When we launched Weld and included the syndicated Ask a Mexican column in the back of our paper, we weren’t thinking about the immigration law. We chose the Mexican column because we admired and enjoyed the content, which is both entertaining and informative.
And our readers have certainly responded. They love Ask a Mexican. Some say that column is the first thing they flip to when they get a new paper.
But now that undocumented immigrants are fleeing the state, pulling their legal kids out of school, and leaving farmers scrambling to find workers, Ask a Mexican—which takes great effort to explain Hispanic culture and behaviors to non-Hispanic America—seems to have taken on a new importance.
As such, we felt it important to introduce our readers to Gustavo Arellano, the Mexican behind Ask a Mexican. Arellano’s first Ask a Mexican column, in 2004, was meant to “make fun of all these ignoramuses who are scared of Mexicans for no other reason other than that they know somehow, collectivelly, subconsciously that Americans are supposed to be scared of Mexicans,” Arellano said. The response to that first column was so big that he’s continued writing it, and can continue for quite some time—Arellano says he’s got a 280-page Microsoft Word document full of unanswered questions.
Arellano spoke to me by phone from Orange County, California, where he works as a staff writer at OC Weekly. He is currently working on a book about Mexican food.
WELD: How did you get started doing ‘Ask a Mexican’?
GUSTAVO ARELLANO: I started it in 2004. It was supposed to be a joke, a one-time joke column in which we, as a paper, noted the ludicrous immigration wars here in Orange County. A way to make fun of all these ignoramuses who are scared of Mexicans for no other reason other than that they know somehow, collectivelly, subconsciously that Americans are supposed to be scared of Mexicans.
So, after that, it was supposed to be only a satirical column, but the reaction we got was so overwhelming, both positive and negative, that we figured we just might as well continue doing the column until there were no more questions to be asked. Seven years later, now the column is syndicated all over, even in Birmingham. Obviously, the questions not only never stop, but they go nationwide.
Do you remember what the first question you answered was?
Oh yeah, yeah. So, since it was supposed to be a joke column, I made up a question. The question was, “Why do Mexicans call white people ‘gringos’?” And my response was that Mexicans don’t call gringos gringos, only gringos call gringos gringos, and that Mexicans call gringos ‘gabachos.’ Since it was supposed to be a joke column, I figured that I might as well make up the silliest, stupidest question imaginable. Again, since it was suppose to be satire, it was something that would show how dumb a column answering questions would be, and only in Orange County could such a column exist.
I got proven wrong and then some by the reaction that people had.
The first question I answered that somebody actually asked… you know what it was? It was, “Why do Mexicans hate gay people so much?” And then, of course, it’s just gone on from there.
How many letters do you get a week?
Oh geez. You know, it varies. It varies based on whether I start coming out in new newspapers, a spike in questions will occur then. And then if I do an interview somewhere, questions will occur then. I’d probably say I get no less than 20 questions a week. Although, most of them, by this point, I’ve already answered in the column’s existence.
So the way I tell people just to show how—I don’t want to say popular, but how many people have sent in questions to me—everytime I get a new question that I haven’t answered yet, I’ll just put it in a Microsoft Word document at Times New Roman 12-point single-spaced font, just to scrunch it in. At this point, you know, with, gosh, probably 700 questions (if not more) that I’ve answered in the column’s existence, that Word document is still 280 pages long.
Yeah. Of questions I’ve never answered before. So even if I never received any more questions ever again, I could still continue this column on for at least a decade. They’re all good questions too. People always ask me, “what the hardest thing to do about the column?” And it’s honestly trying to decide what question I want to answer in a particular week. Just because there’s so many great ones—either brilliant, or flat-out racist or whatever—it becomes a challenge to me to try to figure out what I want to answer in a particular week. There’s some questions that are seven years old that I have yet to answer. Other questions I’ll answer the week I get the question. So it all depends.
Have you gotten any questions about the new Alabama law?
I’m starting to. That’s the interesting thing about the column—it’s both topical and timeless. Some questions are just the general “why do Mexicans like…” questions. One of my recent favorite ones from this year, somebody asked, “Why do Mexicans have to eat tortillas with everything? Why is it that they have to work while they’re eating—you know, rolling up a tortilla or ripping it up.”
You know, it was a racist question, but it was a good one. So there’s that. But whenever you have these new bills popping up in states, questions start coming in.
So a couple of years ago, of course, it was Arizona. Now, I’m starting to get questions about Alabama—people saying, “What’s going on in Alabama?” or “I’m from Alabama, and this and this is happening.” Sometimes maybe the New York Times will put out a big piece, or maybe Stephen Colbert does something, so I’ll answer those questions as well.
Obviously, you want to keep the column pertinent and relevant. But sometimes, especially—God, especially with egregious matters like what’s going on with Alabama now—I’ll just bring it up for the hell of it. As you’ll see in the column this week—since it’s our best of issue this week out in Orange County, I had to do, like, a best of Ask a Mexican—I did have a little intro just saying, “you know, fuck Alabama.” But in Spanish, of course.
