Pick of the Week

Gospel of the Mexican

Gustavo Arellano, a staff writer at OC Weekly in Santa Ana, Calif., isn't your ordinary alt-weekly reporter.

His duties include writing investigative stories, acting as the paper's food critic and writing the ¡Ask a Mexican! column--now nationally syndicated and the subject of a newly released book with the same name. Arellano jets to book signings and media interviews, all while holding down his full-time job at the newspaper.

"I am a token Mexican. I have three jobs, and everyone else has one," he quips. But Arellano actually has four jobs: While we talked, he was tending his girlfriend's eco-friendly boutique in Santa Ana. Customers would wander in, and in typical fashion, Arellano multitasked--answering my questions and customers' inquiries at varying intervals.

Arellano's quick wit and energy have served him well. His job at OC Weekly began after he wrote a sarcastic, humorous letter to the editor, criticizing the paper's coverage of the Latino community. The editor was so impressed that he invited Arellano to begin writing for the paper as a freelance writer in 2001. Arellano was hired as a staff writer two years later.

Life as Arellano knew it changed in November 2004.

Then-OC Weekly editor Will Swaim called Arellano into his office. Swaim had seen a billboard on his way to work that featured an image of a cross-eyed Mexican. Inspired by the odd image, Swaim asked Arellano to write a column where readers would send in questions about Mexicans, and Arellano would answer them.

Arellano complied with the request, thinking that the ¡Ask a Mexican! column would run one week. Almost three years later, the column is printed in 28 newspapers (including the Tucson Weekly), with a total weekly circulation of 1.8 million.

No one is more surprised by the column's popularity than Arellano.

"The fact that the column exists is surprising," he admits. "The popularity blows my mind away. I thought it would be an Orange County phenomena, and the rest of the country would care less about it. I've been proven spectacularly wrong."

For those new to the concept: ¡Ask a Mexican! is question-and-answer column about Mexican and Mexican-American culture. Readers around the country pose questions, and Arellano answers them. No question is off limits. All are answered--no matter how innocent or offensive.

"Ask a Mexican is designed to educate, infuriate and entertain you about America's spiciest minority," explains Arellano.

With approximately 50 questions coming to Arellano each week, there are bound to be repeat inquiries. The most-asked question, Arellano says, is: Why do Mexicans swim with their clothes on? The short answer is: good manners. Another popular question: Why do Mexicans put their surnames in the back windows of their cars? Short answer: Pride in their heritage.

"It amuses me that people ask the same questions," Arellano says. "But more often than not, I get brand-new questions--questions that I would never have imagined. ... I have 191 pages of questions I have yet to answer. I have enough questions to last me at least six years."

Arellano answers the questions with a blend of humor, research, personal knowledge and a background in Latin American studies, including a master's degree from UCLA. He is a child of Mexican immigrants and says his desire is to contribute to the eradication of stereotypes about Mexicans.

Arellano gathered some of the best questions and answers from ¡Ask a Mexican! and compiled them into a book, published in May by Scribner Press.

"The book contains 60 percent of what was done over the last three years. Forty percent are questions not answered before. There is a bigger glossary (than what is online) and illustrations. It's a lot of fun."

Arellano says feedback about the book has been very positive. He has visited Seattle, Denver, Chicago, Nashville, Tenn., and other cities on his book tour. At his appearance in Phoenix, approximately 150 people showed up.

"I converted them to the gospel of the Mexican," quips Arellano.

Meanwhile, Arellano has appeared on a handful of national television programs. His favorite was The Colbert Report. "Stephen Colbert is a hero of mine," he says. Next up is an appearance on Good Morning America.

As the ¡Ask a Mexican! phenomenon spreads around the country, Arellano will continue to work several jobs--staff writer, bookseller and stereotype buster.

"As long as there is a book to sell, I am going to tour. ... I want to debunk people's misconceptions about Mexicans. It's not going to be the cure, but I want it to be a starting point."

Gustavo Arellano will discuss his new book, ¡Ask a Mexican!, at 7 p.m., Friday, Aug. 31, at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave. Call 792-3715 or visit the Antigone Web site for more information.