Ask the Mexican


Gustavo Arrellano, columnist, food writer and nationally bestselling author famous for his controversial “¡Ask a Mexican!” syndicated humor column, came to UC Irvine on Nov. 5 to talk about a less glamorous history of immigration. His new book, “Orange County: A Personal History,” is a candid account blending autobiographical storytelling and factual history.
“The book is trying to give a richer, more honest understanding of the real Orange County, which often gets ignored in favor of its myths,” Arellano said.
Arellano believes that though the rich white Republican stereotype of Orange County offers great material for comedy, such a one-sided view distracts from the city’s much more diverse and imperfect reality.
“There are a lot of official histories and unofficial personal histories integral to Orange County,” Arellano explained. “A lot of times these histories are either suppressed or just ignored.”
He spoke, for example, about the history of racism in Orange County. “Orange County is the Mexican-hating capital of the country,” Arellano joked.
He later emphasized his point about deep-rooted fear of foreigners by explaining how in 1906, the city lied about a case of leprosy in Chinatown in order to force the inhabitants to flee.
Three decades later, Mexican- Americans were the new targets of racism as their numbers grew, working in the fields as orange pickers. Frustrated over bigotry and substandard living conditions, nearly two thirds of all farmhands went on strike in 1936, almost plunging the county into civil war as racial tensions choked off the farmers’ main source of income.
“Only one book … ever mentions it, and that’s because most people choose to ignore it because it detracts from our image,” Arellano said.
For his work, Arellano spent three months researching the strike by examining old newspaper microfilms at the UCI library.
Keeping with his theme of publicizing historically significant, but unknown events, the Anaheim native also discussed the community-mobilizing effect school segregation had on returning Mexican -American World War II veterans.
“Here were these Mexican Americans who bled for their country, and they came home to a place that said their kids had to go to worse-off schools,” Arellano said. After a suit and countersuit, the 1946 Mendez v Westminster case was finally resolved at the state level by Thurgood Marshall, who later worked on Brown v. Board of Education.”
In his book, these major city events that barely made a blip on Orange County’s historical radar are paralleled by events in Arellano’s family, making otherwise distant issues relevant.
“I wanted to take a thematic rather than chronological approach to the book,” Arellano said. “So in some parts of the book I follow up some facts with funny anecdotes from my family.”
These stories, Arellano explains, are designed to also counter the stereotypes that most Mexicans “will either be pregnant or cholos.”
“My family story is not exclusive,” Arellano said. “There are stories of success everywhere with regards to Mexican Americans.”
Arellano wrapped up his lecture by talking about the transformation of Orange County from an agricultural Eden to a modern city as well as his more recent work as a writer for OC Weekly.
Writing the “Ask a Mexican” column for four years now, Arellano said, “I’ve answered questions that were racist, rude and just weird.”
According to Arellano, the questions ranged from why Mexicans wear clothes when swimming to more scholarly questions regarding the Arabic origins of the Spanish word “Guadalupe.”
“I’ve found that satire really does let you just be a court jester and expose ignorance,” Arellano said.
Earth systems science graduate student Francesca Hopkins has followed his columns for a little over a year. “It’s always interesting to know more because Orange County is the upper cosmos of the U.S.,” Hopkins said. “What happens here helps to also show what may happen to other cities in the future.”
For Arellano, that blend of old-world agricultural heritage with fast-paced modern society makes living anywhere else impossible.
“As a reporter, this is the best place to work because you have all these crazy stories of insane people,” Arellano said. “Orange County has become the Ellis Island of the 21st century, and I want to be here and take as big a part as I can.”
Arrellano will be teaching a course on the history and evolution of Orange County for the School of Social Sciences this coming winter quarter.