LAist Interview: Gustavo Arellano
Gustavo Arellano is an investigative journalist who lives in Anaheim and writes the "¡Ask a Mexican!” column for the "OC Weekly." Gustavo's story on a disabled Iraq War vet was nominated as a PEN Literary Journalism finalist this year and he regularly publishes kick ass stories on the Catholic Diocese of Orange, including this week's article about how the Los Angeles archdiocese hid pedophile priest in Orange County for decades.
He takes a moment from his busy schedule to answer some questions for LAist from an Orange County perspective.
Age and Occupation:
26, Investigative Reporter/Food Editor/ “¡Ask a Mexican!,” the country’s best newspaper after Weekly World News. Sometimes-contributor for NPR’s "Day to Day." Bi-weekly guest on KPCC-FM 89.3’s "AirTalk with Larry Mantle." Frequent guest on "The Al Rantel Show" on KABC-AM 790. Like all Mexicans, I have multiple jobs and get paid next to nothing.
How long have you lived in Southern California, and which neighborhood do you live in?
Why do you live in Orange County?
Orange County is the best place in the country to live in as a journalist. We have corrupt politicians, kooky Christians, airheaded blonds, the country’s largest concentrations of Vietnamese and Mexicans (look it up!), the best owner in baseball, and a region that is finding its identity after years of being the stepchild to the Los Angeles behemoth. And, no: I don’t visit Disneyland. That’s for the idiot Iowans.
Where are you from? I’ve lived my entire life in Anaheim, where my great-grandfather moved to a century ago to pick oranges in groves that Progress would later bulldoze to create Thomas Jefferson Elementary—my elementary school. Anaheim in specific and Orange County in general is, then, my ancestral home—something few Orange Countians can say.
What motivated you to start the "¡Ask the Mexican!" column?
It started as a joke. Our paper used to run a column called "Burning Bush" where I would run quotes by conservatives that criticized President Bush. But once the Nov. 2004 election came along, we were going to finish the column regardless of the winner. One day," OC Weekly" editor Will Swaim told me he saw a billboard of a Spanish-language radio DJ wearing a Viking helmet and a swami expression. "That guy looks like he could answer any question about Mexicans," he told me. "Why don't you write a one-time column called 'Ask a Mexican!'? I added the upside-down exclamation point in front, and pandemonium ensued.
What's surprised you about doing the column or the questions you've received?
What continues to surprise me is how damn popular this column is. We were going to run it only one time, but I immediately began getting questions and feedback from readers. So we ran it for a couple of weeks, then pulled it once for lack of space. We got e-mails demanding to know where the column went! I still get about 10 questions regarding Mexicans each week, and it's continually one of our website's most-read stories. I quickly learned not to let the questions surprise me--Mexicans will forever fascinate gabachos (what Mexicans call gringos--only gringos call gringos gringos), and so strange questions are the rule. I've received questions about music, why we put hot sauce on everything, what part of "illegal" don't Mexicans understand, and why some Mexicans throw their soiled toilet paper in the waste bin instead of flushing it down like civilized Americans--and those are the intelligent ones.
I'm so bummed that I missed the talk that you gave at the recent seminar "Latinization of Art and Culture" that you contributed to in October 2005. Can you briefly mention some of the elements discussed on the panel?
It was actually a week-long seminar held by the USC Annenberg School of Communication attended by 20 journalists from such publications as the "Washington Post, ""Chicago Sun-Times,"" Los Angeles Daily News" and other big papers. Myself and Agustín Gurza from the Los Angeles Times were senior fellows, which really meant we had to antagonize everyone else with our contrarian views. We went to galleries, concerts, bookstores, radio stations and other cultural fonts and argued about the elasticity of Latino culture and how gabacho culture influences it (and vice-versa). Plus, we boozed it up at the Biltmore!
What is a manifestation of the Latinization of "mainstream" culture in Southern California?
The food. Tacos and burritos, anyone? They're so ubiquitous people forget it's not even Mexican food--it's Mexican-American! Oh, and those paragons of late-night Mexican fast food, Taco Bell and Del Taco? Based in Orange County.
What do you predict for Southern California as the non-white mainstream develops?
What about cross cultural forms of culture or dialogue between Californians of African, Asian and Hispanic descent?
The Glenn Spencers and Jim Gilchrists of the world predict Southern California will become ground zero in the coming racial apocalypse. Bullshit. When people ask what's the future of California, I tell them to consider my case: child of Mexican immigrants who never attended high school and barely speak English, whose favorite food is Middle Eastern and thinks 1960s-era Cambodian psychedelic rock is the best music in the world--after the Beatles and Buddy Holly, of course. Assimilation is inevitable but fun--only idiots make it painful.
Is there similar racial tension in Orange County between youth of Hispanic American and African American heritage? Why the new clashes now? What can be done to stop it?
