Controversial columnist Gustavo Arellano talks about going on the offensive
A couple of months ago my boss, one of the owners of Alibi [an alternative newsweekly in Albuquerque, New Mexico] handed me samples of a column called ?Ask a Mexican! The first clipping 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 our newspaper. My initial reaction: 'Are you out of your pinche mind?'
The author of ?Ask a Mexican! is journalist Gustavo Arellano, a staff writer at the OC Weekly, an alternative newsweekly in Orange County, California, that's been running the column since late 2004 and now offers it up for syndication. And while what I read was hilarious, I couldn't help but think that if we ran his column an angry mob would storm our offices (our little Burque has a conservative streak, after all). After my initial horror subsided, however, I realized that beneath Arellano's offensive stereotypes and penchant for vulgarity there lurked a smart, subversive social critic who deserved space in our paper.
One of the qualities I admire most about ?Ask a Mexican! is that Arellano doesn't skate across the sugary surface of the immigration debate. He doesn't pretend we're a nation of good-natured, bleeding-heart liberals. From day one, his column, which now appears in seven alternative newspapers, has embraced the full, terrifying scope of the immigration debate, ramming into it head-on, sometimes with what seems like reckless abandon.
During our interview, Arellano spoke convincingly about the intent behind his work, the reaction it's sparked across the country, and why a profane platform might be just what's needed to explain Mexican culture to ignorant Americans.
How do you respond to readers-both Latinos and Anglos-who say you're promoting hate speech and negative racial stereotypes?
I tell readers who e-mail me and say they can't believe that I'm promoting racism, '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 [columns] 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 in context.
Exactly. You can take anything out of context, but what we tried to do right from the start was just slam people and challenge everything they believe about Mexicans. 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.
How did you come up with the idea for the column?
One day my boss came driving through the city where we work, in SanTana [in one? 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. 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.'
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.' 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.
Half the people loved it and half the people hated it. And it also fell half-and-half along ethnic lines. People immediately started sending in questions about Mexicans. They kept sending them and sending them.
So we started answering those questions. Then one week we didn't run the column 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 the column 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. . . . ?Ask a Mexican! continues that tradition.
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-Irish, Italians, Poles-and being immigrants, but then becoming Americans. 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 the 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 to 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 a legal immigrant. My great-grandpa started picking oranges here in Orange County in the early 1900s. When it is 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 came to this country when she was 9 years old, but she already had ties to Orange County that went back at least 60 years.
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 know 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 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 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.
You sometimes refer to yourself as The Mexican. Obviously there's a lot of irony involved with that, but even though your parents are Mexican, 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 you need to have skin like steel. Not only that, you [need to be familiar] with Mexican culture. I think the reason 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 of your column is that it's actually very informative.
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 master's 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.
Do you think the reaction to your column 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. They'll call or write letters to the editor, but 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.
Steven Robert Allen is the editor of Alibi an independently owned Albuquerque, New Mexico, alternative newspaper in which this piece first appeared (May 4-10, 2006). Subscriptions: $100 (52 issues) from 2118 Central Ave. SE, Suite 151, Albuquerque, NM 87106; www.alibi.com. Gustavo Arellano welcomes questions for ?Ask a Mexican! at email@example.com.