Author Confronts Stereotypes in 'Ask a Mexican'

Gustavo Arrellano discusses his new book Ask a Mexican, which takes a witty look at stereotypes often faced by Mexican Americans.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later, we're going to talk to a teen about his decision to embrace abstinence, and my commentary on why girls can cry if they want to.

But first, if you could ask a Mexican anything, what would you want to know? As we so often hear these days, Latinos are now the largest minority in the U.S. Those of Mexican heritage are the majority of that minority. So if you want to know, what's a quinceanera? Is it true no true Mexicans eat flower tortillas? And, okay, I'll just say it. Why are all those cars parked on the front lawn, anyway?

Gustavo Arellano wants to tell you. His new book, "Ask a Mexican," is a witty look at some of the questions spoken and unspoken that Mexicans confront. It's based on his syndicated column in the Orange County Weekly. He joins us now from our member station in Irvine, California.

Gustavo, welcome.

Mr. GUSTAVO ARELLANO (Columnist, Orange County Weekly; Author, "Ask a Mexican"): Hey, what's going on?

MARTIN: And I should mention that you've been a regular on our Barbershop segment on Fridays. So, you're not exactly a newcomer to this table.

Mr. ARELLANO: I'm no stranger to you folks.

MARTIN: You're no stranger.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So how did you come up with this column, Ask A Mexican? It's kind of in your face from the get-go.

Mr. ARELLANO: Absolutely. The way the column started was my former editor at the OC Weekly, he gave me the idea to start the column as a way to take a different perspective on the immigration war happening here on Orange County. As a reporter, I had been covering it, but both those sides, they were being so laughable, so caricatures of each other that we decided that the best way to confront that would be to do it as a parody. So we started the column, we made up a question, why Mexicans call white people gringos. And the reaction…

MARTIN: Which they don't.

Mr. ARELLANO: No. No. Us Mexicans, we really call gringos gabachos, which is basically the same thing as gringos, but just a little bit tougher.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. ARELLANO: And, better, most gabachos don't even know that word yet.

MARTIN: I know. I didn't know that word. So, I don't if I cannot…

Mr. ARELLANO: We got our secrets.

MARTIN: That's right.

Mr. ARELLANO: Yeah, well, of course, you cannot - no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARELLANO: So what happen then, we put it out there, it was just supposed to be a joke, a parody column. But we got such an overwhelming response that we knew that we had to continue the column. More importantly, though, people took us up on or bluff, where we asked them if you had a spicy question about Mexicans, go ask the Mexican, and they started asking me questions.

MARTIN: So now, are these questions real questions that people really ask, or are these still made-up questions just to be funny?

Mr. ARELLANO: No. The very - the only question we ever made up was the very first question. Ever since then, every question that I've answered in the column, people have sent it to me. The only thing I ever do, I give people a funny pseudonym and I clean up the grammar from time to time. You know, just so my readers don't - their eyeballs don't pop out just as how a dumb America writes nowadays.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That's funny. And the thing that kills me about it, Gustavo, is you're just - it's take no prisoners. I'm going to read one.

I'm 22. My question is why is it that I always get whistled at by Mexicans who are gardeners and in their late 40s? I don't do anything to attract their attention, yet I can't walk pass them or even drive by them without being hollered at. No amount of dirty looks deters them. What gives?

And then you've got a couple more on the same vein. And do you remember your answer?

Mr. ARELLANO: Oh, yeah. I said immigrant men have been notorious for public lechery since the days of the Vikings. The good thing about Mexicans, though, is that we don't go any further than just whistle at you, you know, do a…

(Soundbite of making kissing sound)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARELLANO: That's another noise that we do a lot. But we don't actually go out and pillage villages like the Vikings did or bed young women like Paul Gauguin did back in Tahiti. We just like to whistle. And why do we do it? Because women are beautiful, and we, you know, unlike Americans, we don't need them skinny. We just want women - we think women are beautiful no matter how they look.

