Gustavo Arellano is a staff writer with OC Weekly, an alternative newspaper in Orange County, California, a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times Op/Ed pages, and frequent guest on Public Radio International’s Weekend America. He writes “¡Ask a Mexican!,” a nationally syndicated column in which he answers any and all questions about America’s spiciest and largest minority. The column was published in book form by Scribner Press in May 2007. He lives in Orange County and is the proud son of two Mexican immigrants, one whom was illegal.
In early November Hot Metal Bridge talked with Arellano about his writing, immigration, and Arrested Development.
Hot Metal Bridge: What is the role of the meta in your writing? Do you see it as an avenue for extemporaneous commentary, is it a planned and controlled stylistic choice, or does it have more to do with language—the conversational sound of a tangent?
Gustavo Arellano: When I write, I like to have a rollicking good time. If that means I’m meta, so be it. If that means I get boring for a bit for the sake of a particular point, I’ll do it.
HMB: Are there any middle-class or wealthy Mexicans in Orange County? Do they get any love?
GA: Of course, there are wealthier Mexis in OC—and they hate regular Mexicans as much as everyone else! They’re accepted by whites because money tends to wipe out ethnicity, but I also know of stories in the 1950s when Mexicans began moving into the white parts of towns, much to their furor. In fact, I mention the story of Jesse Flores in my Orange County book. He was a former baseball player from La Habra who decided to move back home after he retired from the big leagues. The city fathers would let him move into the white area only if he delivered the Mexican vote for Republicans; Jesse refused.
HMB: You don’t really talk too much about the folks that entered the country legally and how they are represented in the racial and immigration debates. I know a lot of legal Mexican immigrants who totally hate on the illegal ones—does this happen in Orange County? Is it something you’ve encountered?
GA: Read above. Some of the most prominent Minutemen are Mexicans. Hate exists in all ethnicities, and the capacity to hate one’s own makes for some of the ugliest racism.
HMB: “So goes Orange County…so goes the country.” As of right now, do you think that is still true?
GA: We’ll find out tomorrow—Election Day!
HMB: It’s evident in the text that a lot of research went into your writing, although toward the end of the book, the reader gets the impression that you’re just writing the second book of a two-book deal (mostly because you say so). Why use that second book to write about Orange County instead of focusing on something larger like California or something smaller like just Anaheim or El Cargardero?
GA: Orange County’s story is one that had never truly been properly documented, and I found that astounding. This is one of the key regions in the United States for the past 50 years, and few scholars bother with it. I originally only wanted to concentrate on Orange County, but the venom that emerged through the immigration debate of 2007 convinced me to add the memoir portion. I know it’s such a cliché of American letters, but in this age where so many believe Mexicans are ruining the United States, a Mexican immigrant family’s tale is not only crucial, but vital.
HMB: I’m curious about the way translation functions in the book as well. You translate all the Spanish immediately after it is printed. Why? Was this an editorial decision to make things easier on the gabachos or is it a part of the way the book deals with the topic of assimilation?
GA: I know that not everyone knows Spanish, so I wanted to make it easier on them. This wasn’t ¡Ask a Mexican!, where I challenge readers all the time; I wanted to make this book as digestible as possible. That said, I also wanted the reader to understand that Spanish is still an important part of my life. I might go a bit overboard in detailing my loss of Spanish—if you throw me in Mexico, I’ll not only exist but become presidente within six years.
HMB: Also: at the end of book, you seem to embrace the rancho way of speaking, the less “proper” way of saying, yet when you translate the slang, you translate it as proper English. Do you think about language as being political?
GA: Of course language is political. People try to govern with language, ridicule people because of it. I love colloquial languages—one of the great books in America was Mencken’s study of the American language. Those who insist on purity in speech or the written word are delusional elitists.
HMB: You call out Richard Rodriguez. Get any flack for that?
GA: Not really, and I knew I wouldn’t. Chicanos hate Rodriguez; everyone else seems to have forgotten him. I think he’s a wonderful wordsmith but a bit too trying in his profundity.
HMB: What’s your favorite episode of Arrested Development? Mine’s the one when the Bluth Company employees end up sheepled in Catalina.
GA: I describe it in my book—when Buster thinks he’s in Mexico but is actually in SanTana. That send-up of gabachos with Mexicans remains the best satire of Orange County EVER.
HMB: Did you end up getting those custom-made shoes after your appearance on Colbert? If so, what kind of shoe?
GA: Of course! Rockford something-or-other. They’re so worn out and ugly, but they get the greatest applause at book signings!