The Weapon of Satire
“¡Ask a Mexican!” author Gustavo Arellano on how he combats hatred and stereotypes
BY SUZI STEFFEN
So who is the real man behind the sombrero-wearing hombre cartoon that’s causing uproar in the EW‘s letters section?
Gustavo Arellano is a 28-year-old investigative reporter and food critic for The OC Weekly in Orange County, Calif. He has a bachelor’s in film studies from Chapman College in L.A. and a master’s in Latin American Studies from UCLA. He specialized in anthropology, sociology and history in the multidisciplinary grad program. “I’m a total nerd,” Arellano says.
And for his most famous job, writer of the “¡Ask A Mexican!” column, he calls on all of that knowledge plus his life experience from living as a fourth-generation Mexican-American in Orange County, the place that he says “created this anti-immigrant hysteria.”
|Arellano with his family|
The syndicated column appears every week in 32 papers with a combined circulation of more than 2 million, and it runs everywhere from Seattle to El Paso, from Kansas City, Mo., to Jackson, Wyo. Eugene Weekly began running the column in the Nov. 8 issue at the request of an EW board member, and “because Arellano is a voice addressing Latino-Anglo topics in a fresh and well-written way,” says EW Editor Ted Taylor.
Though Oregon has been and remains a largely white state, vital statistics in Oregon show that 20 percent of babies born in the state in 2005 were born to Latina mothers, and demographic stats from the 2005 census show that nearly 10 percent of Oregon residents identify as Hispanic or Latino. Orange County’s stats claim a 35 percent Hispanic/Latino population.
And Orange County, Arellano says, has so much stereotyping and so much ignorance that even though he began his column as a joke, he quickly learned how necessary it was. As an investigative reporter (a job he still has), he had been tracking hate groups and also covering the education beat. In May of 2004, he remembers, the OC Weekly ran a special issue for Cinco de Mayo called “Why Do We Hate Mexicans?” The issue “was devoted to the history of Mexican-bashing in Orange County,” and that was when the now-infamous caricature of a Latino man made its debut at the paper. The caricature is required by the syndication contract and runs alongside the column.
Arellano has won many awards, including the National Hispanic Media Coalition’s Impact Award for Excellence in Print Journalismin 2007. But in many places, including Eugene, some community members believe that “¡Ask A Mexican!” perpetuates stereotypes, that Arellano is a racist and that his column hurts the very people he’s trying to help.
What’s going on? We asked him.
For our readers who haven’t read a lot about you, could you describe your parents’ background and where you grew up?
My parents were immigrants from Mexico. My dad crossed the border illegally in the trunk of a Chevy. I grew up in Anaheim, but when I entered kindergarten, I only spoke Spanish.
So technically, I’m fourth generation. My great-grandfather came in the early 1900s to pick oranges, went to Mexico to get married and have kids, and brought up my grandfather when he was 3. My grandfather grew up in Anaheim during the 1910s and 1920s, at a time when Mexicans could only live in citrus camps. Then he went back to Mexico and had his family. My mom came to the U.S. when she was 12, but her family connection to Orange County had gone back 60 years. We’ve now had a century of living in Orange County.
My mom doesn’t think much of my Spanish now — Mexican mothers are like Jewish moms; they are never content. They love you, but they are always going to be pricking at you. I came on [the air] a couple of weeks ago with Jorge Ramos on Univision, and my mom said, “Your Spanish was great; you only had one or two words that you missed.”
What’s the point of your column?
The point is to debunk the stereotypes that people do have about Mexicans, to aggressively go after racists, but at the same time, do it in a way that people will want to read it every week and get entertained — whether it’s Mexicans laughing at ourselves or people laughing at stupid racists or at stupid questions.
It’s satire. I try to follow the great satirists: Mark Twain, Jonathan Swift, Dave Chappelle and Stephen Colbert. They make people laugh, but we don’t consider them comedians, we consider them making a commentary on their time.
