Almost Famoso

My life as 'The Mexican'

AMAZON RANKING NO. 55,326
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 ¬°Ask 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 ¬°Ask 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.

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 ¬°Ask 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.

AMAZON RANKING NO. 245,385
Orange Countians: gracias. ¬°Ask 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, ¬°Ask 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 Piol√≠n 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 Piol√≠n—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 ¬°Ask 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.

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.

AMAZON RANKING NO. 46,238
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.

AMAZON RANKING NO. 10,327
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.

AMAZON RANKING NO. 1,954
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.

Honestly, I never really gave a thought to my Mexicanidad. But as I went through high school and college, my perspective changed. The year 1994 brought on Proposition 187, the resolution crafted by the Huntington Beach-based California Coalition for Immigration Reform, which would've denied benefits to illegal immigrants and their children. Two years later, Loretta Sanchez beat longtime incumbent Bob Dornan in a congressional race; Dornan claimed illegal immigrants fueled Sanchez's victory. And just as I transferred from Orange Coast College to Chapman University in 1999, Anaheim Union High School District trustee member Harald Martin made international headlines because he wanted to sue Mexico for $50 million for the district's educating the children of illegal immigrants. Children like me.

I didn't understand where all the hatred came from. I still don't. Oh, I know the historical and sociological aspects of xenophobia, especially when it comes to Mexicans in the United States. But I'm part of that invading horde anti-immigrant activists rail about, and I just don't see the doomed America they do. But as soon as I joined the Weekly as a freelancer in 2001, I realized few in Orange County agreed with me.

This was Mexican-Hating Central: home of such outlandish characters as the CCIR, whose monthly meetings in Garden Grove is as close to a public Nuremburg rally as you'll find in this country. It's where any Orange County Register story posted on their website inevitably becomes a forum to blame Mexicans, and reporters field angry phone calls and e-mail from readers if their stories seem even the slightest bit sympathetic to nosotros.

Yes, racism against Mexicans exists across the country. But I challenge anyone to find a place more wacky with its Mexicans than here. The only way you can really report on our immigration wars—where politicians try to hitch their star on bashing Mexicans, where aspiring Vietnamese politicians feel it necessary to declare they came to this country "the right way" and take campaign pictures next to the United States-Mexico border—is by parody. Really, Orange County: hate it or love it, ¬°Ask a Mexican! is our mirror. And the fact it now appears across the country shows that the rest of the country is thinking like us, for better or worse.

Now, go buy the book, cabrones: I can only lurk around Barnes & Noble so long.

¬°ASK A MEXICAN! BY GUSTAVO ARELLANO; SCRIBNER. HARDCOVER, 240 PAGES, $20. MEET GUSTAVO AT LIBRERIA MARTINEZ, 1110 N. MAIN ST., SANTA ANA, (714) 973-7900. THURS., MAY 3, 7 P.M.

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