21. !Ask a Mexican!,
I actually finished this book months ago, but I couldn't figure out what to say about it. I guess I still can't, really. There are some things I really like about this book, and some things I find very disappointing, so I guess I'll just talk about that.
The book is centrally made up of a collection of columns by Arellano, who writes a kind-of-advice column for the OC
[Orange County, CA] Weekly,
whose putative mission is to answer questions from clueless gabachos
(white people) about Mexican culture and mores. That's a part of the country where many Mexican immigrants and their Mexican-American descendants live side-by-side with white (and other) Americans, and where there seems to be a virulent ongoing culture clash, fueled in part by arguments about immigration policy and illegal immigration, and in part by the stuff that fuels any culture clash (confusion, fear, tribalism, bigotry, language barriers, racism, and all the rest of that awesome stuff). So tensions can run high there, and if one can judge by the tone of the questions The Mexican gets asked -- if even one-third of them are actual questions written in by actual white Californians -- there are lots of people who are happy to let their racism just hang out.
Given that background, I admire Arellano's "straight-talk" approach, which deals candidly with insults, epithets, stereotypes and racist language, in order to talk about them. Wab
(insulting words for "Mexican" and "white person" respectively) are frequent in the column. Questions like "Why do Mexicans have so many fucking kids?", "Why do ghetto-poor people spend money on their trucks instead of their families?," "Why do your women insist on wearing low-riding jeans with their fat bellies spilling out?," or "Why don't you illegal immigrants have enough respect for the United States to learn English?" -- these questions get serious answers. Arellano doesn't spend a lot of time berating anyone for intolerance or racism; the premise seems to be that the racism is obviously there, that's the ground-zero starting point, so let's talk about the actual questions. He maintains his dignity by addressing his interlocutors in the same tone -- which is not particularly polite -- but the answers often have a lot of actual content: Arellano talks about cultural, social, and historical issues and themes in Mexican culture, and frequently quotes sociological studies and government demographic data (Arellano has an MA in sociology). That's presumably the aspect of his approach that merited the cover blurb from the L.A. Times,
"A sassy mix of Lenny Bruce rant and civil rights manual." For my part, it reminds me of the early days of Dan Savage's "Savage Love" sex-advice column, when he invited -- nay, demanded -- that his interlocutors address him as "Hey, Faggot!" The theory again being: we both know you have private opinions about me, so let's get it all out there up front so that it won't become the subtext to the rest of our conversation.
I was disappointed, though, by some aspects of Arellano's answers. For one thing, he doesn't always address the actual question asked: sometimes you can see him quickly veering the discussion around to fit in with something he apparently really wants to quote or write about that day. That's not great advice-columnist manners, I think: dude, it's not all
about you. Also, some issues that questioners bring up he just kind of fails to deal with. The ones that were of most interest to me -- where I happened to notice him falling down or just evading, over and over again -- were the ones that had to do with ingrained gender inequality in Mexican culture, and the ones relating to homosexual behavior and attitudes toward it. He just kind of evades, man, over and over again -- and every now and then he says something that's just concretely insulting. "As for the Mexican women being sultry and spicy -- that's all documentary, baby." "Any man who breaks the shackles of propriety and... grabs his crotch is the kind of immigrant we want... Wolf-whistling Mexican men are our modern pioneers, and gabachas are their new frontier, their virgin soil." "As for our young men's current fascination with pansy-ass K-Swiss sneakers and the color pink... blame metrosexuality, the biggest threat to machismo since the two-income household." You know what, man, fuck you, too.
That said, I did learn a lot from this book. One of the most interesting parts are the longer "investigation" pieces Arellano wrote for the book, and includes at the end of each chapter. A lot of them include discussions with currently living-illegal Mexican immigrants about issues like living on a tiny budget or doing jornalero
work (manual day labor). The most amazing one, for me, is undoubtedly the ten-page essay on the huge Mexican and Mexican-American fan base of Morrissey. (Yes, Morrissey, the fey, depressive Englishman, who remains sexually ambiguous decades after it's stopped being cool. THAT GUY. Morrissey and Mexicans? I would never, in a thousand years, have guessed that one.)
So anyway. As you can see, this book gave me quite a lot to think about.
Below is a short sampling from it, to give an idea of Arellano's style:
Q: "Why are Mexicans known as greasers? Is it because they spread rancid lard from their dirty kitchens all over themselves after bathing instead of baby oil or cologne the way clean, civilized Anglos do?"
Dear Gabacho: Mira, güey [Look, man], the only grease we put on ourselves is the Three Flowers brilliantine Mexican men use to lacquer up their hair to a shine so intense astronomers frequently mistake the reflection off our heads for the Andromeda Galaxy. That puts us in brotherhood with the 1950s gabacho rebels whom mainstream society also denigrated as greasers. But the reason greaser maintains such staying power as an epithet against Mexicans -- etymologists date its origins to the 1830s -- is because it refers to, as you correctly imply, our diet. Sociologist Irving Lewis Allen devotes a chapter in his 1990 compendium of linguistic essays... [Etc.]