I have found that this column has been incredibly effective in combating hatred and stereotypes. And sometimes people really do have earnest questions about Mexicans.
What is the audience you envision for the column?
The audience to me is everyone who’s concerned about Mexicans. Latinos are the largest minority in this country, and Mexicans make up 60 percent of that and are moving into places they never were before. We can’t be surprised that some people are having a freak-out about us. Assimilation in this country has never been pretty. There is going to be curiosity; there is going to be skepticism. As a member of the “invading army,” I can tell people: Look, it’s going to be OK.
For an audience breakdown, I’d say it’s 40 percent Latino, everyone from third or fourth generation Mexicans who don’t know how to speak Spanish to Mexicans in Mexico who read the column online and respond. Then 40 percent are gabachos, 10 percent Asian American, 10 percent African American.
Let’s talk about the caricature. Doesn’t it reinforce stereotypes?
The caricature is not a Mexican; it’s a dumb drawing of somebody’s warped image of Mexicans. Also, it’s the image that has been in American minds for about 150 years. If it were something people used to ridicule or to harm, I would totally understand [the objection]. However, it’s satire; I published that logo to rob it of its power. I’m trying to reappropriate that image to castrate it of its power, publish it again and again and again until people no longer see that as a Mexican.
Actually, we’ve already reappropriated that image. Go to most Mexican restaurants in the U.S., and entrepreneurs are using that trope to promote Mexican businesses. Mexican entrepreneurs know it’s a dumb drawing that’s gotten a cachet amongst people. I don’t see Latino activists protesting those entrepreneurs who use it.
But I completely understand why the freak-out. Because it is an ugly caricature. But why are we allowing a dumb drawing to upset us so much? We should laugh at anybody who thinks this is an actual Mexican. We should say, “It’s funny, but if you’re trying to upset me, it’s not going to work.” I’m beyond that, and I want other people to get beyond it too.
Also, can you talk to me about the statement I’ve seen directed at you from other Latinos that you’re “not really Mexican” or “not really one of us”?
Number one, I find it hilarious when people try to ascribe very limited attributes to particular ethnicity. People say you’re born in the U.S., so you’re not a Mexican. Try telling that to the hundreds of thousands of us, the high school kids like me who grew up in the U.S. and describe ourselves as Mexican. Who are you to say these kids aren’t Mexican?
If you use limiting labels like that, you’re no better than the racists who say somebody who doesn’t speak the language but works hard is no better than an illegal savage. I find that reprehensible.
Number two, if you want to play the game of qualifications, I can play that: Both of my parents were Mexican immigrants. My mom was first a strawberry picker and then a tomato canner, and my dad is a truck driver. The only language spoken in my household is Spanish. But I got university degrees.
One thing about immigration from Mexico is that entire communities uproot and transplant themselves in United States. My mom’s rancho, there were 500 people in her rancho at its most populous. Now there are over a thousand people from her rancho in the U.S. When I grew up, all my friends, all my girlfriends, everybody I knew — they weren’t even Mexicans, they were people from this small village in Mexico.
I know that in Orange County and some of the other places where the column runs, it has sparked a lot of controversy. Did you expect that?
Absolutely. When the column started [as a one-time joke] in November of 2004 — well, whenever you write a story about immigration in Orange County, you get a ton of responses. So we knew people were going to go nuts. And to run the logo, yeah, people are going to go even more nuts.
We didn’t expect people to start sending in questions about Mexicans, to call me on my bluff. And every place that the column has run, I’ve experienced the exact same reaction as in Eugene. Even in El Paso, which is like 95 percent Mexican, there was controversy with the column as well. I know how the reaction goes: Hate, puzzlement, calls and letters to the newspaper, meetings with the editors, and then eventually, people settle down and start reading the column. And more often than not, I’m able to convert those people into being fans of the column. I expect that to also happen in Eugene.
