Monday, September 15, 2008

Interview with Gustavo Arellano

Hot off the success of his bestselling ¡Ask a Mexican! (Scribner) which is based on his nationally-syndicated column of the same title, Gustavo Arellano roars back with a memoir, Orange County: A Personal History (Scribner), which is being released tomorrow (Mexican Independence Day!). The publisher describes Arellano’s book as “[p]art personal narrative, part cultural history, Orange County is the outrageous and true story of the man behind the wildly popular and controversial column ¡Ask a Mexican! and the locale that spawned him. It is a tale of growing up in an immigrant enclave in a crime-ridden neighborhood, but also in a promised land, a place that has nourished America's soul and Gustavo's family, both in this country and back in Mexico, for a century.”

I’ve had the opportunity to read an advance review copy of Orange County. Arellano’s new book is filled with his trademark sardonic humor blended effortlessly with facts, figures and historical context as he gleefully reveals the real Orange County, a place very different from that promoted by the county's business and political interests. I suspect his hometown will never be the same, at least in the eyes of the rest of the country.

Arellano kindly agreed to sit down with La Bloga and give an interview about Orange County.

DANIEL OLIVAS: Okay, let's just get it out of the way: Are you now an incredibly rich author?

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: I don't like to use these acronyms, but LOL :-)! My dad taught me to never ask someone how much money they make, but the reporter in me loves to leak information. Let's just say I'm still driving my 1999 Toyota Camry with 186,000 miles on it, but I was able to buy a near-mint 1974 Cadillac El Dorado convertible from my former boss with the advance I received--but I can't afford the steer horns for the hood that they require.

OLIVAS: Why did you decide to do a hybrid personal memoir/cultural history?

ARELLANO: The two books I always wanted to write were a history of Orange County and another telling the mass exodus of the ranchos of my mami y papi (El Cargadero and Jomulquillo, Jerez, Zacatecas, respectively) to Anaheim and points beyond. My agent was excited about the Orange County angle, but he was more enthralled by the tales of my family's four generations in Anaheim. He suggested I combine the two tales in our book pitch to publishers when we were shopping ¡Ask a Mexican! in 2006. While most of the companies to whom we pitched ¡Ask a Mexican! loved that compendium, Scribner was more excited with the Orange County memoir proposal. Guided by my editor Brant Rumble, I was able to accomplish the tricky feat of the hybrid that both told a serious history of a much-stereotyped region but also wove in the modern story of Mexican migration to los Estados Unidos.

OLIVAS: Was it liberating or horrifying to write a book that has real chapters longer than your usual answers to stupid questions about Mexicans?

ARELLANO: Ha ha, not all the questions I receive for my column are stupid--the ones I get on etymology are amazing. People who don't regularly read the OC Weekly usually are unaware that I'm still a reporter first and foremost, and part of my responsibility is writing 5,000-plus-word stories aspiring to the best of literary journalism. Taking that into consideration, I wrote each chapter of Orange County as if it were a cover story for the Weekly. The trick for me, however, was making sure that constant themes wove themselves through and through to make Orange County an actual book and not another collection of my writings. I enjoyed that process immensely and can't wait to do it again.

OLIVAS: It is clear that you gleefully take aim at the mythology created to promote Orange County. If you were forced to choose one myth to dispel, what would it be?

ARELLANO: That Orange County is Eden. It's not. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else on Earth, but I acknowledge the corruption, the Mexican-bashing, the iron grasp developers have on county residents, the class warfare across OC. All of what I just spoke of, however, is swept under the rug or--more deviously--celebrated as virtues in the official narrative followed and expounded by millions.

The main metaphor of my book is the Cult of the Orange Crate. Back when King Citrus ruled the land, orange farmers would ship their fruits in boxes with an ornate label--anyone who's spent their life in Southern California knows how they look: idyllic paintings of orange trees, pretty señoritas, rolling foothills, all with names like Esperanza, Old Mission and the like. The labels were both retelling reality and suppressing it. They didn't show the Mexicans like my great-grandfather and grandfather living in segregated citrus camps, the addiction to cheap labor the industry grew. Hey, Know Nothings: want to blame someone for illegal immigration in Southern California? Blame the citrus growers of yore.

Similarly, Orange County: A Personal History also addresses the idealization many Mexican immigrants maintain of the homeland they left, the insistence on maintaining culture and visiting as often as possible. Look, I'm about as Aztlanista as you can get, but there's a reason why millions of Mexicans have left la patria over the past century, and it's not because they're fleeing the Guatemalan invasion. I laugh when people say that life is better in Mexico than in the United States--yeah, tell that to the poor souls like my father who fold themselves into pretzels for a chance to break the shackles of poverty.

OLIVAS: You write about your family, warts and all. What has been their reaction?

