The OC Weekly column Ask a Mexican started out as a joke in 2004, but within a couple of years, Gustavo Arellano became a nationally syndicated spokesman for Orange County: the good, the bad and the very, very racist. This weekend, you can see his sense of humor interpreted for the stage in San Jose with ¡Interview with a Mexican! at Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana, or MACLA for short.
The 39 year-old Mexican-American born and raised in Anaheim has covered many topics over the course of his journalistic career: "Tacos, pedophile priests, Mexicans and neo-Nazis. Hey, it’s a living right?" Love his pointed sense of humor or hate it, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone else who does such a wickedly funny job documenting Orange County’s historically uber-right politics, and politically incorrect attitudes.
In Ask a Mexican, which ended in 2017, Arellano blended a genuine desire to educate with a sarcastic edge that makes the lesson amusing to readers -- whether they know the answer already or find themselves quietly taking notes. Here is but one example:
Dear Mexican: Believe I’ve heard from you, in an interview, that “gringo” is either out-of-date or inappropriate and that gabacho is the better choice. I’ve checked online and most sources say that gabacho is a pejorative and/or generally refers to Europeans. Is this the case, or is gabacho just a better word than “gringo”? Also, as a native SoCal cracker, is it acceptable for me to use gabacho or to refer to myself as such? What is the proper etiquette and usage so I don’t offend anyone or embarrass myself? I’ve also asked friends, but the vote seems to be split.
Dear Gabacho: As I’ve explained in this columna before, gabacho and gringo are synonyms for the same thing—gabachos, with the key differences being certainty in their respective etymology (gabacho comes from Provencal, while no one has ever put forth a definite origin story for “gringo”), and the important fact that gabachos long ago appropriated “gringo” into a harmless term that has absolutely no sting, while gabacho maintains its sting. And now you want to proudly refer to yourself as a gabacho, gabacho? No. Content yourself with the theft of half of Mexico back in the day, and leave our treasures alone once and for all.
You can see why Arellano has taken heat from readers on the political left as well as right. He takes pride in the criticism, calling himself a Jeremiah, the Old Testament prophet whose complaints about the Jews were not greeted with enthusiasm or warmth by the Chosen People. "I say how it is, whether people like it or not. Most of the time, people don't like it, but that's OK," Arellano says.
Arellano resigned as editor in chief of the OC Weekly in 2017, rather than capitulate to a demand by the publication’s owners to lay off most of his staff. Soon after, he began writing a weekly column for the opinion section of The Los Angeles Times, and he delivers regular commentary in a series called Orange County Line for the Santa Monica public radio station KCRW. But the copyright for the Ask A Mexican column remains the property of the OC Weekly, even if it has no value without Arellano's trademark wit.
"I would have never imagined that the column would even run that long," he says. "There was a proposed television show. That flamed out. Ask a Mexican: The Movie. Yeah, that wasn't going to happen."
There was even a play, but that died after one reading. But Arellano knew playwright Anthony Garcia, executive artistic director of the Denver theatre company Su Teatro. So when Garcia pitched his concept for another play, "I trusted him," Arellano says. "And he came up with a great piece of theatre."
So how does this become a play?
To make it work for the stage, Garcia married bits from Arellano’s columns and books with music, dance, and back-and-forth with the audience. "The whole piece really is about asking questions. We say, “Ask, so you don’t look like a pendejo.” I.e. stupid. "You can get educated and insulted at the same time."
In the last year since the first staged reading at MACLA, ¡Interview with a Mexican! played in Denver and Albuquerque before returning to the Bay Area.
Garcia says he's been surprised at how warmly audiences accept the edgy humor. "There is a conversation about how we can't talk about race anymore without understanding everybody's personal vibe. Clearly, I know enough to know when to keep my mouth shut, but on stage, I don't think we have those same restrictions."
Garcia has led Su Teatro for half a century, and says Arellano's humor plays well in Denver. "There are Chicanos who've been there for a very long time. There's recent immigrants. There's second and third-generation Mexican-Americans kids who call themselves Mexicanos but don't know shit about the Virgen de Guadalupe. And these are my students!" says Garcia, who's also an adjunct professor at Metro State College in Denver.
Garcia adds he hopes this play can serve as a tool to help younger generations understand more about themselves in a palatable fashion. "We love to laugh at ourselves."
Is there one question Arellano gets all the time: "If you hate Orange County so much, why do you live here?"
His answer: "You can only truly love Orange County if you despise it. Cause there's a lot of horrible things with Orange County, but those things are slowly going away."
Does that make Gustavo Arellano an optimist or a pessimist? Well, he's still living there.