By Gabriel San Roman
Was there ever anything you wanted to know about Mexicans, but were too politically correct to ask? For more than two years now, Gustavo Arellano of the Orange County Weekly has fielded numerous questions from readers about Mexicans in his notorious column, “¡Ask a Mexican!” Now compiled and released in book form, questions posed to “The Mexican,” range from the curious such as, “What’s the song La Bamba about?” to the downright racist, “What part of Illegal don’t Mexicans understand?”
Arellano navigates the long list of inquires with unrestrained wit, sarcasm, and intelligent research. As a Chicano resident of Orange County, my own question about Mexicans and jaywalking made the “best of” compiled in the book. Not everyone is in favor of Arellano’s approach, however. When the alternative OC Weekly first published the column in 2004, it angered left and right wingers alike. In one recent case, an Oregon man was suspended by his supervisors for five days for showing his fellow co-worker the “Ask a Mexican!” column. The man’s union refused to back him and his lawyer advised him to drop the case.
Gustavo Arellano is the luckiest cabron in all of Orange County after landing a six figure, two-book deal from Scribner. However, being a columnist or much less a journalist wasn’t always his ambition. If you had met the Anaheim High School student turned UCLA Master’s Degree graduate before he got wrapped up writing for the OC Weekly, he would have convinced you that his future was in academia. The change of direction came as Arellano recounted to me one night that he, “wanted to get the bad people now.”
The then-editor of the OC Weekly, Will Swaim, hired Arellano as a staff writer following his graduation from UCLA. It was Swaim who originally suggested the “¡Ask a Mexican!” column to him after he saw a billboard of Spanish language radio DJ, “El Piolín.” Swaim thought the guy on the billboard looked like he could answer any question about Mexicans. He appointed Arellano to be the knower of all things Mexican in Orange County and beyond. “¡Ask a Mexican!” was born with the expectation of being nothing more than a one time joke. But then, spicy questions about Mexicans continued to roll in as the popularity of the column swelled into its present book form and Gustavo Arellano, a Mexican, became “the Mexican.”
A book like “¡Ask a Mexican!” could only be birthed in a place like Orange County. The northern part of the county houses sizable Mexican communities. However, my beloved county is also unfortunately home to Barbara Coe, who co-authored California’s notorious Proposition 187 in an attempt to deny social services to undocumented immigrants. The OC is also home to the original co-founder of the Minuteman Project, James Gilchrist, before he was tossed out of his own organization. Costa Mesa, which has been in the news periodically thanks to its Minuteman mayor, Alan Mansoor, had the spotlight of shame thrust upon it in the form of an intelligence report on racism and white supremacy from the Southern Poverty Law Center.
It is in this regional context that Gustavo Arellano’s column has emerged.
Dubbing Orange County as the “Mexican-Bashing Capital,” of the United States, Arellano is a self-described piñata that hits back. His humor is his weapon of choice. Sure, the seething anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican extremist hate in Orange County is unnerving, but on the other hand, it’s so extreme that sometimes it can become purely laughable. Orange County’s anti-immigrant buffoonery has been as generous to Gustavo’s column and book, as the woefully incompetent Bush administration has been to “The Daily Show.”
The book, named after the column, is organized into nine spicy chapters; Language, Cultura, Sexo, Inmigración, Music, Food, Ethnic Relations, Fashion, and Work or more succinctly put: It’s everything you wanted to know about Mexicans but were too afraid to ask.
For those unaware of Arellano’s writing style, satire and Mexican cussing coupled with creative Spanglish tackles questions in a no holds barred non politically-correct manner. “¡Ask a Mexican!” is certainly not for the easily offended. White people who ask questions are referred to as “Gabachos.” Mexicans are referred to in a term unique to Orange County; “Wabs,” and pochos are referred to as, well, pochos. “The Mexican,” in answering the question of “Why do none of the Mexicans in Louisville have jobs?” jabs back “Dear Gabacho: We take after Kentuckians.” Such satirical looseness is essential to debunking the stereotypes people have about Mexicans in Arellano’s view.
However, right-wing stereotypes are not the sole target. Arellano also challenges the tendency to deify an exploited minority community such as Mexicans. Machista sexism, homophobia, and Mexican xenophobia against dreaded Guatemalan immigrant invaders are all critiqued in “¡Ask a Mexican!” The approach and objective of the more serious side of the column has managed to anger both sides of the immigration debate and has garnered Arellano dual accusations of being a vendido sell-out and a reconquista apologist.
Although I defend his approach more often than not, I do not say I always agree with his points. In one exchange in the column, though not included in the book, Arellano defends a “gabacha” who wore a, “I only kiss mojados,” t-shirt to an immigrant rights rally. According to “the Mexican,” disapproving letters came in from Chicano Studies professor, activists, and even Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha. Though I agree that much of the left is humorless, I just couldn’t imagine a similar scenario of a sympathetic white girl at a Leimert Park rally in Los Angeles for the late death row activist Stanley Williams with a t-shirt saying, “Save my Nigga Tookie,” and everybody being cool with it.
The book “¡Ask a Mexican!” is not solely comprised of question-and-answer battles in column form. Arellano adds essays and even a glossary at the beginning of all the Spanish cuss words you would ever need to know. Furthermore, some inquires about Mexicans are so magnanimous that they require an entire essay. For example, Mexicans have a tendency to prolong careers of non-Mexican entertainers like radio host Art Laboe or more interestingly, the sexually ambiguous singer Morrissey. Why Mexicans love the former lead singer of The Smiths is a question that many have tried to explain. Gustavo Arellano, in a must read, offers his insights into the enigma in an essay included in the book.
The last essay in “¡Ask a Mexican!” is the lightest in terms of humor, but most poignant in terms of humanism. Arellano, himself the son of a former undocumented immigrant, profiles the struggles of day laborers on the street corner near a Home Depot in Anaheim, California. The scene that Gustavo Arellano sets is one that hits close to home. Grappling with his own privilege, Arellano comes dressed as a day laborer but ultimately turns down a much hustled after offer for work. He knew that other men on that sidewalk needed it more than he did. Arellano’s day with the jornaleros taught him the lesson of deep appreciation that Mexican immigrants have for the United States and how they come here just to work. This, more so than any television or radio appearance, fuels Gustavo Arellano’s ambition to write “¡Ask a Mexican!”
After reading countless question and answer columns throughout Gustavo Arellano’s book, there are still questions about my people that remain uncharted territory. In the fashion section, I noticed that no one asked a question about Mexicans and ironing. Mexicans are the most meticulous ironers on the planet; complete with a can of starch to masterfully crease Dickies. Why is this so? Also, what’s behind the pampa beef between Mexicans and Argentines? And why do non -rug using Mexicans still grow out their pinky fingernail anyway? Questions to “The Mexican,” like my own and the outrageously asked, “Are Mexicans really baptized in bean dip?” will surely keep pouring in regardless of what controversies may follow Gustavo’s notorious, “¡Ask a Mexican!” column, and Señor Arellano will be more than happy to answer them.
¡Ask a Mexican! by Gustavo Arellano; Scribner. Hardcover, 256 pages, $20.00.