa amid his latest infidelities. Under his name, Today identified Lacey’s franchise player as being from the “Los Angeles Times opinion section.”

See, shortly after his Column One, the Times made Arellano an opinion co-editor, a move that sparked rancor at both papers. But as The Mexican would tell you, all this behind-the-back chatter is just sour uvas. Even the most jealous among his journo brethren can’t deny that they’ve learned a thing or tres from ¡Ask a Mexican! Heck, I discovered a gabacho is neither a bean nor a cold soup.

It could also be that I’m still beaming from my own brush with greatness. In its June 24 Arellano profile ("The Mexican will see you now"), the New York Times concluded that, “With his advance in ‘the mid-six figures’ for the two-book deal, he bought a 1974 Cadillac Eldorado convertible.”

That used to be my Caddy! I sold it to Gustavo before moving up here. But as its former proud owner, I’ve gotta ask:

Hey Mexican, where the hell are this gabacho‘s other two figures?