Almost Famoso

My life as 'The Mexican'

Last Friday night, I sat on the second floor of the Barnes & Noble in Santa Ana and waited. Earlier that day, my sister called to excitedly report that the book version of ˇAsk a Mexican! was finally on sale. She bought two copies and promised to buy more. "Stop it," I told her. "Strangers need to buy the book. They need to buy it now."

After a day of interviews and blown deadlines, I visited the Barnes & Noble to look for ˇAsk a Mexican! It's near the entrance, on one of many tables advertising new releases, on a small shelf between E=Einstein and some random novel. This isn't good enough, I thought. I grabbed a copy, propped it on top of the other new releases, and fled toward the Sudoku section. From there, I watched.

It was a slow night, and most of the customers sped past my table on their way to whatever brought them there. A couple of them stopped. Hope? Nope. They flipped through the biography of Lee Iacocca and that damn Einstein book. All of the books but mine.

Illustration by Mark Dancey
Illustration by Mark Dancey

I took the escalator upstairs and found a seat next to the humanities section that afforded me an eagle's-nest view. Only 15 minutes of spying, I promised myself. That was half an hour ago. I flipped through a couple of books to kill time. Judy Chicago is overrated save for Red Flag. Which Persian emperor was the friend of the Jews—Cyrus, Darius or Xerxes? That guy's full of it—there must be a better reason why the Brits have such bad teeth besides drinking tea. Under the Banner of Heaven: need to buy that book. I eventually did.

After another half-hour, someone finally reacted to mybook. A little girl yelled, "Daddy, look!" She pointed at ˇAsk a Mexican! The father shook his head and muttered something I couldn't quite hear. Their dismissive laughs, however, still ring in my ears. I left the store shortly thereafter, fearing it's soon going to end.

Orange Countians: gracias. ˇAsk a Mexican!is now out as a hardcover in bookstores across America. It's already received a positive review in Publishers Weekly and even earned a mention in the New York Post's infamous Page Six gossip bible—and the mighty Simon & Schuster publicity machine has yet to begin the Reconquista. The little column about wabs that ustedes love and loathe is about to go national, has already earned me more money than I ever hoped of making, and earned me free shoes from The Colbert Report—and I couldn't have done it without ustedes.

Honestly, though, ˇAsk a Mexican! wasn't supposed to go this far. It was a joke, a one-shot deal, a sociological experiment gone spectacularly wrong.

One day in November 2004, OC Weeklyfounding editor Will Swaim called me into his office. He had just driven up Main Street in Santa Ana, where a massive billboard featuring a picture of a cross-eyed Mexican DJ wearing a Viking helmet loomed over downtown. It was El Piolín, the former Santa Ana resident who used his syndicated radio show to promote pro-amnesty marches last year that attracted millions. But El Piolín was still unknown to gabachos when Will saw that goofy billboard, so he asked me about it.

I explained El Piolín to Will—his rise from illegal immigrant to student at Saddleback High School to popular Arizona DJ who returned to Southern California. Will was interested, but something else struck him. "That guy looks as if you could ask him any question about Mexicans, and he'll know the answer," Will said, looking outside his fifth-story window toward Main Street. "Why don't you do it? Why don't you ask readers to send in questions about Mexicans, and you answer them?"

I laughed. Will had long thought up weird ideas that eventually became amazing stories, but the idea of entertaining reader's questions about Mexicans didn't appeal to me. Not because I thought it was racist or stupid—I thought no one cared much about Mexicans. Will persisted. We were desperate to fill our news section the week he saw El Piolín—the Weekly'slong-running column "Burning Bush" was about to end because Dubya had just whipped John Kerry's ass. Besides, Will promised, we would scrap it if no one sent in questions.

That afternoon, I slapped together the following question and answer:

Dear Mexican: Why do Mexicans call white people gringos?

Dear Gabacho: Mexicans do not call gringos gringos. Only gringos call gringos gringos. Mexicans call gringosgabachos.

We called the column ˇAsk a Mexican! and paired it with an illustration of the most stereotypical Mexican man imaginable—fat, wearing a sombrero and bandoleers, with a mustache, stubbly neck and a shiny gold tooth. This was the logo we used in our Cinco de Mayo issue that year devoted to Mexican-hating in Orange County. No one seemed to appreciate the logo's purpose at the time, and we patiently fielded complaints from numerous readers. We decided to use Mark Dancey's illustration again, convinced people would understand the outrageousness of the column.

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