Dear Mexican, Why do Mexicans call white people gringos?
It was the type of impolite question few people would dare ask in everyday Southern California, much less in print.
"Dear Gabacho," began Gustavo Arellano's answer in the OC Weekly alternative newspaper. "Mexicans do not call gringos gringos. Only gringos call gringos gringos. Mexicans call gringos gabachos."
Arellano went on to explain that gabacho is a sometimes pejorative slang term for white Americans, with "its etymological roots in the Castilian slur for a French national."
"Ask a Mexican," the newspaper headlined it.
The column, published in 2004, was meant as a one-time spoof, but questions began pouring in.
Why are there so many elaborate wrought-iron fences in the Mexican parts of town? What part of the word "illegal" do Mexicans not understand? Why do Mexicans pronounce "shower" as "chower" but "chicken" as "shicken"?
Arellano has responded each week, leading an unusually frank discussion on the intersections where broader society meets the largest and most visible national subgroup in the country: Mexicans.
Nothing is taboo. When asked to explain the inclination of Mexicans to sell oranges at freeway offramps, he fired back:
"What do you want them to sell -- Steinways? According to Dolores, who sells oranges off the 91 Freeway/Euclid onramp, in Anaheim, she can earn almost $100 per week hawking the fruit. That averages out to more than $5,000 a year -- and since it's the underground economy, she doesn't pay taxes!"
The questions came from both assimilated Mexican Americans and whites, or as Arellano might say, pochos and gabachos. The newspaper kept publishing "Ask a Mexican," and it quickly became one of its most popular features.
What's with the Mexican need to display the Virgin of Guadalupe everywhere? I've seen her in the oddest places, from a sweatshirt to a windshield sticker. As a Mexican, I find it a little offensive and tacky to display this religious symbol everywhere.
... I've seen her painted on murals, woven into fabulous silk shirts worn by Stetson-sporting hombres and -- one holy night -- in my bowl of guacamole. But while I share your disdain for the hypocrites who cross themselves in Her presence before they sin.... I don't find public displays of the Empress of the Americas offensive at all.
Mexican Catholicism is sublime precisely because it doesn't draw a distinction between the sacred and the profane. We can display our saints as comfortably in a cathedral as we do on hubcaps.
Arellano, a 27-year-old reporter and fourth-generation Orange County resident, has taken his "Ask a Mexican" personality to radio and other print outlets. He has found receptive audiences in unlikely places, even conservative talk radio.
"Ask a Mexican" is historically and culturally accurate, in some cases painfully so, while pushing the edges of modern political correctness. Its logo depicts a stereotypical Mexican peon, complete with bushy mustache, large sombrero and a single shiny gold tooth.
"There isn't any politically correct bridge that you have to walk over; you're just right there," Sasha Anawalt, director of arts journalism fellowship programs at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, said about Arellano's column. "His writing kind of tackles you."
At times, it can also sound like the work of a graduate student -- which Arellano once was. His response to the "shicken" question included references to native Indian languages and linguapalatal fricatives.
But under it all, "Ask a Mexican" is imbued with affection for Mexican immigrants, which may explain its appeal among Mexican Americans who might otherwise take offense.
Dear Mexican, [some female readers asked]
Why do Mexican women dress up to go to the swap meet? .... Why do Mexicans put on their Sunday best to shop at Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target, etc.?
... You gotta love our moms and aunts, ¿que no? Despite living in abject conditions, never having enough money to purchase vaccines for the kids -- let alone save up for a Prada this or Manolo that -- Mexican women always primp themselves for something as simple as buying tortillas."
Arellano, who is also the OC Weekly food editor, never fancied himself a newspaper columnist. The small-framed, quick-witted and admitted self-promoter had a vision of being a Harvard history professor by the time he was 26. "And I would've done it, too."
He was a film student at Chapman University in Orange when he began reading the OC Weekly. He wrote to its editor, Will Swaim, suggesting story ideas. Swaim was impressed and asked Arellano to write the stories himself.
Arellano resisted at first, but Swaim pressed him. Arellano began writing about the Orange County he knew, including school board politics and his family history in Anaheim, his hometown. Meanwhile, he entered graduate school at UCLA, where he earned a master's in Latin American studies.
As a reporter, Arellano, who calls himself a "good Catholic boy," aggressively covered the sexual abuse scandal in the Diocese of Orange and allegations of corruption against Orange County Latino activist Nativo V. Lopez. He also wrote one of the earliest profiles of Jim Gilchrist, the Aliso Viejo activist who began the border-watching Minuteman Project.
Arellano is driven by a strong sense of loyalty to Orange County. He describes it as the "Ellis Island of the 21st century," a place where a large immigrant population belies the myth of the county as a bastion of white conservatives and big-spending decadence.
"We didn't have to go outside of our little enclave to experience Mexican culture," Arellano said, recalling weekends of Mass attendance, girls' quinceaneras and relatives' baby showers.
I've noticed that areas with lots of recent Mexican immigrants have stores that sell nothing but water. I find this very odd. Do people recently arrived from Mexico not know that tap water here is potable?
Mexicans can never get far from the bottle, whether it's H2O or Herradura. In a 2002 survey, the Public Policy Institute of California found that 55% of Latinos in the state drink bottled water, compared with 30% of gabachos. It's definitely a custom smuggled over from Mexico, where tap water remains fraught with nasty viruses and bugs.