ARELLANO: They haven't read the book yet. My mom's going to have a heart attack--whenever I'd tell her about what I was writing on a particular day, she scolded me like any good Mexican mami. But I tell those stories to specifically make a point to Americans--that Mexicans can and do escape from some of those pathologies they love to hoist on us as being exclusively Mexican: lack of a college or even high school degree, alcoholism, spousal abuse and the like. The crap I'm constantly debunking in my ¡Ask a Mexican! column. I'm proud to tell those warts. I'm proud that my dad has been sober for almost 25 years--millions of our young gabacho scholars in American colleges and universities can stand to learn from this 57-year-old Mexican.

OLIVAS: I cringed as I read how your father made you dress like a "real" Mexican and go to neighborhood dances. It is clear that you're emotionally scarred. But out of great pain comes great art, no?

ARELLANO: If you can wear a Stetson and cowboy boots, rock it. I'll stick with my Chucks and fedora.

OLIVAS: You pepper your book with restaurant recommendations (worth the price of the book alone!). Food obviously plays an important role in your life. If you were on death row, what would be your last meal?

ARELLANO: Food plays an important part in my life not just because of my mother's cooking but because I've been the food editor for the Weekly for the past four years (two years longer than the existence of ¡Ask a Mexican! column). Including the best restaurant in each of Orange County's 34 cities was an attempt to hoist another genre on my new book: the travel guide. All this said, my last meal would be my mom's rajas con papa y queso washed down with Honduran banana soda.

OLIVAS: You now have two books under your Mexican belt. What will the third one be about?

ARELLANO: La Bloga can break this news: I'm finalizing details to publish another book for Scribner with the tentative title Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America (And Soon, the World). I want to examine the socio-culinary role that "Mexican" food has played in the United States--Tex-Mex, Taco Bell, the war against taco trucks, busboys, the Aztec gifts (tomato, chocolate, vanilla, etc.), the Mississippi Delta tamale, and how this vision is now influencing what "Mexican" food is in the world, and not, you know, actual Mexican food. Did you know that tacos are all the rage in Sweden, except their tacos make Taco Bell look like the masterwork of a lonchera?

OLIVAS: Finally, who do you want to play you in the movie version of Orange County (and if you say Robert Downey, Jr., I will kill you)?

ARELLANO: Funny you ask this question. My Facebook's status recently read that I was taking a bunch of ridiculous meetings--all I'll say at this point is that television execs LOVE to take meetings and that said meetings are farces. I've heard Sean Penn and Marc Anthony (shudder) should play me in a film, but I still say I'm the reincarnation of Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens since they passed away on February 3, 1959 and I was born 20 years later. Or, if you need a flesh-and-bones version, a younger Woody Allen sans the gross womanizing.

OLIVAS: Mil gracias for spending time with La Bloga.

Here is Gustavo Arellano’s book tour schedule:

September 16 (LOS ANGELES): 7 pm, Borders, 8852 Washington Blvd., Pico Rivera, CA. Contact: Jan Wagner, 310-540-7000 ext. 552.

September 17 (PHOENIX): 7 pm, Changing Hands, 6428 S McClintock Dr., Tempe, AZ. Contact: Cindy Dach, 480-730-0205

September 18 (LOS ANGELES): Libreria Martinez (go to website for more information).

September 19 (AUSTIN): 7 pm, Book People, 603 N. Lamar, Austin, TX. Contact: Alison Kothe, 512-472-4288 ext. 207.

September 20 (DALLAS): 2 pm, Borders, 5500 Greenville Ave., Dallas, TX. Contact: Carlo Rich, 214-363-9305.

September 21 (HOUSTON): 2 pm, Nuestra Palabra, George R. Brown Convention Center, 1001 Avenida de las Americas, Houston, TX 77010. Contact: Tony Diaz, 832-630-6007.

September 23 (NEW YORK): 7:30 pm, Barnes & Noble, 396 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY. Contact: Donna Rausch, 212-674-8780

September 24 (DENVER): Tattered Cover, 1628 16th St., Denver, CO. Contact: Charles Stillwagon, 303-436-9219 ext: 2736.

October 18 (LOS ANGELES): SCIBA Author Feast.

◙ I previously reported on the opening of Rancho Pancho, a new play by former Los Angeles Times journalist and San Antonio playwright Gregg Barrios. The play is about the short-lived but intense relationship between playwright Tennessee Williams and South Texan Pancho Rodriguez from 1946-1947. The other characters are Carson McCullers (with whom Williams and Pancho shared a summer home in Nantucket), and pioneer stage director Margo Jones (who was in P-town for Brando’s Streetcar audition). Well, the San Antonio Current just reviewed the play and said this, in part:

The hot ticket Saturday night seems to have been the premiere of the fully-staged version of “Rancho Pancho,” playwright Gregg Barrios' exploration of the tempestuous relationship between Tennessee Williams and Texan Pancho Rodriguez.

