When Gustavo Arellano told us he wanted to give a talk and book signing in Santa Fe, we rushed to help set them up. Arellano’s Ask a Mexican column is circulated in dozens of newspapers around the country, including Orange County, Calif.’s OC Weekly, where Arellano is a staff writer. He’s also a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times op-ed pages and has appeared on numerous programs, including Today, Nightline and The Colbert Report. He will speak and sign copies of his book, Ask a Mexican, 6 to 8 pm, Monday March 15 at Collected Works Bookstore, 202 Galisteo St., 988-4226.
SFR: The column, Ask a Mexican, started kind of as a joke, right?
GA: Yeah, it started in November of 2004, almost as a challenge by my editor at the time [Will Swaim]…We wanted to make a commentary on how ignorant people are about Mexicans, in our case especially in Orange County, one of the Mexican-hating capitals of the United States. So we decided to do the column just for a week…we didn’t expect people to actually send in questions about Mexicans. Once the questions started coming on, we knew we needed to continue doing it.
Do you have a question you’ve received over the years that stands out as the most memorable?
Oh my God, I could almost recite every single question people ever send me; you can’t make up the genius of the letters that I get: ‘Why do Mexicans worship midgets?’ ‘Is it true that Mexican girls only practice anal sex until marriage so they can remain virgins?’ Crazy, insane things like that. I do wonder, why or how could any rational person have those questions about Mexicans or any ethnicity? But not all the questions are racist. It’s a common misperception that [my readers] are racist non-Mexicans. It’s a very multicultural audience. My favorite questions are always about etymology or some of the nuances of Mexican-Spanish history. I love history.
Did you encounter racism growing up, or even today?
I encountered more discrimination for being a nerd than anything, and more by fellow Mexicans than by white people. People accused me of not being Mexican enough…I would always hear it from my aunts and uncles and cousins: ‘Your Spanish isn’t good, you don’t dress like a Mexican, you don’t listen to Mexican music,’ that criticism. To a certain extent, my family still makes fun of me for that, but not as much as they used to.
Why is profanity so much more awesome in Spanish?
I think there was a study that Mexicans use 51 curse words a day, something crazy. Mexican Spanish is already a language corrupted in so many ways. Spanish comes from the Spaniards, [who were] the mutts of Spain, hidden Moors and hidden Jews; you mix that up with the language of the Indians, you have this clash of linguistic civilizations; what you’re going to get is a chaotic interpretation of the language. And it’s not a pretentious language like Castillian, so people are much more comfortable cursing.
You haven’t been here before; any burning questions you have about New Mexican culture?
I’ve been to New Mexico twice, but I’ve never been to Santa Fe. My overriding question is a question of admiration: How is it that New Mexicans were able to keep their own unique culture for centuries? Tex-Mex culture is so watered down I don’t even know which part is Tex and which part is Mex.
You’re also the food writer at OC Weekly and working on a food book. What will it be about?
Food is my overriding passion because I love to eat and I love the history of food, how food has been interpreted, how food has been mongrelized. So the reason I’m coming to Santa Fe is to research for my book, Taco USA, How Mexican Food Conquered America (And Soon, the World). It’s going to be a history of Mexican food, but only in the United States, [and] one of the chapters is going to be the ‘phenomenon’ of Southwestern cuisine.
What are you looking forward to eating when you get here?
Oh my god, whatever I can find. Whenever I go anywhere, I always ask people, ‘Let me know where the locals eat. What’s the best place that serves a sopaipilla or red posole or carne adovada?’ All the great New Mexican treats that we really don’t have in California, that still have retained their New Mexican essence, that’s what I want to try.