MARTIN: And then you also give it this historical spin. This is what cracks me up. He says, immigrants leave home, family and church to become agents rather than subjects of history. The world moves forward as a result. And any man who breaks the shackles of propriety and chivalry and grabs his crotch at a gal is the type of immigrant we want, a type of immigrant that makes America great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARELLANO: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Gustavo, man. Okay, take no prisoners.

Mr. ARELLANO: We got to celebrate that pioneer ethos, right?

MARTIN: Yeah. Back at you, Gabacho, huh?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Were you always so pugnacious in defense of the Mexican culture?

Mr. ARELLANO: Absolutely. You know, amongst Mexicans. My parents are both immigrants and my first language was Spanish, but I assimilated quickly because that's how - that's what happens in the United States with the children of immigrants. So it always pained me that people would say Mexicans aren't assimilating. Mexicans are ruining this country because they're attacking my friends, my self and more importantly, my parents.

But rather than me cry and weep and moan about it, I just decided to be funny with it. I decided to confront it head on, but use whit and more importantly facts to debunk a lot of the stereotypes that people may have about Mexicans.

MARTIN: Well, the thing that's funny is to me is that your whole approach is not you're wrong. Here's why. In some cases you say, yes, this is true. Here's why, or here's another way to look at it. And I wonder if any of your community of, say, Mexican-American colleagues, friends, associates ever disagree with your approach and say, oh, come on, now. You know, you're airing our dirty laundry. Or, you don't have to own that or you should take responsibility for that. That's a minority of people. It doesn't reflect us.

Mr. ARELLANO: Yeah, no. Absolutely. I get a lot of criticism - not just from Latinos but also Gabachos, and people of all races and colors, really, for my approach because it is satirical and sometimes people don't get the satire. And as you said earlier, though, sometimes when I do agree with some things that people write in, people don't like that I am talking about Mexicans. So, for instance, I've written in the past about homophobia, how it's so pervasive in Mexican society, and also not flat out racism, but really the distrust and almost the caricatures that Mexicans have toward people of African descent, whether they'd be in Mexico or here in the United States.

Out here in Southern California, there's a lot of tensions right now between Latinos and African-Americans. And so people want to know what's with the pension, and so I give it a historical outlook on it, but more importantly, I criticize that. Mexicans, they're not sinners, but they're also not saints either, and we have to understand that and criticize when things are bad and defend when the criticism is unfounded.

MARTIN: You also talk about immigration. And I'm just - I'm fascinated people really are this blunt with you. They really - nobody makes any effort to be polite or PC with you. I'll get…

Mr. ARELLANO: No. No political correctness. Ah, ah, no.

MARTIN: One that stood out to me is why don't Mexican stay put and develop their own land into what they want? Why don't they bring themselves up like we did by doing what it takes to build a country like we did? It seems that Mexicans want a ready-made modern democratic country, but don't want to work for themselves back home - and I'm going to clean up the language a little bit and say really ticks me off and seems lazy to me. Get educated, get a backbone, get to business in your country. Do you - and its signed Johnny Rebel. And we can take that someway. Do you remember what your answer was?

Mr. ARELLANO: I don't remember exactly what I said, but I do know what I would have answered, which would have been it's a great double standard that us Americans have with, Mexicans because in the past, we invited immigrants who come here and remake themselves. We didn't say to those immigrants, hey, you know, stay in your country and remake it. Well, actually, we did. That's a great xenophobic secret of the United States.

But we're still saying that to Mexicans. Why don't you stay in your own country and remake it? The fact of the matter is Mexicans are remaking their own country in here in the United States.

MARTIN: Here's another couple of questions that you answered about food. One was - you know this is terrible, Gustavo. I feel like embarrassed even to be reading this, because it's…

Mr. ARELLANO: No. Don't be embarrassed.

