Don’t ask this one about that Mexican
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.
AUTHOR: Gustavo Arellano wrote “¡Ask a Mexican!”