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We asked a Mexican: Gustavo Arellano

July 8, 2008 | 11:43 am
GustavoarellanoIt started out as a joke: OC Weekly reporter Gustavo Arellano's editor thought it might be funny if he wrote a one-time satiric advice column, and ¡Ask a Mexican! was born. Readers loved the way he played with stereotypes, and Arellano's been doing the column ever since (lately, also on video). Last year saw the publication of the "¡Ask a Mexican!" book, which is now out in paperback. Arellano's second book, a personal history titled "Orange County," is due in September. We e-mailed the man who has all the answers for a few more.

Jacket Copy: You've been doing the "¡Ask a Mexican!" column for more than three years. Do people ask you questions all the time, even when you're not working? And what's the most common question you get (other than "what's the most common question you get?")?

Gustavo Arellano: When people find out I write the column, most of the time they just shower accolades on me rather than ask questions. I'm just grateful 80% of the people I meet whom a friend introduces me to them as "He writes '¡Ask a Mexican!' " knows about the column. As for the most-asked question besides yours: "Why do Mexicans like to swim in the ocean with their clothes on?" Whether the reader is from Hermosa Beach or Michigan, I always get this question — so strange. ...

JC: What was the biggest challenge in putting together the "¡Ask a Mexican!" book? Would you do it again?

GA: Making it work for a national audience. Since I'm based in Orange County, many of the punch lines in my column make reference to Orange County — the anti-immigrant idiots at the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, corrupt politicians and the like. People in Nebraska don't give a damn about such jokes or zings. So I needed to rework some of the questions I previously answered (the book is 50% old, 50% new) to make it work. Of course I would do it again — any author who doesn't jump at the chance to do a nationally published book deserves their PR day job.

JC: You often use Spanish words, sometimes to describe parts of female anatomy. Can you use dirtier words if you use Spanish? Do your editors have any idea what you're saying? (See answer after the jump.)

GA: Not just female anatomy, chula — also a male's privy parts, racial slurs and general curse words. When I signed with Scribner, I told them that I didn't want anything changed in my writing solely for prudish reasons. The column and the book use vulgarities only to make specific, satirical points about a subject. I told my editor the meanings behind all the Spanish words, and he's richer for knowing nearly every Spanish cuss word ever uttered.

JC: Have any of the answers in the book or in your column gotten you into trouble?

GA: Since we're doing a Web interview, click away, readers!

JC: When you were in school, were you the kid who always had the right answer? Would any of your teachers have predicted that you'd become a cultural expert? (Or a satiric cultural expert?)

GA: I talk about this in my upcoming book, "Orange County: A Personal History," which is half history of Orange County, half tale of my family's four generations switching between Mexico and Anaheim. I was that kid, but I never got good grades — a classic underachiever. When I left my high school teachers, I was into films, so they probably thought I would be directing quinceañera videos or pornos.

JC: What resources do you use to help work out the answers to really tough questions?

GA: Same resources I use in my day job as an investigative reporter — make calls, go to libraries, search the Web. Usually, I can find the answer in my personal library of over 1,000 books — I'm a nerd.

JC: What's your favorite bookstore, and why?

GA: Libreria Martinez in Santa Ana. Run by Rueben Martinez, a barber-turned-bookie who won the Macarthur Genius award a couple of years back because he's a secular saint. The majority of the holdings are in Spanish, which means this is one of the few places on Earth where you can read Shakespeare in Spanish and Cervantes in English — how is that not the best place on Earth???

Carolyn Kellogg