With a circulation of over two million, Gustavo Arellano’s nationally syndicated column “¡Ask a Mexican!” uses satire, humor, and history to expose ignorance and stereotypes, educate, and piss people off all at once.  Arellano is a longtime staff writer for the OC Weekly (now managing editor), and he’s been the subject of press coverage in the L.A. Times, Houston Chronicle, Reuters, Mexico City’s El Universal, The Today Show, Hannity and Colmes, Nightline, The New York Times, Good Morning America, Utne, and The Colbert Report.  His new book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, is scheduled for April 2012.

Through “¡Ask a Mexican!” and his subsequent book of the same title (and soon to be a play), I learned many things, including what a Dirty Sanchez means and how many Mexican swear words originate from the simple word mother. My idealization of César Chávez was busted open. Of Newport Beach, where I went through junior high and high school, and where my family became members of the Balboa Bay Club, Arellano writes, “The Balboa Bay Club represents all that’s reprehensible with the Old Orange County.”

I was introduced to Mexican screen goddess Mária Félix; I learned that Santa Ana should be pronounced SanTana; and what tejana, pocho, chilango, chúntaro, and gabacho are (read ¡Ask a Mexican! to know which one describes you).  I learned why conservatives obsess about the concept of reconquista; why many Mexicans love Morrissey and The Simpsons while disliking the singer Beck; the subtleties between the words “pacencia” and “paciencia”; and that the word aguacate for avocado, taken literally, means, “tree of testicles.”

But it’s his memoir, Orange County, A Personal History, I’ve Been Taking Notes that I love the most.  Not only does it chronicle his families’ four-generation journey from El Cargadero, a village in central Mexico, to Anaheim, and his families’ assimilation into American culture, it also recounts a historical narrative at odds with the fantasy of a place that’s been mythologized for decades.  In fact, he breaks history down to show that the OC past that has been romanticized never even really existed.

Orange County: A Personal History comes the closest to depicting the influential, bizarre, and fascinating whole of Orange County. Arellano’s affection for Orange County is evidenced by his resolute grip on the area.  Born and raised in Anaheim, he’s not going anywhere, much to the chagrin of the politically conservative populace.  His knowledge of Orange County is wide-ranging and astounding, and he’s really funny.  Arellano agreed to answer my questions by email.

 

Reality shows, movies, and television shows offer a puerile and voyeuristic hijacking of “The OC” for popular cultural consumption.  Reality shows use the tag “The Real Orange County,” as if, finally, we’re going to be presented with the truth.  Yet Orange County is represented as white and wealthy.  These shows seem to exist on a superficial level, adding little reality, understanding, or insight.  They perpetuate a bland cultural identity that feeds into the larger myth of Orange County as a sort of white person’s Eden, where the damages and repercussions that come from greed and wealth are both celebrated and mocked.  What is the actual makeup of Orange County? Why the need for this myth?  Is it historical?

 

First off, you also must take into account that such depictions of Orange County flow seamlessly into Hollywood’s vision of America, which doesn’t allow for people of color to live lives other than racialized sambos, Gunga Dins, coolies, and banditos. It’s so telling that the best media depictions of Orange County EVER came from the late, great FOX show Arrested Development—which painted the Bluth family as the clueless gabachos that continue to rule Orange County while also depicting Mexicans as normal people who laugh at gabacho stupidity—and, of all shows, South Park. It was just one episode, involving a dance crew that came from “the OC”—but it was a multicultural mix of kids. Even a black kid! You know Orange County is the only major metropolitan area in the United States with an African-American community of less than five percent—and we clock in at an embarrassing 3, according to the 2010 U.S. Census? And when I brought that up in our Navel Gazing blog, our fanboys accused ME of being the racist? Only in Orange County.

 

Sorry for the digression. OC is now a majority-minority county: whites make up about 48 percent of the population, Latinos a third, Asians a little bit more than 20 percent—but even in the gabacho amount, we have large populations of Persians and Middle Easterners that fall under the “white” category. This is no longer an Orange County of Birchers and boring suburbia—oh, it’s still there, but it’ll be finis in 30 years, inshallah.

 

 

The need for our suburban myth is best explained in my Orange County book, but the short answer is to look at an orange-crate label, those beautiful pieces of Pop art from the 1920s through 1950s. They sold a myth that Orange County believed of itself—that we are a perpetual Eden, and all should aspire to live with us. It’s Southern California mythology in general, but reached its ridiculous extremity in la naranja. Now, that orange-crate propaganda masquerades as history—people really believe Orange County was like that. Goes to show we truly are John Wayne country—to paraphrase The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when the legend isn’t fact, print the legend and hide the fact.

