Thursday, April 17, 2008

¡Ask a Mexican!

I first saw Gustavo Arellano's column ¡Ask a Mexican! (AM) at an airport newsstand, while trying to kill some time during a layover. I was idly flipping through UTNE magazine, and the column jumped out and punched me in the nose like a rogue masqueraded Mexican wrestler. I immediately bought the magazine.

I proceeded to show AM to all my friends, and they invariably responded with two of three reactions: shock, confused offense, and belly laughter.

¡Ask a Mexican! is a nationally syndicated column written by Gustavo Arellano. It runs in the Village Voice Media owned publication, OC Weekly. Gustavo, who has crowned himself "The Mexican," answers reader's questions about Latin American culture in the most offensive and enlightened way possible. The column runs beside a horribly offensive logo of a fat mustachioed Mexican caricature, replete with five o'clock shadow, gold tooth, and sombrero.

In an interview with UTNE, Gustavo explains his column's mission:
What we tried to do right from the start was just slam people and challenge everything [Americans] believe about Mexicans. That's why we run that logo. Of course it's a racist logo. But it's also the Mexican that has been perpetuated by American culture for the past 150 years. This isn't something I just made up.
There is a definite but subtle line between making fun of racism, and promoting racism itself. Some distracted readers miss the distinction entirely. While those readers charge Gustavo with promoting racism, to them he says, "I respect your opinion, but just read the column a little more and then you will see what I am trying to do." Usually such readers later respond with, "Wow, thank you so much, now I get the column, and I think it's so great. Keep up the good work.'" Or so Gustavo claims.

Gustavo challenges stereotypes in an unconventional manner. His column is part bawdy in-jokes, and part cultural scholarship. Gustavo explains his motivation:
The word Mexican to Americans is really a dirty word. Mexicans are still viewed as an alien race, and so part of the column is really a joke. But that's what the United States wants to read. They want to read about Mexicans. They want somebody to explain to them what Mexicans are. That's such a ridiculous concept that, of course, I'm going to take it on, but I'm also going to mess with it and screw with people's minds as much as possible. There is a lot of racism out there, and stereotyping continues. As a child of Mexican immigrants, I'm not going to stand idly by and let people perpetuate those stereotypes. I'm going to go after them with everything I have.
This is fear of the Mexican is likely ingrained in everyone who chose to take French or German instead of Spanish in high school, but they will never ever admit it. To those who missed out on the cultural enlightenment portion of Spanish class, there is no better way to learn about the unknown than from the utmost authority: THE Mexican. Gustavo explains his self-coronation as "The Mexican" to UTNE:
That's just playing it up to the hilt. Sometimes I tell people I am the world's primary authority on Mexicans . . . but, of course, I'm not. Anybody could write this column. I mean, anybody could try to write this column. But to make it succeed, you need the academic background to do the research, you need to have a wicked sense of humor, and you need to have skin like steel. Not only that, you [need to be familiar] with Mexican culture. I think the reason the column has been so popular is that I have all those attributes, and I am able to do it week in and week out.

And academic cred he does have. Gustavo earned a master's degree in Latin American studies from UCLA with an emphasis in history, sociology, and anthropology. He uses his training as an investigative reporter, and goes after misinformation with a machete:

Especially during these times, which are so contentious and fraught with animosity, when you have a column that's addressing these [race] issues, not in a namby-pamby way but as blisteringly as possible, people want to read that. It makes no qualms about it. The column attacks everybody. Sure, I'll go after white racism, but I'll also go after Mexican racism with the same knife.
Enjoy a few samples of ¡Ask a Mexican!


Dear Mexican:
Why do Mexicans call white people gringos?

Dear Gabacho:
Mexicans don't call gringos gringos, only gringos call gringos gringos. Mexicans call gringos "gabachos."

Dear Mexican:
Having been called a gabacho, I couldn’t help being interested in the etymological root of that word. I’m never sure what the reference is with the term gabacho, since in my Spanish dictionary (“Bantam New College Revised” from 1987), gabacho means “Pyrenean” (someone from the Pyrenees, the mountains between France and Spain), “Frenchy” or “Frenchified Spanish.” My question is which came first: the Spanish “gabacho” for the French, or the Mexican “gabacho” for the gringo? Does this go way back to those French vatos who got their trousers kicked on Cinco de Mayo in Puebla?
— Ramen is yummy.

