Most helpful positive review
32 of 37 people found the following review helpful
Irreverent columnist strikes chord with many readers
on June 8, 2007
If you like your humor smooth as flan or comforting as a big abrazo from your abuelita, do not read Gustavo Arellano's first book, "¡Ask a Mexican!" (Scribner, $20 hardcover).
However, if biting satire is your cup of canela tea, Arellano is the man for you.
In his book, he brings together the best of his nationally syndicated column of the same name, with some new material thrown in for good measure.
For the uninitiated, Arellano lives in Orange County, Calif., and is a staff writer and a news editor for the OC Weekly, an alternative newspaper serving the region.
Arellano's column began almost as a joke a few years ago between him and his editor, Will Swaim. Swaim, it seems, had an idea for a one-time column (to fill some space) in which Arellano would answer questions about Mexicans. As Arellano explains in his characteristically in-your-face introduction to the book, Swaim turned to him "not only because I was the only Latino on staff and mowed the lawn on the side, but because my background -- child of Mexican immigrants (one illegal!), recipient of a master's degree in Latin American studies, a truthful beaner -- put me in a unique position to be an authority on all things Mexican."
So Arellano "slapped together" the first Q&A:
Question: "Dear Mexican, Why do Mexicans call white people gringos?"
Answer: "Dear Gabacho, Mexicans do not call gringos gringos. Only gringos call gringos gringos. Mexicans call gringos gabachos."
It was an immediate hit with readers, and questions started pouring in -- much to Arellano's amazement. This one-time lark became a regular column.
Since then, Arellano's irreverent style, fueled by the often-asinine queries, has resulted in nothing short of a social and publishing phenomenon. "¡Ask a Mexican!" is now nationally syndicated and won the 2006 Association of Alternative Weeklies award for Best Column. Arellano has been the subject of press coverage on "Nightline," "The Colbert Report," "The Today Show," the Los Angeles Times and the San Antonio Express-News.
Many of the questions Arellano receives are mean-spirited, designed to get a rise out of him. But he mixes humor with social analysis (and sometimes with a dash of government data) to do three things: point out the ridiculousness of the question, educate us, and make us laugh.
Question: "Why aren't more migrant Mexicans taking advantage of the English classes made available instead of relying on their children to translate?"
Arellano's answer runs too long to be reprinted here but he responds, in part: "The first generation of immigrants commit themselves to a lifetime of labor, not assimilation -- that's the job of the children." He continues: "Sure, - hilarity can ensue when you have an 8-year-old trying to describe a father's diabetes to a doctor, but what better way to teach Mexican kiddies that life in America is brutal and filled with beans if you have immigrant parents?"
Another question: "Why are Mexicans always selling oranges on street corners?" Arellano's answer begins: "What do you want them to sell -- Steinways?"
Not all questioners are non-Mexican. Arellano takes delight in describing the culture to self-proclaimed pochos (assimilated Mexicans) who truly feel they have lost much of their heritage.
And many questioners want explanations for Spanish cuss words and phrases that cannot be reprinted in a family newspaper. Suffice it to say that if you are not prudish, Arellano's answers will have you on the floor laughing.
The book includes essays, as well, in which Arellano digs deeper into the sociological and cultural complexities of readers' queries and all things Mexican.
Throughout history, literature's greatest social satirists were both criticized and embraced. Could Gustavo Arellano be the Mexican Jonathan Swift? Es posible.
[This review first appeared in the El Paso Times.]