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The Orange appeal

Columnist Gustavo Arellano on his family's journey to one of the most affluent counties in the U.S.

September 28, 2008|Luis Alfaro

Orange County

A Personal History

Gustavo Arellano

Scribner: 270 pp. $24

IF SURREALISM has an address, I think it exists in Orange County.

The fifth-largest suburban county in the U.S., and the nation's second-most expensive housing market, Orange County is framed on television shows like "The O.C." and "The Real Housewives of Orange County" as a money-grubbing, social-climbing, xenophobic enclave of the super-rich.

I'm sure such portrayals satisfy some kind of bizarre hunger on our parts, but a truer rendering -- including financial scandals, mega-religion settlements and racial transgressions -- would have Dali and Bunuel bidding on a McMansion in the gated community of Coto de Caza if they were alive today.

It's hard to imagine that one region could be home to Rep. Robert Dornan and Mickey Mouse, Jim and Tammy Faye Baker and extraterrestrial basketballer Dennis Rodman, not to mention the largest community of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam. Here we have but a few of the parallel universes that one experiences while exploring the county's 789 square miles.

These odd juxtapositions and contradictions exist at the center of Gustavo Arellano's warm memoir-cum-history lesson, "Orange County," a familial journey of immigration interwoven with a hilarious dissection of the region's history. Arellano, who writes the syndicated "¬°Ask a Mexican!" column for OC Weekly, is a satirist at heart, and his brand of humor and bold subject matter has its critics and supporters among Latinos and non-Latinos. He is irreverent, very funny and willfully liberal -- a distinct irony coming from a region once referred to by Ronald Reagan as the place where "all the good Republicans go to die."

The opening pages of "Orange County" provide an assessment of the place today. It's still affluent and politically powerful with a large conservative base. According to a recent census, however, the demographics are shifting; the population is now roughly 60% white, 30% Latino/Hispanic (a number that has nearly doubled in the last 15 years), with a rapidly growing Asian community. Thirty percent of its residents are foreign-born.

And yet, writes Arellano, it's not just television that has failed to paint a realistic portrait of Orange County. Also to blame are the founding fathers and historians who "follow a tight OC Story, almost positivist in predetermined steps and outcome. . . . We don't care for the facts -- we print the legend."

Settled in 1769 by Father Junipero Serra, and inhabited before that by the Tongvas and the Gabrielenos, Orange County was described in one early piece of writing as "the only romantic spot on the [Pacific] coast."

From the beginning, the fertile land was about change and transaction. The name Orange County dates from 1889, when it seceded from Los Angeles County. But if most people believe this "described the bounty of orange groves," Arellano notes, "in fact, as the county's historian emeritus, Jim Sleeper, put it, 'The organizers of Orange County chose that name for the sordid purpose of real estate. They argued that Eastern people would be attracted by the name . . . ignorant to the fact that there were more than a hundred other places in the United States named Orange.' "

Arellano gives us the basic history. But he also jumps to the present to cover an extraordinary range of material, including the story of how Leisure World got its start, as well as a jaw-dropping list of politicians whose failed initiatives and amendments defy the imagination for mean-spirited ignorance and divisiveness.

Along the way, he inserts captioned boxes that focus on the dubious and real achievements of the 34 cities that make up the county, along with a restaurant recommendation for each. Reading this, I'm reminded of Gourmet Magazine editor (and former Times food editor) Ruth Reichl, who used a similar approach, integrating recipes into her glowing memoir, "Tender at the Bone." Arellano's efforts have the same effect here, offering bite-sized morsels of history to ease the burden of change.

If the humor of the book emerges from the cutting reportage of Orange County's history, the heart of the narrative lies in the Arellano family's four-generation journey from El Cargadero, a village in central Mexico, to Anaheim. This is the quintessential California story. "Orange County groves became renowned," Arellano writes, "thanks not just to the fruits but the ornate labels on every packing box. What the labels, farmers, and civic leaders never highlighted was the means of production: Mexicans."

By taking on the weight of family history, Arellano's story becomes an epic journey of oppression and endurance, and amazingly relevant in the current debate over immigration. For many Chicanos, it will be heartbreaking in its accessibility and familiarity.

I kept wishing that some of the writing was more soaring, but its lovely poetic simplicity allows a whole generation of readers to find itself in the author's cultural shoes.

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