 

 

Did the McMansion originate in Orange County?

 

Yes and no. The man credited with popularizing the trend (if not the word), Hadi Makarechian, lives in Orange County, but his first McMansions were in Santa Barbara.

 

Is it true that Republicans rule everything in Orange Country?  How did Orange County become so Republican and conservative? Is it tied to religion?  Is the tide changing?

 

Not everything—the governments of Irvine and Laguna Woods are ruled by Democrats because Irvine is a college town and Laguna Woods has a bunch of seniors who were radicals in their days. SanTana and any other city where Latinos are a majority usually go Democrat, too, although the Democrats in OC are usually as stupid as the Republicans. It’s in that same cluster of North and Central OC cities that OC has its sole Democratic assemblymember, state senator, and congresswoman. But Republicans rule the rest of it, and the answer is simple: land. Back when it was farmland, farmers and ranchers had the power and only wanted to care for themselves; when agriculture gave way to housing development, developers needed politicians who’d grant them all sorts of special favors, a process that continues to this day. Add in the explosion of suburbia and the types of people who moved here for aerospace and other such middle-class jobs, and of course OC would never become liberal save for the Mexicans and a few good gabachos.

 

Religion, of course, played a huge role in conservative politics here—again, read my book. And the tide really isn’t changing. The Democratic Party of Orange County still doesn’t realize that Latinos are the future of its party and so stick Dems with lame candidates. And those Latinos that do rise through the ranks are usually corrupt, idiotic, and usually a noxious mix of the two.

 

Along the same lines, why does Orange Country seem to have such a love affair with Ronald Reagan and John Wayne?

 

 

Because both loved OC. Reagan launched his 1984 reelection campaign from Mile Square Park, an occasion where he famously said we’re the place “where all the good Republicans go to die.” And Wayne lived in Newport Beach from at least the 1960s onward. It was like God truly descended to live with his apostles.

 
None of the major OC Republicans (with the exception of Nixon) have been elected beyond the local level.  Why is this?

 

Some have won statewide election, but it’s because our type of crazy is too crazy for the rest of the country. We have all the money, but Republicans still view us as a backwater, as they well should.

 

Is it true that Orange County has an especially racist past?  Who is Barbara Coe?  Did the John Birch society originate here?

 

 

DUH. Santa Ana burned down its Chinatown in 1906 to get the Chinese outta there, Huntington Beach burned down an African-American resort to keep blacks away, lunatics harassed a Jewish school board member to death, the Ku Klux Klan maintained power over most of North OC from the early 1920s well into the 1930s…oh, I can go on, but a better list is in my book. The John Birch Society didn’t originate here (that would be Appleton, Wisconsin), but its craziest field soldiers have come from here. And Barbara Coe is a notorious hate figure in Orange County who hates gays and all minorities, and is Satan’s wife.

 

I had never even heard of the 1936 Citrus Wars until reading your memoir.  Can you explain what happened, and how the Citrus Wars managed to be wiped from most histories of American labor?

 

 

The 1936 Citrus War was a strike held by OC’s orange pickers—almost all Mexican—for the right for better wages, work conditions and a union. The orange growers responded by forming militias and conspiring with the DA’s office, the sheriff’s department, the California Highway Patrol, city police units, and most any law enforcement official or thug to crush it. It was basically racial civil war for a month, with the lords of Orange County winning, so of course it wouldn’t make it into any history books—to paraphrase The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when the legend isn’t fact, print the legend and hide the fact.

 

Tell me about your new book.

 

Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, will be my third book—going through the first round of edits right now, and scheduled for April 2012. It’s a history of the evolution of Mexican food in the United States and how Americans came to love a cuisine of people they fundamentally dislike. Don’t want to give too much away right now, but I’ll weave everything from Taco Bell to canned tortillas, Charles Fletcher Lummis to breakfast burritos filled with tater tots.

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Victoria Patterson is the author of the novel This Vacant Paradise, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Drift, her collection of interlinked short stories, was a finalist for the California Book Award and the 2009 Story Prize. The San Francisco Chronicle selected Drift as one of the best books of 2009. Her work has appeared in various publications and journals, including the Los Angeles Times, Alaska Quarterly Review, and the Southern Review. She lives with her family in Southern California and teaches through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and as a Visiting Assistant Professor at UC Riverside.

2 responses to “A Conversation with Gustavo Arellano”

  1. Gloria says:

    Canned tortillas? Who the hell eats canned tortillas? Ugh.

    I really loved this interview. I wanted to read more. I’ve never heard Arellano, but now i want to read his everything.

    Oh, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance is a great movie.

    Thanks for the interview, Victoria!

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