Dear Readers:
Few features of this column are more controversial than the Mexican’s preference for gabacho instead of gringo to describe gabachos. Technically, gabacho refers to an inhabitant of the Pyrenees, but it became a Spanish slur for a Frenchman over the centuries. The Royal Academy of Spanish states gabacho originated from the Provençal word gavach, which means “bad-speaking.” (Quick note for amateur etymologists: Don’t believe the 2000 collection “Chicano Folklore: A Guide to the Folktales, Traditions, Rituals and Religious Practices of Mexican Americans,” which states gabacho comes from an arcane Castilian term meaning “a current of water,” or the “NTC’s Dictionary of Mexican Cultural Code Words” edition claiming, “When Mexican men noted that foreign men often helped their wives in the kitchen, something a Mexican male wouldn’t dream of doing, they began calling such men gabachos or ‘aprons.’” )

(funnily, none ever ask I stop slurring our pasty amigos). So why does this Mexican use When the French briefly conquered Mexico during the 1860s, the Mexicans correctly ridiculed the occupying army as gabachos; after los franceses left, the term remained, and Mexicans applied it to their perpetual European antagonists: Americans. Nevertheless, many Mexicans grumble that I should call gabachos gringos since it’s the more accurate term for gabachosgabacho? Besides growing up with the word, it allows Mexicans to smuggle two ethnic slurs in uno handy word — not only are we calling gabachos gringos, but we’re also calling them French. Parlez-vous double insult, cabrones?

Dear Mexican,
Why do Mexicans love public rest rooms so much? It seems like any one you visit has a minivan-load of Mexicans waiting to get into it. Also, why do Mexicans wipe after a No. 2 and then throw the crappy toilet paper into the trash can rather than flushing it away? So gross! Let’s try to put an end to that madness.
— Flushed Out

Dear Gabacho,
¡Felicidades! You have just stumbled upon the most surefire way to tell if a Mexican is fresh from the border—or, as Mexicans who have lived in this country for years like to describe them, “si tienen un nopal en la frente” (“if they have a cactus growing from their forehead”)! See, flushing toilets remain a novelty in rural Mexico, so Mexicans new to this country treat public rest rooms with the same anticipatory awe Japanese tourists save for Disneyland—hence, the long lines. Regarding the popó-gunked Charmin: those precious few ranchos that do have indoor plumbing suffer from inferior pipes installed on the cheap by Mexico’s government. Anything heavier than last night’s menudo would rupture the sewage system and ruin the rancho’s water supply, so used toilet paper must go in the wastebasket. Nopal-wearing Mexicans keep this tradition long after emigrating here, though…can you do me a favor, gabacho, and tell nopaleros that here in los Estados Unidos, we’re much more sophisticated with our No. 2—we flush it into the ocean.

As an Asian person, would I be considered a gabacho? Or do I fall into the yellow bucket labeled chinito, even though I'm not Chinese?
— OC Asian

Dear Chino:
Like Americans assume all Latinos are Mexican, Mexicans think all Asians are chinos-Chinese. When I used to go out with a Vietnamese woman, my aunts would speak highly of mi chinita bonita-my cute little Chinese ruca. When I'd point out she was actually Vietnamese, mis tías would think about it for a bit and respond, "¡Que chinita bonita!"

But just because a Mexican calls you a chino doesn't necessarily mean we think you're Chinese, OC Asian. "Chino," like so many of our swear words, has multiple negative meanings. In the colonial days, a chino was the offspring of a half-Indian/half-black and an Indian. This association with race also transformed chino into a synonym for "servant" and "curly." The term "barrio chino" (Chinatown) also became a euphemism for a town's red-light district. And a popular schoolyard refrain that all Mexican kiddies eventually chant at their Asian classmates is "Chino, chino, japones: come caca y no me des" ("Chinese, Chinese, Japanese: eat shit and don't give me any").

So why the Mexican chino-hate? After all, Chinese were the Mexicans of the world before there even was a Mexico, migrating to Latin America a couple of decades after the fall of Tenochtitlán. And our most famous native dress, the billowy, colorful costume worn by baile folklórico dancers known as a china poblana, was supposedly first worn by a 17th century Mexican-Chinese woman. Bigotry is bigotry, though, and since Mexico's Asian population is still small and overwhelmingly Chinese, we lump Asians into the chino category-makes the racism easier, you know?

