Almost Famoso

My life as 'The Mexican'

The reaction was instantaneous. Liberal-minded people criticized the logo, the column's name, its very existence. Conservatives didn't like how I called white people gabachos, a derogatory term a tad softer than "nigger." Latino activists called the paper demanding my resignation and threatening to boycott the Weekly (those yaktivists and their boycott!). But more people of all races thought ¡Ask a Mexican! was brilliant. And, more surprisingly, the questions poured in.

We've run ¡Ask a Mexican! every week since (save for special issues), expanding the column to two questions per week in May 2005. Soon after, I began appearing on KABC-AM 790's The Al Rantel Show to answer questions live on radio. More questions came in. Still, I thought the column was just a silly little thing until the Los Angeles Times called toward the end of 2005 and asked if they could do a story on me. It eventually turned into a Column One, the Times' famed section for literary journalism. And that's when it all changed.

I'm back at the Santa Ana Barnes & Noble. I can't resist. A sales clerk told my sister the store ordered 20 copies of ¡Ask a Mexican!There were 18 the Friday I visited, two of them bought by my sister. I wait around. Again, no one even looks toward my book, let alone flips through it. I finally walk to the stack of books and count 14. Good.

Illustration by Mark Dancey
Illustration by Mark Dancey

I'd like to think my column spread across the country on its own. But I'm realistic: it took the Timesto make me acceptable to America. The profile (written by my LA Weekly hermano, Daniel Hernandez) became an Internet sensation. It was the most-viewed and most e-mailed story on the Timeswebsite for days. I started receiving e-mail from across the country—almost all of it positive. Radio and television shows wanted to book me. Agents called like the sharks they are—dozens of them, film and literary. One man kept calling me, convinced he could make me into the next Cantinflas. The Times invited me to submit editorials for them, a gig that eventually became a contributing-editor role. And then came the talk shows: Nightline, Today, The Colbert Reportand so many others that I've lost track. Shortly thereafter, newspapers began picking up the column—it now runs in 23 weeklies, with a combined circulation of 1.35 million. The reaction in each market has been just like that in Orange County—outrage, followed by condemnation, followed by acceptance and concluding with popularity.

Thanks to this attention, I was able to land a two-book deal (the second one—a history of Orange County—arriving fall of 2008!) with Scribner. Colleges and organizations began inviting me to speak about the column; in one case, the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies asked if I could serve as a mestizo Bob Barker for their Ask a Latino! game show. I agreed, spent a week in beautiful, sultry Miami and made the crowd laugh.

It's at this point my detractors lambaste me as a Tío Taco, a Latino who uses his ethnicity for profit. It started almost immediately after my Timesprofile: Times Calendar writer Agustín Gurza was so upset by the story that reporters who do profiles of me always call the man up for some choice criticisms. When my book deal was announced to the staff, one of my colleagues cried out of admitted jealousy. I've heard reports of Chicano-studies professors slamming my work in class, of high-minded Hispanics calling Librería Martinez in Santa Ana (where I begin my book tour) and demanding that store owner Rueben Martínez pull my book from his renowned shelves.

And woe to those who admit liking the column. A reporter jokingly blamed me for losing out on a prestigious fellowship because she expressed affinity for ¡Ask a Mexican! to a panel of judges who weren't too pleased. An Oregon man was suspended from work without pay for five days because he showed the column to a co-worker. Too many of my friends have had to defend me against outraged strangers.

It can get tiring defending the column, especially when Weekly readers know I also write about non-Mexican issues. Yet ¡Ask a Mexican! now marks me like a big cactus on my high forehead. My mug has been broadcast enough times to where I get recognized by strangers about once a week. This isn't an inflated sense of ego on my part; it's the truth. Just last week, as I was eating at the great Islamic Chinese restaurant Jamillah's Garden, a young man came up to me and asked, "Are you the Mexican?!" I just smiled.

The Mexican. I still find it hilarious that me of all people became "The Mexican." My first language might have been Spanish, my parents unassimilated Mexican immigrants, but I grew up with no particular appreciation for my mother culture. While my peers dressed in tight jeans and tejanas in emulation of our papis, I was more comfortable in Doc Martens and Converse. While hundreds of Mexican students returned to Mexico every Christmas, I stayed home. In fact, I've visited Mexico (Tijuana doesn't count) exactly four times—twice as an infant, when I was eight, and just after I graduated from Chapman University in 2001. My heart might beat to the brassy rhythms of banda, but the dreams are solely in English. Because of that, family and friends have ridiculed me all my life as a pocho—a Mexican who has lost his culture. I didn't care—still don't.

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