If you have a concern with the column, email me (firstname.lastname@example.org). I’ll talk to you. I’m not just going to be writing columns from some ivory tower and sending them to the masses. The purpose of the column is to spark dialogue among people.
I hear from many people that they think the column is racist. And as you know, a member of the human rights community here has written that your success “is based upon purposely exploiting the dominant culture’s racial cruel streak.”
It’s not. First and foremost, there are no sacred cows. If I view pathologies in the Mexican community, I’m speaking out against those as well. There’s an unfortunate streak of homophobia, for instance, and I’ve spoken against machismo, spoken against racism. I have spoken against Mexicans discriminating against darker-skinned Mexicans.
I’m not degrading anyone; I’m criticizing my own gente, my own people. If we’re going to portray ourselves as the people who deserve amnesty, we have some issues to work out. But the vast majority of my critiques are against people who are know-nothings — those are the people I’m going after. If people read the column continuously, they’ll see me go after that.
The column, it’s really multifaceted. It’s combating hate, providing a forum for people to learn about Mexicans and attempting to really destroy the Mexican of the American imagination. We’re not all rapist-criminals, but we’re also not all saints. We’re humans like everybody else. We have the good, the bad, the goofy, and I want to talk about all of that.
Other people tell me they know what you’re trying to do, but they think you’re furthering racial stereotypes. They are especially concerned about the toilet paper column that ran in EW on Nov. 8. How do you respond to the accusation that you’re only reinforcing stereotypes?
OK, first of all, [not flushing toilet paper] IS something that happens in Mexico. Also, it’s a question I get a lot. I think they didn’t read it the whole way through. With that last sentence [“Do me a favor, gabacho, and tell nopaleros that here in los Estados Unidos, we’re much more sophisticated with our No. 2 — we flush it into the ocean.”], I’m criticizing the people who send in the question. I’m criticizing our unsanitary ways.
I don’t ridicule Mexicans. I play along with stereotypes only to be able to explode them. People have to read the whole column in order to understand what’s going on.
For instance, to the question, “Why do Mexicans steal?” I gave three answers. But at the end, I said, “If my answers seem evasive, it’s because they are — because your question is so stupid, I’ll only give you the stupidest answer possible.”
Many of the other papers where your column runs (Kansas City, Orange County, New York) are located in cities with historically large Latino populations. People in Eugene are giving EW two forms of feedback. One is that Eugene isn’t sophisticated enough for your humor.
OK, one: I just came back from Jackson, Wyo., population 10,000. I had a standing-room only audience. A lot of Mexican immigrants came up to me and said, “Thank you for writing this column. We laugh at it, but we’re proud that you’re willing to be a voice against hate against Mexicans.” The column can and does play in small town America.
People are trying to portray Eugene as this innocent bubble — oh, we can’t allow the reality of the U.S. to come in. In reading some of those emails, I find them patronizing on both sides. On one side, they are patronizing “poor” Mexican immigrants. Others are saying white people aren’t going to get the column. That’s insulting against Eugene. If freaking Wichita, Kansas, and Tulsa, Okla., can run the column, are you telling me that Eugene is stupider than both of those cities?
I have looked at the demographics of Eugene and also Portland. It’s funny when I do encounter those more white cities — when it came out in Seattle, I got the same progressive guilty white liberal concerns that I’m getting right now from Eugene.
The second concern we hear is that because many white Eugeneans aren’t experienced with being around Latinos and don’t hear enough other Latino voices, they will not understand that some of what you write is humorous.
That’s not my problem. If people have an issue with the coverage of Latinos in their newspapers, they should be talking to the editors and saying, “You should be doing more coverage.” My column is not “¡Ask THE Mexican!” It’s one voice. They should start doing their own columns talking about concerns specifically in Eugene.
Actually, one of the reasons I got into journalism was the lack of Latino coverage in Orange County. My column just happens to be one opinion.
That leads to another issue. Some people in the human rights community are concerned about “snark.” Do you consider your writing snarky?
