Don’t ask this one about that Mex­i­can

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar - By Agustin Gurza

Gus­tavo Arel­lano is like the Paris Hil­ton of the Latino jour­nal­ism world. He pops up ev­ery­where, the me­dia love him, and he thor­oughly rel­ishes the at­ten­tion.

The dif­fer­ence is he’s no air­head and he’s not go­ing to jail, though some con­sider his celebrity an of­fense. Arel­lano has cap­i­tal­ized on the nov­elty of his syn­di­cated col­umn, “¡Ask a Mex­i­can!,” in which he fields of­ten racist ques­tions about Mex­i­cans with an­swers that are of­ten racist them­selves.

Since launch­ing the provoca­tive fea­ture for the OC Weekly three years ago, like it or not, “The Mex­i­can,” as he calls him­self, has be­come the voice of a peo­ple. He’s a fre­quent guest on pub­lic ra­dio and lo­cal talk ra­dio, and he’s made ap­pear­ances on NBC’s “To­day” show, ABC’s “Night­line” and Com­edy Cen­tral’s “The Col­bert Re­port.”

Now he’s on tour pro­mot­ing his new book of the same name, pub­lished by Scrib­ner. The au­thor ap­peared in April on a panel at the L.A. Times Book Fair and he’s com­ing to a book­store near you to au­to­graph his book, the cover of which is em­bla­zoned with a Chi­huahua, a bot­tle of tequila, a rooster, a big som­brero and a bul­let-rid­dled car.

In his four-page list of ac­knowl­edg­ments, Arel­lano thanks ra­dio DJs who gave him weekly ex­po­sure, in­clud­ing KPCC’s Larry Man­tle and KABC’s Al Ran­tel, and cred­its


[ the Los An­ge­les Times for a front-page profile in 2006 that brought him na­tional at­ten­tion. (Arel­lano also writes oc­ca­sional opin­ion pieces for this pa­per.)

You won’t find my name among the thank-yous. I have re­luc­tantly be­come the Anti-Mex­i­can, a go-to guy for re­porters seek­ing a dis­sent­ing voice to bal­ance the cho­rus of praise that oth­er­wise packs pro­files of my col­league.

Arel­lano’s shtick is to be the light­ning rod for Mex­i­can haters and for the po­lit­i­cally cor­rect crit­ics he calls Chi­cano Yak­tivists, ad­mit­tedly a funny term. I once de­bated him in a meet­ing of L.A. Latino jour­nal­ists, some of whom dis­missed our dis­agree­ments as gen­er­a­tional. Ap­par­ently, I’m too much of an old fogy to get how cool and hi­lar­i­ous The Mex­i­can is.

That’s not true. I get it. His satir­i­cal com­edy is a cross be­tween Andrew Dice Clay and Don Rick­les. (Ooops, did I just date my­self?) The prob­lem is, one man’s joke is an­other man’s in­sult. Be­sides, I was born in Mex­ico (un­like The Mex­i­can, who’s ac­tu­ally an Ana­heim na­tive) but I rarely rec­og­nize my­self in his an­swers: I don’t wear street clothes while swim­ming in the ocean, I’m not es­pe­cially at­tracted to women with large der­ri­eres and I’m not a big fan of Mor­ris­sey.

Af­ter a while, his an­swers start to sound for­mu­laic. There’s an in­sult­ing re­tort, an en­dorse­ment of the stereo­type in ques­tion, an out­ra­geous ex­pla­na­tion that makes the stereo­type worse, and a Google search to pro­vide jour­nal­is­tic cover with re­lated fac­toids to sound in­formed.

I’m tired of hear­ing my­self com­plain about the col­umn: It re­in­forces stereo­types, triv­i­al­izes racism, claims to speak for all Mex­i­cans, blah, blah, blah. Still, I’m as­tounded that in this postDon Imus world more peo­ple don’t call Arel­lano on this stuff.

Af­ter all, he’s us­ing the old Imus de­fense: Lighten up, The Mex­i­can is just try­ing to be funny.

For ex­am­ple, one wait­ress writes on Page 142 that Mex­i­cans (“brown-skinned losers”) are bad tip­pers, so she spits in their drinks. In re­sponse, The Mex­i­can cites an aca­demic study that found Mex­i­cans to be gen­er­ous tip­pers. But then he goes on to say that Mex­i­can men are mo­ti­vated to give more if the wait­ress is caliente, dresses sexy and jig­gles for her re­ward. For bet­ter tips, Arel­lano ad­vises, “get some . . . im­plants.”

On Thurs­day I spoke to Arel­lano, who had just re­turned from an­other suc­cess­ful book sign­ing in Hous­ton. He says his col­umn has evolved, be­com­ing more ed­u­ca­tional and in­for­ma­tive.

“Peo­ple have the mis­con­cep­tion that the col­umn just deals with stereo­types and racist rants,” he told me. “That might have been the case in its in­cep­tion, but now it cov­ers any­thing and ev­ery­thing about Mex­i­can so­ci­ety.”

Arel­lano says his strat­egy is to neu­tral­ize stereo­types by em­brac­ing them, killing them with overuse à la Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” I’m not sure that’s work­ing. Else­where in his book, he ad­dresses an Ital­ian with a deroga­tory name, refers to gays with a Span­ish slur, and al­lows a ques­tioner on Page 177 to blithely re­fer to blacks with one of the worst eth­nic slurs in the English lan­guage— the n-word.


Robert Lach­man Los An­ge­les Times

AU­THOR: Gus­tavo Arel­lano wrote “¡Ask a Mex­i­can!”

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