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Thursday, November 13, 2014 (read 1872 times)

!Ask a Mexican!: Breaking Down Barriers

by David

Orange county is the cradle of conservative thought in California, so it is a little strange to imagine that a racially charged newspaper column taking on xenophobic ideas head on originates from there.  This weekly question and answer article found in the free OC newspaper, the OC Weekly, is full of questions and answers where no subject is too taboo.

Why do Mexicans like wrought iron fences? Why do Mexicans park on their front lawn? Should Mexicans pronounce their last names correctly? Why Are Mexican-Americans Apathetic? In the United States, these questions are loaded with pitfalls and there is a clear and present danger that your teeth may find a new home on the ground if you dare to ask these kinds of questions to people who are not intimate friends or family—even then you may find yourself running for your life! This is what makes the question and answer column Ask a Mexican so special. Writer Gustavo Arellano is the self-proclaimed son of two Mexican immigrants, "one of whom was illegal" and was born and raised in the county where he now writes.

Gustavo began his column as a satirical prank to address the growing xenophobia against Mexicans in 2004. The first Ask a Mexican question asked why Mexicans call white people gringos. Surprisingly, the answer revealed that Mexicans don't use the term gringo. The term Mexicans typically use is gabacho. Curiously, this word is used pejoratively in Spain to describe someone of French origin. What this simple question highlighted was that white Americans were not in touch with the reality of their Mexican neighbors. What surprised Gustavo and his editors was the life this article took on almost immediately and, instead of generating an emotional reaction (which is what they expected) to spark a dialog, they began to receive mail bags full of questions each week from people wanting to know more about their Latino neighbors.

Do Mexican children receive tamales for Christmas so they have something to unwrap for Christmas? Normally a question like this will incite a lynch mob if asked in Latino neighborhood, but by taking on stereotypes in a blunt and straightforward way and in a language that is many times over-the-top, Gustavo takes on (mis) perceptions of race and has created a cultural dialog of the most interesting kind.

Orange County

Orange County lies directly to the south of Los Angeles and has long been considered a white conservative enclave surrounded by orange fields and Pacific beaches. Hard core conservatives like Richard Nixon and John Wayne were born here. In a recent survey, California's three most conservative municipalities are located in Orange County (Newport Beach, Yorba Linda and San Clemente).  This conservatism is nothing new, in fact since the 1940's this county has had a healthy Republican majority of voters registered here. But the county has experienced a change in the past 10 years manifesting itself through the decline of registered Republican voters.  In 2012, Orange country had a 42.17% registered republicans, far below the more than 50% that has been the norm during the last 60+ years. This decline also coincides with growing Latino and immigrant populations which have also caused an undercurrent of racial issues to come to the surface.

One example of how these tensions have surfaced happened back in 2003 when Newport Beach Councilman Richard Nichols said that he was against expanding a grassy area at a local beach because this would invite more Mexicans to come to the area. While this attitude is often attributed to fearful white Americans, Ask a Mexican's writer, Arellano also understands that there is a form of racism from within immigrant community. He says that "Hate exists in all ethnicities, and the capacity to hate one’s own makes for some of the ugliest racism." He also says this is the way some immigrants assimilate into their communities and it this is something that is present in all immigrant communities. In a 2013 interview Arellano talks about wealth and its importance in race relations when asked about the presence of a wealthy Mexican middle class in Orange County:

"Of course, there are wealthier Mexis in OC—and they hate regular Mexicans as much as everyone else! They’re accepted by whites because money tends to wipe out ethnicity, but I also know of stories in the 1950s when Mexicans began moving into the white parts of towns, much to their furor."

Today, Orange County has changed greatly. In the 2010 census, Orange County has a Latino population of 34.2% while the non-Hispanic White population is 42.6%. The Asian population is 19.2% and African Americans account for only 2.1% of the population.  According to census data from 1990, the non-Hispanic White population was 50.2% and Latinos accounted for 23.4% of the population. Also in 1990, Asians were 10.3% of the population and African Americans were only 1.8% of Orange County's ethnic population. In 20 years the changes in population have been dramatic and have come very fast. For the Latino population, an increase of 11% is a huge increase in the second most populous county in California—Orange County alone has a population greater than the state of Iowa! (The 30th most populous state in the country) Here, even a small percentage shift involves the movement of tens of thousands of people.

Ask a Mexican has thrived in this ever-changing and conflict riddled environment. By not pulling punches—neither given nor taken—Arellano has unwittingly opened a Pandora's Box of genuine curiosity and has taken on the racial constructs that have defined America. He is quick to mention that the image of Latinos in America today is in large part due to the image created in Hollywood and the media:

Mexicans not only don't care about those stereotypes, they embrace them. Visit your local Mexican restaurant and its logo is most likely the Mexican that American consumers have demanded from Hollywood for over a century—a fat greaser sleeping under a cactus or burro…Besides, Mexicans love to offend as much as gabachos: switch on Telemundo or Univisión, where hilarious caricatures of jotos, negritos, chinos, gabachos, indios,fat people, the rich, the poor, chicas calientes, dwarves—everyone and anyone—prance across the screen.
Ask a Mexican,
Thursday, July 13, 2006

With his quick wit, well researched answers and willingness to offend one and all, Gustavo Arellano is leading the way for Latinos and other immigrants to be better understood and accepted in a changing America. With over 2 million readers of Ask a Mexican it is undeniable that there is a necessity for greater cultural dialog in America and with will come a better understanding and willingness to accept the importance of Spanish speakers across the country.


Keywords: mexican american,mexican stereotypes,mexican-americans,ask a mexican,mexican immigrants,gustavo arellano,hispanic population

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