(Published March 1, 2008 in The Guadalajara Reporter)
Gustavo Arellano isn’t just Mexican, he is “The Mexican” – the voice of the United States’ newest and largest minority who answers every question gabachos and latinos have “wanted to know about Mexicans but [were] too pendejo to ask.” Arellano smashes stereotypes one at a time in his nationally syndicated OC Weekly column called “Ask a Mexican,” and released a book last May by the same name. A Spanish version of the book will soon be released in Mexico.
Last week The Guadalajara Reporter’s MEREDITH VETO spoke to Arellano via telephone from his Orange County, California office.
MV: The questions you receive are strongly worded, often with racist undertones. You obviously take this in stride. But do you ever get discouraged by this gabacho mentality?
GA: Oh, no, I love the racist questions. They’re the best ones. I get all kinds of different questions, not just racist white people who write in to me, but from Mexicans who are racist against whites or blacks or other Mexicans. I get questions from Mexicans in Mexico wanting to know about some aspect of Mexican history or culture. No matter how much I write the column, no matter how much I try to debunk stereotypes, racism’s going to exist. So the best thing I can do is tackle it and ridicule it.
MV: I understand you received a Masters degree from UCLA in Latin American studies. How much does your historical foundation come into play when you answer questions? What is your research process like?
GA: My college education was great for a number of reasons but really the main reason was that it taught me how to do research, get a lot of information and then boil it down to the particulars you need. For instance if there’s a question about etymology, I’m going to consult etymological dictionaries, I’m going to talk to language professors, I’m going to consult history books. If somebody has a stupid question like “Why do Mexicans sell oranges on the side of freeways?” that’s not going to take a lot of research. That’s just going to be a joke off the top of my head. [The answer: “What do you want them to sell, Steinway pianos?”]
MV: You are also, and firstly, a food critic for the OC Weekly. You write a column called “This hole-in-the-wall life.” I liked what you said a few weeks ago about small Mexican restaurants in the United States, when browsing a menu: “Figure out which Spanish words have yet to become part of the Southern Californian Spanish. Order them – none will disappoint.” Would that sum up your attitude as a food critic? Is that what you look for in a good hole-in-the-wall restaurant?
GA: I used to do higher-end restaurants, but they never particularly interested me because I don’t want to spend 100 dollars on a good meal when I could have a better meal for about three bucks. When it comes to Mexican restaurants, I try to review restaurants that will feature food from a particular region nobody has ever really had. For instance, here in Orange County there are a lot of people from Jalisco. What’s a great meal from Guadalajara? Tortas ahogadas. Growing up, I never had a torta ahogada until I went to a taco truck and said, what is this? So to me, it’s foreign food as well. More importantly though, it’s great food. By doing restaurant reviews like that I’m also able to talk about the phenomenon of migration to the U.S.
MV: Would you mind answering a few of my own gabacha inquires?
GA: Sure, yeah.
MV: First, when I came to Mexico as a study abroad student, my program advisor warned female students that Mexican men are far more likely to cheat on their partners than American men. I believe she even had numbers to back it up. Does that have any truth, or was she just trying to protect us?
GA: Protect you from what? Oh please. Number one, if we’re going to play the stats game, the most comprehensive study of male cheating patterns was done by the University of Chicago, they interviewed God knows how many people, and they came to the conclusion that the fidelity stats for latinos and whites weren’t really that far apart to say this is endemic in the culture. Cheaters are cheaters all across the world. Your teacher absorbed all these stereotypes of the Latin lover, the unfaithful man, those stereotypes. I’m Mexican and I haven’t cheated on anyone in my life.
MV: Here’s another: Clowns are everywhere in Mexico. They perform on the streets, they’re featured on television and in advertisements. It strikes me as odd only because Americans tend to be fairly hostile towards clowns, even fearful of them. Any explanation?
GA: [Laughs] You know it’s funny, that’s true. I laugh because I agree with you. I personally don’t care much for clowns, but what I mean is that they neither draw fear nor happiness from me. I never understood why a lot of white people are mortified by clowns. You know, what do clowns supposedly represent? Gaiety, happiness, hilarity. Who wouldn’t want that in their lives? If Mexicans are hanging out with clowns, that just means they like happiness more than other people. They like fun stuff. Especially with the television shows, there’s a lot of goofiness, it’s really outlandish. Kind of like the Japanese. We like our humor to be as outlandish as possible.
MV: If Americans could stand to learn one thing from their Mexican neighbors, what would that be?
GA: What Americans could learn from Mexicans is that we’re not trying to take over the U.S. Up here, I think that’s always lurking in the minds of white Americans. Oh my God, these Mexicans are moving into our neighborhood, they’re trying to take over our culture, they’re trying to impregnate our women ... Aaaah! No, they’re not. It’s so nationalistic, it’s so assuming that every action [Mexicans] take against them has to be because they’re Americans. Just so you know, we don’t want to take over the United States.
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