Jump-Start Theater was filled to the rafters for the performance — folding chairs were brought in to accommodate late-comers. Sunday's performance drew a healthy crowd as well, according to figures from the brand-new Classic Theatre, which staged it in collaboration with Jump-Start.

The crowds were rewarded with a satisfying piece tracing the relationship from its early, playful phase all the way to the explosive, emotionally draining break-up. Director Diane Malone has described the play as a love story, and that's exactly what she and her gifted cast delivered.

[The cast of Rancho Pancho is pictured above: Rick Frederick (clockwise from top left), Benny Briseño, Anna Gangai, and Annella Keys.]

Rigoberto González, writing for the El Paso Times, reviews first-time novelist Claudia Guadalupe Martínez’s young adult novel, The Smell of Old Lady Perfume (Cinco Puntos Press, $15.95 paperback), which he calls a “touching study of the heartaches that befall an 11-year-old girl living in El Paso's historic Segundo Barrio.” If you live in or near El Paso, you may meet Martínez who will be appearing for a reading and book signing to introduce The Smell of Old Lady Perfume. When: 6:30 p.m. this Saturday. Where: La Fe Cultural and Technology Center, 721 S. Ochoa (rear entrance). Information: 838-1625.

◙ Agustin Gurza, staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, tells us about a new outlook for singer Lila Downs:

Lila Downs is an artist who always seemed to have her act together. The Mexican American singer has a stunning voice, a confident multicultural vision grounded in her Mixtec Indian roots and a successful 15-year career in world music circles. What she doesn't have is a child.

Downs faced her inability to conceive as she approached her 40th birthday this month, and the productive artist suddenly felt barren. Depressed and drinking, the together performer fell apart. "What . . . am I doing in this life if I can't have children?" she asked herself. "That's the whole point of living as a woman."

The deteriorating political situation back home in her beloved Oaxaca, wracked by a violent teachers strike two years ago, only made matters worse. As a champion of the culture, she felt powerless and angry, and she started taking it out on her band. Once, in the middle of a concert in the Canary Islands, she walked off the stage, thinking, "You guys work it out yourselves. See how far you get without me."

To read the entire piece and how Downs got her groove back, click here. If you have story ideas for Gurza, email him at (Pictured: Lila Downs; photo credit: Los Angeles Times.)

Sarah Rafael García invites everyone to her first on-campus presentation. She will be presenting Las Niñas (Floricanto Press) at Cal-State University at Fullerton, to several classes but they will also provide an open special event:

Cal-State University at Fullerton
7 p.m., Tuesday, October 7th
TSU Ontiveros Room ABC

For address & directions, click here

Co-sponsored by CSUF's Researchers and Critical Educators (R.A.C.E.) and the Chicana & Chicano Resource Center.

◙ An announcement from the Cypress Park Branch Library:

Most of the attention the working-class, largely Latino community of Cypress Park northeast of downtown receives from major media comes from spasms of gang violence. The fatal shooting in August of a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy. The February shooting outside Aragon Elementary School.

But the community is much more than that.

The Cypress Park Branch Library, a hub of community activity at 1150 Cypress Ave., will showcase another side of the neighborhood with a free reading 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 20, featuring two local authors, one of whom grew up in Cypress Park.

Reading from their work will be Reyna Grande, author of the critically acclaimed novel Across a Hundred Mountains, and Conrad Romo, who produces "Tongue and Groove," a five-year-old monthly reading event at the Hotel Cafe in Hollywood, and who grew up in Cypress Park a block from the former Southern Pacific railroad yard.

Grande, who was born in Mexico and came to the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant at the age of nine, received a 2007 American Book Award and the 2008 El Premio Aztlan Literary Award, for her first novel. She is currently finishing a master's program in creative writing and her second novel, Dancing with Butterflies, is scheduled to be released in 2009.

Romo, a second-generation Angeleno, has had short stories published in Palehouse, Wednesday magazine and Noveltown Review. His short story, "Cement God," was recently featured in Tu Ciudad magazine and also appears in the Anthology Latinos in Lotusland.

Romo organized the reading in an effort to give something back to the community where he grew up, to call attention to positive aspects of the tight-knit community, and to show that Cypress Park is defined by more than just the headline-grabbing violence of a few gang members.

"There are other stories," Romo said. "A whole community can be identified by just a few actions. . . . but there are other stories, other people who live there."

Contact: Conrad Romo, (323) 931-1200, or through his website. Branch Librarian: Patty Rostomian, (323) 224-0039.

◙ Happy to be back but I really did enjoy my family vacation to Yellowstone. Remember that Latino Heritage Month begins today. There are many ways to celebrate, of course, but how better than buying a book by your favorite Latino/a author? If you need ideas, check in with La Bloga each day. See you next Monday and remember: ¡Lea un libro!

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