It’s just to remind people, hey, this is an issue that’s going on right now. I’m not going to turn it over completely to quote-unquote “serious matters” because if it’s just the same type of anti-immigrant questions every single week, I think the column would get boring really quickly. But, at the same time, I’ve got to keep my pulse on what’s going on in the United States with Mexican affairs.
Since you’re an advice columnist, what’s your advice for undocumented people in Alabama who have their homes, families, and businesses here?
At points like this, the most important thing for these families or these individuals is to be in a place that’s safe. In other words, I’m not saying you should abandon the state. But, if that’s how you think you’ll be safest, then that’s something that may need to be done—just leave. The last thing we want as Americans is for these people to leave this country. I’m sure a lot of people do, but in my case I don’t want these people to leave this country at all.
And that said, given the state where they are—in Alabama—look back upon what the civil rights protesters in the ‘60s did, which is openly defy the law. I would advise that for those people who can do that. Obviously some people who have kids, who have families that depend on their wages, that’s something that can’t be done. But I would look on the marchers in Birmingham, across Alabama, and Selma. Just live a life of civil disobedience.
That’s been a lot of inspiration for undocumented college students, the so-called DREAMers or DREAM Act students. For the longest time, they were living in the shadows, but in the past couple of years, almost collectively a bunch of DREAMers have said, “You know what? Screw this. I’m not going to live in the shadows anymore. I’m going to come out as undocumented. I’m going to let the country know who I am. And I’m not going to let my voice be shouted down, and I’m definitely not going to exist just in the shadows. I’m going to be out and proud.” And for those people who are brave enough to do that, I would advise them to do that. Because people need to show the rest of Alabama—especially the lawmakers, the people who are making these ridiculous laws—show them how they’re wrong via acts of civil disobedience.
[At this point, I tell Gustavo how a 19-year-old DREAMer from Pelham named Victor Palafox confronted state Sen. Scott Beason with his friends]
That’s a wonderful strategy. That’s something that’s been going on out here for a long time. The most important thing, I would argue, for undocumented folks—and especially for activists—to show the world is really how normal undocumented people are.
Especially these DREAM Act students. My God! They’re American! For lack of a better term, they’re Americans. Especially if they’re going to college. Hello? Isn’t that what we require or what we demand of our immigrants? You always hear the cultural argument that we never assimilate, we never succeed in life. Well here you have some of these supposed losers making something of themselves, and you’re somehow going to not only deny them that right to go to college, but want them kicked out of this country?
As a country, as a nation, it makes no sense for us to reject either the best and the brightest that are already here and culturally American. I mean, I understand why—once you know your history you understand why—but logically, it makes no sense. And it’s something that is spreading across the country.
It’s funny to see this Alabama bill. It basically takes the worse of what came out of California that we widely rejected. So basically Alabama is taking our garbage and making it their own.
Right. And Arizona’s garbage.
Arizona ripped us off. This idea of making schools report how many undocumented kids are in their districts—well that, of course, came from our California Proposition 187 which voters passed in 1994 which was ultimately ruled unconstitutional. Almost point-by-point, everything that this Alabama law proposes, it’s just retreads of what’s already been tried and, for the most part, been ruled unconstitutional, and most importantly has been just inhumane, for lack of a better term.
How do I put it… You’d expect these resolutions from, say, xenophobic countries like, say, Switzerland, or any of the countries in Europe where real, true life xenophobia exists. But here in the United States, I would expect better from us. Unfortunately, more and more states are proving me wrong in this.
I guess we’ve just been hearing a lot more debate about the role of immigrants and Hispanics generally in culture here recently because of the bill. When people say that undocumented folks take American jobs, don’t pay taxes, and don’t contribute, what’s the response to that?
Well, first of all, of course undocumented people do pay taxes. There’s been God knows how many stories that have shown that. I think the assumption that they have is that undocumented people take out more money than they put into the economy. For instance, if you do have somebody that’s using a fake social security and filing tax reports, well you do have to take out Social Security tax. Anytime somebody buys something, you have to pay sales tax, and so on and so forth. That’s number one.
Taking away jobs from Americans—I think there was a report in the Times today: Out in Colorado, you have these farmers who are trying to do less with migrant labor are now faced with catastrophes because they can’t find any workers who want to do those jobs.
Sure, Americans of a previous generation did work in butcher houses or plucking chickens or growing crops, but that was a different time. That was a time when wage equity wasn’t as terrible as it is today. I think what happens is that these immigrants are doing the jobs that Americans won’t do for that particular salary. Unfortunately, that’s just plain and simple capitalism.
Of course this will never happen in this country, but people’s ire should not be directed towards the immigrants of this country. That’s how it’s always worked. But people’s ire should be directed at the corporations and the businessmen who want to make as much money as possible while spending as little money as possible. It happened in the 1800s, it happened in the 1900s, it’s happening right now. That’s capitalism. Are we ever going to change our economy? No. So, until then, there’s always going to be immigration to this country, and there’s always going to be Americans griping about the wrong issues.