No. Snarky writing does not involve the amount of research that I spend on my articles. It does not involve me citing all the statistics that I do, or directly confronting Lou Dobbs and the politics of hate. Snark is not what I do with my column. I’m deadly serious with what I do in debunking stereotypes against Mexicans.
It’s flippant, sure, but when it comes to columns, you have to have a particular voice, a personality. Sure, I’m a bit aggressive, but I’m also very well-versed, and the people who read the column read it like I watch The Simpsons. You could laugh at the jokes and the humor, but the more you know, the more you can appreciate it.
A really obscure example of a joke: One time I was talking about Mexicans and Islam. I wrote the name of the Prophet Muhammed. Whenever Muslims say Muhammed, they say Peace Be Unto Him; in print, Muslim papers will shorten it to PBUH, so I did that and got Muslims saying, “Hey, we didn’t know you knew our culture!”
Do you think that people’s reactions fall along generational lines?
I don’t think it’s a generational difference. The people I’ve met going across the country, they’re not just young people; they’re old, rich, young, poor, working-class, white, Latino. In Houston, a little Mexican grandmother came up to me. She said, “When I first read you, I thought you were a bad boy.” She hated me, but then she started to actually read me and has been a fan ever since.
So do reactions depend on the length of time people read the column?
Yes. I totally understand where they’re coming from the first time, not knowing the methodology or my story or the context.
The best example I can give is this guy from Newport, Ore., Bob Diefenbach, who picks up a copy of [the alt-weekly] Alibi in Albuquerque. He picks it up, reads the column and thinks it’s funniest thing he’s ever read. He takes it home and shows it to a Mexican coworker in the hospital, who thinks it’s funniest thing he’s ever read. It gets spread all across the hospital. Soon, Bob gets called into the HR department and gets suspended for five days, for racism and sexual harassment.
The people who issued that read the column completely out of context. Read the column over space of a month, and you’ll get what I’m trying to do. The biggest challenge is to keep it fresh and interesting. As well intentioned as serious stories about immigration may be, even I wouldn’t want to read that all of the time, and I’m all about immigrant rights.
As a columnist, I have to mix up the questions and make sure that people continue to read. I might mix a question about history with a stupid question like “Why are Mexicans so damn happy all the time?” Another week, I might get a really racist question and pair it with one about music. I mix up the questions, and that’s why if somebody read it only one week, maybe the question was really offensive or I was really, really rude.
When there is so much pain in immigrant communities caused by raids, new laws and a general sense of being under attack, how do you defend your column?
Well, here’s where I’m going to attack Eugene. You guys are in this happy-go-lucky progressive paradise. I work with real live Minutemen who get elected to city council, who pass these anti-immigrant ordinances. We’re the ones who created this anti-immigrant fervor that’s spread like wildfire across the country.
I understand those concerns. I have been in trenches for years, and it is tough right now. People like Lou Dobbs are mouthing off and saying all this crap. You’re supposed to confront them directly, but people are so scared of hate and anti-immigrant sentiment, they won’t go and confront it; they will go after it from afar.
In my experience, my column is my best tool in confronting those know-nothings. I’m not going to just allow hate to run in circles around me. I’m going to use whatever weapons I have to confront it. Other people might be more serious — and I also do “serious” op-ed pieces for the L.A. Times. I’m involved in nonprofits in Orange County, I go across the country telling people to stay in school and I work with undocumented kids trying to get in-state tuition.
A couple of weeks ago, I dedicated my column to college students affected by the failure of the DREAM Act. I dedicated it actually to “the real ghouls of the season,” who are harassing our country’s most productive Americans: kids who go to college despite having the specter of deportation over their heads. I got a lot of emails from students saying, “Thank you for being a voice for us.”
That’s my weapon against hate. If people don’t want to read the column, that’s fine. I’ve seen it work, and I’m going to continue doing it.