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Inquiring Gringos Want to Know

In `Ask a Mexican,' a politically incorrect OC Weekly columnist fields readers' frank questions. He's a wiseguy with a cultural objective.

February 23, 2006|Daniel Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

Dear Mexican, Why do Mexicans call white people gringos?

It was the type of impolite question few people would dare ask in everyday Southern California, much less in print.

"Dear Gabacho," began Gustavo Arellano's answer in the OC Weekly alternative newspaper. "Mexicans do not call gringos gringos. Only gringos call gringos gringos. Mexicans call gringos gabachos."

Arellano went on to explain that gabacho is a sometimes pejorative slang term for white Americans, with "its etymological roots in the Castilian slur for a French national."

"Ask a Mexican," the newspaper headlined it.

The column, published in 2004, was meant as a one-time spoof, but questions began pouring in.

Why are there so many elaborate wrought-iron fences in the Mexican parts of town? What part of the word "illegal" do Mexicans not understand? Why do Mexicans pronounce "shower" as "chower" but "chicken" as "shicken"?

Arellano has responded each week, leading an unusually frank discussion on the intersections where broader society meets the largest and most visible national subgroup in the country: Mexicans.

Nothing is taboo. When asked to explain the inclination of Mexicans to sell oranges at freeway offramps, he fired back:

"What do you want them to sell -- Steinways? According to Dolores, who sells oranges off the 91 Freeway/Euclid onramp, in Anaheim, she can earn almost $100 per week hawking the fruit. That averages out to more than $5,000 a year -- and since it's the underground economy, she doesn't pay taxes!"

The questions came from both assimilated Mexican Americans and whites, or as Arellano might say, pochos and gabachos. The newspaper kept publishing "Ask a Mexican," and it quickly became one of its most popular features.

*

Dear Mexican,

What's with the Mexican need to display the Virgin of Guadalupe everywhere? I've seen her in the oddest places, from a sweatshirt to a windshield sticker. As a Mexican, I find it a little offensive and tacky to display this religious symbol everywhere.

Dear Pocha,

... I've seen her painted on murals, woven into fabulous silk shirts worn by Stetson-sporting hombres and -- one holy night -- in my bowl of guacamole. But while I share your disdain for the hypocrites who cross themselves in Her presence before they sin.... I don't find public displays of the Empress of the Americas offensive at all.

Mexican Catholicism is sublime precisely because it doesn't draw a distinction between the sacred and the profane. We can display our saints as comfortably in a cathedral as we do on hubcaps.

Arellano, a 27-year-old reporter and fourth-generation Orange County resident, has taken his "Ask a Mexican" personality to radio and other print outlets. He has found receptive audiences in unlikely places, even conservative talk radio.

"Ask a Mexican" is historically and culturally accurate, in some cases painfully so, while pushing the edges of modern political correctness. Its logo depicts a stereotypical Mexican peon, complete with bushy mustache, large sombrero and a single shiny gold tooth.

"There isn't any politically correct bridge that you have to walk over; you're just right there," Sasha Anawalt, director of arts journalism fellowship programs at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, said about Arellano's column. "His writing kind of tackles you."

At times, it can also sound like the work of a graduate student -- which Arellano once was. His response to the "shicken" question included references to native Indian languages and linguapalatal fricatives.

But under it all, "Ask a Mexican" is imbued with affection for Mexican immigrants, which may explain its appeal among Mexican Americans who might otherwise take offense.

*

Dear Mexican, [some female readers asked]

Why do Mexican women dress up to go to the swap meet? .... Why do Mexicans put on their Sunday best to shop at Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target, etc.?

Dear Pochas,

... You gotta love our moms and aunts, ┬┐que no? Despite living in abject conditions, never having enough money to purchase vaccines for the kids -- let alone save up for a Prada this or Manolo that -- Mexican women always primp themselves for something as simple as buying tortillas."

*

Arellano, who is also the OC Weekly food editor, never fancied himself a newspaper columnist. The small-framed, quick-witted and admitted self-promoter had a vision of being a Harvard history professor by the time he was 26. "And I would've done it, too."

He was a film student at Chapman University in Orange when he began reading the OC Weekly. He wrote to its editor, Will Swaim, suggesting story ideas. Swaim was impressed and asked Arellano to write the stories himself.

Arellano resisted at first, but Swaim pressed him. Arellano began writing about the Orange County he knew, including school board politics and his family history in Anaheim, his hometown. Meanwhile, he entered graduate school at UCLA, where he earned a master's in Latin American studies.

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