Dear Mexican:
Sitting on my desk is a levy from the Internal Revenue Service for more than $12,000 in unpaid taxes. Turns out some dude used my Social Security number for two years in Albuquerque to get paid and didn’t bother to pay taxes. It’s taken me plenty of time and attorney’s fees to figure it out, and we’re still fighting with the feds so that I can continue to get paid for doing MY job. If the 12 million number of illegals getting thrown around is real, it’s a safe bet I am not alone. Stealing ID numbers is a widely unreported crime that does have victims. As a card-carrying liberal whose grandfather was a Mexican immigrant, my feelings toward this are pretty mixed. What are your thoughts on it?
— I’m Really Sad

Dear IRS:
Thoughts on what? Identity fraud? Muy bad. Unpaid taxes? Even worse. And when illegal immigrants do it to wabs like you? Chingao, the Mexican gets his chonis in a bunch. It’s one thing to use someone’s identity with their permission—as I’m currently doing gracias to a generous pendejo named Gustavo Arellano—but quite another to screw over an unwitting individual. But the most infuriating thing about this situation? Ultimately, the government wins. Even if an illegal immigrant doesn’t file his or ella taxes, the government still takes out Social Security and Medicare impuestos that neither the offending illegal nor the SSN’s rightful owner can claim without wrapping themselves in bureaucratic red tape. Rather than immediately investigate most discrepancies, the Social Security Administration dumps the money into something called an “earning suspense file” and lets it subsidize the current Social Security pool to the tune of more than $7 billion annually. Coffin-dodging gabachos should be grateful for the illegals’ infusion, but let’s not kid: Rather than revile people so desperate for a better life that they break numerous laws for that chance, shouldn’t we criticize the system that makes it so damn easy to do it? [Insert cricket chirps from Know Nothings here.] By the way, the Federal Trade Commission estimates that the number of identity-theft victims has gone down despite the illegal-alien invasion of the past couple of years, from nearly 10 million cases in 2002 to 8.3 million in 2005 to 8.1 million last year.

Dear Mexican:
I understand that Dallas spent several million dollars for a Latino cultural center a couple of years ago and is now considering spending money for an Asian cultural center. Please explain why the city is spending money on things like this instead of hiring a few more police and fire people with names like Gonzalez and Chen. Also, when do we get an Irish cultural center to celebrate our rich cultural heritage of whiskey, poets, fistfights and rain?
— The Leprechaun

Dear Mick:
If you’re looking for a bit of Erin, move to San Francisco, Phoenix, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and the many other cities in the United States that host Irish cultural centers. I’m with you that city officials should spend taxpayer money primarily on infrastructure and services, but the way you and other gabachos whine about ethnic studies and cultural centers being exclusionary is mystifying. Mira, the only reason why Mexicans, chinitos, negritos and every other aggrieved minority group in this country demand recognition for their cultural contributions is because they went a good two centuries being treated as beaners, chinks and Sambos. Besides, cultural institutes are manifestations of what legendary Columbia sociologist Herbert Gans deemed symbolic ethnicity: the idea that America’s ethnics eventually become assimilated and choose what parts of their heritage to celebrate. So celebrate, America! For every Cesar Chavez Day and Cinco de Mayo holiday imposed upon the land by P.C. pendejos, that’s just one step closer for Mexicans to become Americans.

Dear Mexican,
What is it about the word “illegal” that Mexicans don’t understand?
— Mondo Minuteman

Dear Gabacho,
Take your pick, Mondo. Mexicans don’t understand the word “illegal” because: (A) when paying their gardeners, nannies, busboys and factory workers in cash (and forgetting to withhold payroll taxes), U.S. employers don’t seem to understand the word “illegal,” so why should Mexicans? (B) The Anglo-American trappers and traders whom you and I were taught to admire as tough, self-sufficient frontiersmen and pioneers were among the American Southwest’s first illegals. Who are you calling illegal, gabacho? (C) Presidente Bush’s proposal to offer amnesty and a guest-worker program to all illegal immigrants—a move designed to appease his supporters in the business community—means even Republicans don’t understand the word. (D) Whether they buy a fake passport or take a citizenship oath, Mexicans will never be more than wetbacks in the eyes of many Americans, so why bother applying for residency? (E) The Tennessean stylebook reportedly requires its reporters to describe as “undocumented workers” the men and women you call “illegal.” (F) Little-known fact: the fragment of poetry on the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” etc.) does not, because of a French engraver’s error, include Emma Lazarus’ rarely cited footnote: “No Mexicans, please.” Fucking French. But the real answer is the word itself. “Illegal” is an English word; Mexicans speak Spanish—yet you never hear Mexicans whine that their bosses don’t understand such easy Spanish phrases as “pinche puto pendejo baboso,” do you?

(From UTNE, Wikipedia, The OC Weekly, Mefi)

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