I hate to be such a shameless self-promoter, but read my ¡Ask a Mexican! on this issue. Done? Aren't Mexicans so damn racist against African-Americans? Isn't the future bleak? That said, there is little racial tension between Latinos and African-Americans in Orange County, namely because there are so few African-Americans here. We're the only major metropolitan area in the country without a significant African-American community here--ours is about 2 percent, which is ridiculously low. It's so bad that whenever my friends and I see a black person, we giggle with glee as if we found the Hope Diamond.
What's your preferred mode of transportation?
My trusty 1999 Toyota Camry with the sticker of the late, great Oldies 540 AM on the back.
How often do you ride the MTA subway or light rail?
Never, considering I live in Orange County.
What's your favorite movie(s) or TV show(s) that are based in Orange Count or shows based in Southern California?
I only regularly watch sports, "The Simpsons," and "Arrested Development" on television. "Arrested Development" is the funniest show on television right now, a masterpiece of anarchic humor that's also wholly Orange County based and about to get cancelled because babosos run FOX. Screw "The O.C." and "Orange County" (the movie). My favorite Southern California-based movie is" Born in East L.A.," the wryest commentary on immigration and assimilation yet.
Best OC-themed book(s); best Southern California based books?
Our resident bard is Dean Koontz, which should tell you about the shoddy quality of Orange County novelists. The best books about Orange County were written by an outsider--"Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right" by Harvard professor Lisa McGirr; she examines 1960s Orange County politics and its role in the resurgence of American conservatism--and rancher/former Orange County Republican Party head Tom Rogers, whose "Agents' Orange: The Unabridged Political History of Orange County, 1960-2000," details how our depraved politicians conduct business. My favorite Southern California-based book is "Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles," written by my food god, LA Weekly's Jonathan Gold.
Share your best celebrity sighting experience.
Me getting so drunk off free whiskey with La Cucaracha cartoonista Lalo Alcaraz that we stumbled all around Hollywood Boulevard looking for our parking spaces in a parking structure--then realized we parked on the street.
In your opinion, what's the best alternate route to the 405?
I used to commute to UCLA from Anaheim for grad school so know those horrors. There is no alternate route--get on it from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., or don't get on at all.
What's the best place to walk in Orange County?
Downtown SanTana (Santa Ana to gabachos) on a Saturday afternoon, where you can relax in the most-Latino city in American (look it up!) by feasting on cart-bought fruit salads as you buy cheap pirated CDs.
It's 9:30 pm on Thursday. Where are you coming from and where are you going?
Coming from work after nabbing a bad guy, going to Sol Arte Gallery. It's this great art gallery that also functions as an all-ages venue for music ranging from South American protest tunes to indie rock. I'm bartender on Thursdays, which means I brew up the meanest yerba mates this side of Argentina.
If you could live in Orange County during any era, when would it be?
This one. Orange County is the Ellis Island of the 21st century. Fear not, America: follow our path.
What's your beach of choice?
Laguna Beach. Only 24-hour beach in Orange County, and featuring gorgeous cliffs.
What is the "center" of Orange County to you?
The gabacho powers-that-be want the world to think our center is Newport Beach or Huntington Beach, but it's really SanTana. It's the county seat, and where the future of Orange County will occur. Plus, it's where the Weekly world headquarters is located.
If you were forced to live in a neighboring county, which would you choose? Ventura County is a wussy answer. I agree, but so is Los Angeles County. As much as we naranjeros (Orange Countians) and Angelinos like to spit on it, I'd actually like to try Riverside County, just to say I once lived as a Neanderthal.
If you could live in any neighborhood or specific house in LA, where/which would you choose?
Something close to Thai Town--I need my weekly Thai Elvis!
Southern California is often stereotyped as a hard place to find personal connections and make friends. Do you agree with that assessment? Do find it challenging to make new friends here?
All lies--if you're not making friends, you're not as charming or offensive as you think.
What is Orange County's greatest secret?
Louie Perez of Los Lobos--the ultimate Los Angeles band--lives here. So did the martyred Rubén Salazar, the groundbreaking Chicano journalist for the "Los Angeles Times."
Drinking, driving. They mix poorly, and yet they're inexorably linked. How do you handle this conflict?
It's a conflict?
Describe your best OC dining experience.
We can have an entire interview on this question, being I'm the food editor for the Weekly. So I'll leave ustedes with Nuoc Mìa Vien Tay, a Garden Grove Vietnamese candy shop that sells a sugar cane juice so wonderful I once called it the I Corinthians 13 of the beverage world. 14370 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 531-9801.
What do you have to say to East Coast supremacists? What do you have to say to LA supremacists?
Vayanese a la chingada, pinche putos pendejos babosos. For non-hablar español, it's "Go to hell, fucking stupid-ass assholes."
Do you find the threat of earthquakes preferable to the threat of hurricanes and long winters?
You can sleep through an earthquake--not so with any other natural disaster. I'll take sleeping through death over fleeing on foot or chopping wood any day.
Where do you want to be when the Big One hits?
In bed, with a pretty señorita and a bottle of tequila.
If you have any spicy questions about Mexicans, ask the Mexican at GArellano@ocweekly.com