The column was born when Swaim approached Arellano with an off-the-wall idea: Explain the humor behind a Spanish-language radio advertisement Swaim saw on the side of a bus. At first, Arellano saw the concept as an easy way to make readers chuckle. But in time he realized there was more to "Ask a Mexican" than that.
"The people who write in -- they have this preconceived notion of what a Mexican is," Arellano said. "I answer their question, but in a way that's either going to flip the stereotype or going to explode it."
Similar to comedians who satirize their own cultures, including Dave Chappelle and Jeff Foxworthy, Arellano critiques the biases and prejudices of Mexicans and non-Mexicans equally. He freely draws attention to some of the nastier elements of Mexican culture, such as strains of sexism, homophobia and prejudices against other ethnic groups.
"I'm being exotic so that we can remember we're not exotic," Arellano said. "In any minority group, you're always going to have this stigma that you perpetuate on yourself. 'Oh, we're a minority, we're a minority.' My response is 'We're not a minority. Let's get over that and just say, All right, these are the problems we have.' "
As an Asian person, would I be considered a gabacho? Or do I fall into the yellow bucket labeled chinito, even though I'm not Chinese?
Like Americans assume all Latinos are Mexican, Mexicans think all Asians are chinos -- Chinese. When I used to go out with a Vietnamese woman, my aunts would speak highly of mi chinita bonita -- my cute little Chinese ruca.... Chinese were the Mexicans of the world before there even was a Mexico, migrating to Latin America a couple of decades after the fall of Tenochtitlan.
Like other readers, Sali Heraldez, owner of a gallery in Santa Ana, said her first instinct was to be offended by "Ask a Mexican." But she couldn't deny the column's allure.
"In every culture there are things that people do that are just funny," Heraldez said. "He doesn't just throw out a racist comment; he actually puts history behind it. Some of them are just plain funny, like why do Mexicans honk instead of going up to knock when they're picking up friends?"
Some readers remain unconvinced that "Ask a Mexican" is a good thing to publish. Swaim said he occasionally received calls or e-mails demanding that Arellano be fired.
"Not only am I a fellow Mexican American, but I'm also an American veteran of Desert Storm," one offended reader wrote in a letter the newspaper published. "I know I didn't fight for a country that portrays Mexicans the way your magazine does. You even allow them to ask racist questions that you have no problems answering."
Yet the column has appeal across the ideological spectrum. Since April, Arellano has been taking listeners' questions live on the air on the conservative talk radio program "The Al Rantel Show" on KABC-AM (790).
"I'm a frothing-at-the-mouth right-winger," said "Al Rantel Show" producer John Phillips, who contacted Arellano about doing "Ask a Mexican" on the radio. "The thing that Gustavo and Al and I have in common is, he's absolutely as politically incorrect as they come. He has no problem saying things on his mind that he believes may or may not offend others."
After the first time "Ask a Mexican" hit the airwaves, Phillips asked Arellano back. During a recent in-studio visit to the program, Arellano took a question from a caller named Cheryl, who started off by saying, "My question is, why do Hispanic people -- "
"Mexicans," Arellano interrupted.
"OK, Mexicans. Thank you," Cheryl said. "Why do they graffiti everywhere?"
"Those guys are honors students and they're just practicing," Arellano said, adding later, "Graffiti is really the last resort of people who don't have anything else to do."
Alexandro Gradilla, an assistant professor of Chicano and Chicana studies at Cal State Fullerton, said that even 10 years ago, an uproar would have followed publication of Arellano's constant jokes about Guatemalans. Arellano satirizes what he insists is Mexicans' disdain for immigrants from that small nation to their south: "Guatemalans are the Mexicans of Mexico. And who doesn't hate Mexicans?"
I am a Mexicana who is dating a gabacho. My gabacho always asks me why you see Mexicans lying in the grass under a tree.... ¿Por que?
... Mexicans, unlike gabachos, are good public citizens who know that parkland is best used for whittling the afternoon away underneath an oak, a salsa-stained paper plate and an empty six-pack of Tecate tossed to the side.
What makes such talk acceptable -- or at least tolerable -- today?
"I think our generation of artists, intellectuals -- we're not concerned with the same issues, nor do we try to hide our contradictions" as earlier generations did, Gradilla said. He added, "Nor does he gloss over the deep divisions that exist in this community -- that is, between Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants. More people identify with that than with this politically convenient, united front perspective."
Arellano is also "one of these home-bred intellectuals who can talk about Orange County in a way that is not being captured in the popular media," Gradilla said. "He talks about the O.C. that is ignored."
The columnist sees his work as filling a vacuum.
"A lot of my activist friends say, why do you go on a conservative talk show? Nobody else is doing it," Arellano said at a restaurant in Santa Ana that specializes in food from the Mexican state of Puebla. Nearby, a group of day laborers wailed the day's sweat away with a few songs over a guitar.
"People who don't like Mexicans -- nobody is actively engaging them unless it's a protest and they're separated by police," he added.
Arellano pondered this for a moment, then launched into another biting joke: "There's a lot of liberals who hate Mexicans too. I hate a lot of Mexicans, for that matter.
"People from Jalisco are evil. I'm from Zacatecas, and they're right next to us. There's always drama."