MARTIN: …it's like this - well, no, it's like - it's almost like the guilty pleasure you get from watching a movie like "Crash," where everybody's giving free reign to their stereotypes. On the one hand, you know, you're thinking, oh, you know, that's terrible. Who would say that? On the other hand, you're thinking, yeah, I think that way. So here's one about why do Mexicans steal fruit from trees that aren't theirs. At my job, a tree hangs up with the wall and they climbed for the fruit. You remember what you said?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARELLANO: I said it's natural for Mexicans to pick fruits or to pick crops or whatever. It's just something in our genes. Of course, that's…

MARTIN: Oh, come on that's terrible. Come on, man.

Mr. ARELLANO: …that's totally satirical and stereotypical. I obviously don't really believe that. But that's what I try to do with the column, though. Sometimes I will perpetuate a stereotype to a certain extent just so that gives me the leeway to be able to really answer the question in a more thoughtful way.

MARTIN: Here's one more that's - it's interesting to me, and I think your answer is even more interesting than the question. You - the question is why don't Mexicans tip decently. And the writer goes on to say, look, I'm a waitress. And, you know, she's offering her personal testimony about why. And this is interesting because even blacks tip better, thank you very much.

Mr. ARELLANO: Jeez, yeah.

MARTIN: But your answer was: Dear Gabacha, let's consult the findings of Cornell University Professor Michael Lynn, the country's premier scholar on tipping. And then you go on to give quite a scholarly answer about this. Do you - you really do that much research on these questions. Yeah.

Mr. ARELLANO: Absolutely. This is satire, so there's going to be some humor to it. But more importantly, I want to answer the questions that people send me. So depending on the question, though, I'm going to put all the research possible into that. That said though, if the question is kind of dumb, then I'll give a - not a dumb question, but a snappy remark.

So another question in the book is why do Mexicans always sell oranges on the sides of freeways? And my response was what do you want them to sell? Steinway Pianos?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. You have a master's degree, as I understand it.

Mr. ARELLANO: I have a Master's Degree in Latin American Studies from UCLA. Go Bruins.

MARTIN: And did you ever think that this is what you'd be using that master's degree for?

Mr. ARELLANO: No, no, no. I'm actually the food critic for the OC Weekly, so I know all - I mean, the real expertise isn't so much Mexicans as it is great dining in Orange County. And I'm also an investigative reporter for them. This column really was supposed to be a joke, but it's turned into something that I can't even control anymore. But I love to do it. I really think there's a lot of mischaracterizations about Mexicans in the United States. But people also genuinely do have questions about Mexicans that they want answered.

MARTIN: Talk to me about W-word. The reason I'm asking you about the W-word is that your whole approach is take no prisoners, answer every question, don't be defensive about anything, nothing's off the table. And yet, there are a lot of people who would appreciate it if perhaps we were more civil in our conversations with each other, particularly about such sensitive issues as ethnicity? So I don't know - W-word. Yes, no?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARELLANO: Yes, but with the caveat. I'm all for people using whatever words they want to use. However, they better be able to deal with the repercussions. So not everyone, you know, if you say, you know, the W-word in front of an audience and Mexicans, you better be prepared to be very defensive, if not, run for your life. I print that column or I use those words again and again to try to re-appropriate them, to try to rob them of all the power that they have, all the power that people have given them.

MARTIN: Hmm. Okay. So, Gustavo, do you have any questions you want to ask me?

Mr. ARELLANO: Ah, gee.

MARTIN: Ask a black person?

Mr. ARELLANO: Ask a black person. There's actually a woman who, out here in Southern California who says - who call herself ask a black person as well.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ARELLANO: What would be a good question, I guess?

MARTIN: I said…

Mr. ARELLANO: I don't know. You see…

MARTIN: You can think about it and get back to me, okay?

Mr. ARELLANO: I will do that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: OK. Gustavo Arellano is the author of the new book, "Ask a Mexican." He joined us from member station KUCI in Irvine, California.

Gustavo, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. ARELLANO: Hey, thanks so much.

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