Is there some sort of alignment with what immigrant’s rights folks are saying and what the 99 Percent folks are saying, or what the Occupy Wall Street folks are saying?
I think there definitely is. Because immigration doesn’t just exist in a vacuum. Why are these people immigrating from their homelands? It’s because the economy from wherever they come from, they’re also in ruin as well.
The people who have traditionally immigrated to this country aren’t the lowest of the low. Rather, it was the people just a little bit more up than the lowest of the low who wanted to make a better life for themselves who didn’t want to leave their motherland, but had no choice because there’s no economic opportunities.
I would hope that the Occupy Wall Street people, that they do make those inroads with the amnesty movement because that issue—it’s all part of the bigger problem, which is the state of the country that we live in right now that demands cheap labor but doesn’t want to give people a basic right to live in this country, or the avenues to upward mobility that people used to have in this country.
Immigrants have always come to this country as the poor people. This myth that somehow immigrants immediately became successful, it’s a lie! Look at the immigrant literature of the past, the ghettos of the Lower East Side, the Italians living thirty to a room, what Jacob Riis portrayed in How the Other Half Lives—that’s how immigrants always come in. Of course immigrants are going to be poor.
However, they don’t always stay poor. They start moving. It’s their children who start moving up into the middle classes or to the working classes, and so on and so forth. But now, in the situation we’re in where you have Americans themselves who are not moving up the economic ladder, it’s not because you have immigrants who come in.
Because immigrants are still moving up that ladder. My dad had a fourth grade education. My mom had a ninth grade education in this country and dropped out. They grew up poor here in this country. They’re working class. Myself, I guess I’m considered to have a white-collar job, and that’s in one generation. That’s upward mobility. It’s immigrants who are still doing this.
But the way our economy is now, less and less people are going to be able to do that. But it’s not immigration’s fault. It’s not the fault of these immigrants. It’s the fault of the system at hand.
Is it ever okay to say “illegal immigrant”? When is that accurate? What is the terminology?
Oh yeah, yeah. There was just a resolution passed by the Society for Professional Journalists where they’re going to urge newspapers to use the term “undocumented immigrant” at all times, and if they ever do use illegal immigrants, to just—oh, gosh, I can’t remember. We wrote about it.
I would argue that illegal immigrant is actually the most neutral form of saying it. And I say this as an out and out Aztlánista. My dad came to this country in the truck of a Chevy. And I used to have a radio show, so I made a point that all my interns were undocumented kids because I knew they couldn’t work legally but they could intern for me legally. So as someone who is completely biased on this issue, really illegal immigrant is the most neutral way.
Because “illegal alien,” of course, okay. It’s a legal term, but it’s funny the people who use it, they say, “Oh, that’s the right way to use it.” But you don’t hear them speak in other legal language as well. They’re not dropping torts and, you know, asking for prayer as you see in lawsuits. They’re not doing that shit. The reason they say illegal alien is because of the “alien” part. They love to just say it with such spite.
On the other hand, you have people in the amnesty movement who use the term undocumented immigrant because undocumented, for them, it’s just the softest way to put it. Not only do they have a problem with the term “alien,” but they have a problem with the term “illegal.” So, although I’m completely on their side, I find to use that is also biased as well because it shows where you’re coming from.
On my hand, I use the term illegal immigrant, but I’ll also use “undocumented worker,” and I’ll also use “illegals” as well. Obviously, I can, because in my role as a columnist I’m afforded that luxury to play around with language. But also, for me…
There was this famous Chicano punk group called Los Crudos, and they had this song called “Ilegal, Y Que”—like, “illegal, and what of it?” That’s the way I see it. Like, I’m not ashamed that my dad was an illegal immigrant. It’s funny that when I get in fights with people and they find out my personal history, they go, “Oh, you’re an anchor baby,” or, “Oh, your dad was an illegal.” Yeah. He was an illegal. And? And what of it?
Is that something to be ashamed of? No. Not at all. It’s interesting. This country has long prided the illegal residents, the illegal Americans, the settlers who were going into Indian territory, the mountainmen, the scouts. For crying out loud, we have a state, Oklahoma, that lionized—that was created by—illegal immigrants. Really, what were the Sooners if not those people who snuck into Oklahoma before the grand land call came in, and they celebrate that. “Oh yeah, we came in ‘sooner’ than anyone else.” In other words, “We came here illegally.” We celebrate that. The pilgrims, and all those people.
Ours is a culture that celebrates illegal people. And now, all of a sudden, illegal immigrants are wrong? It’s a disconnect. And for those of us on the good side, it’s like, we should be proud. We should be proud to be illegal. That’s who we are. We plug into a very proud tradition in this country, and for anybody to say that somehow being illegal is wrong, well, you’re saying America is wrong.
Thanks very much to Gustavo Arellano for speaking with me.