How I Got That Story: Gustavo Arellano

The 2008 AltWeekly Award winner for Column talks about his work.

What does Gustavo Arellano say about all the emails from people who want to kick his ass?

“I usually email them [the address of] where I work and tell them to come get me,” Arellano says.

Arellano, 29, works as the food editor and an investigative reporter for the OC Weekly. But that’s not what has people so pissed. It’s his nationally syndicated column, ¡Ask a Mexican!, which appears in 27 newspapers and has spawned a book of the same name.

He admits to being a little torn about the column’s success. “This column shouldn’t exist,” he says. “People should understand what Mexicans are about. People shouldn’t be mystified about them, but yet they are.”

So, this column was actually an assignment from an editor?

After seeing a billboard of a Spanish radio DJ — one of the most popular DJs — my boss didn’t know who this guy was so he asked me. After I told him, he began thinking aloud saying, “Why don’t you start a column and people can ask you questions about Mexicans?”

How do you balance the tongue-in-cheek responses and informative social commentaries about Mexican-American affairs?

The column satirically answers questions about Mexicans. No matter how racist a question is asked, I’m going to answer it with the facts. It’s a way for me to debunk the stereotypes. I let people know when I think the question is ridiculous, but hey, let’s answer it, debunk the stereotypes and make a fool of this person.

How do you decide which questions will be answered?

The method of answering a question is always the same. It’s to answer the question and to debunk the stereotype that motivated the question. I’m always cognizant of the fact that to be fresh, a column has to be diverse. Every single week I can’t answer a question about immigration. I have to mix it up. The column appears two times a week, every week, and I write them about a week in advance, which gives me time to research.

Why do you think this column is so successful?

The issue of Mexican immigration is big. Anything dealing with immigration will get a lot of readers, whether they like it or not. My approach to the issue is different. People write on one hand that Mexicans are saints and on the other side making Mexicans to be little better than savages. Neither is the 100 percent truth. People that write about both sides are so careful because they don’t want hate mail. I love hate mail. I offer a refreshing approach. I hope people learn from my column. Doing this column is fun for me.

What’s your take on other “Ask a …” (i.e. Ask a Cuban-American), and do you see others following suit?

I think it’s funny. I didn’t invent this genre. I mean Dave Chappelle had “Ask a Black Guy” on his show. There are a bunch of “Ask a’s.” The funniest thing I find is when people ask me if it’s OK to start their own “Ask a …” column. I don’t own the copyright to this. Go ahead, rip me off, please.

Your face doesn’t appear on your column. Why use that Mexican caricature?

That logo first appeared in our “Why We Hate Mexicans” issue. I really don’t see why people are offended by it. Racist logos are just drawings. We give them the power to hurt. The only way to take away that power is to reappropriate those images until people see them as silly drawings.

Do you a have background as a columnist?

No. First and foremost I’m an investigative reporter. I’m also the food editor of the paper. Never had any ambition to be a columnist.

I came from the world of academic writing. And academic writing is dull, clinical almost. So when I started writing for the OC Weekly my copy was horrible. And my editor, Will Swaim, would tell me. But instead of dismissing me, he taught me any anything and everything that goes into journalism.

What do alt-weeklies offer journalists?

Freedom. Alt-weeklies have always been much more free — pun intended — than daily newspapers. With dailies disappearing, alt-weeklies are needed to fill in a very needed voice in the community.

You’re never pigeonholed into one particular beat. At a daily newspaper, they ask you to do one thing and one thing only. I’d get so bored so fast I’d quit my job. Here, I could write about anything, so long as it’s good. That freedom is so intoxicating I can’t see why anybody would not want a job like mine.

Read the columns that garnered Arellano a first-place finish in Column (circulation 55,000 and over):
How do Mexicans get such ridiculous nicknames from seemingly normal names?
Villa’s stolen skull
All-American Edición

Part of the 2008 “How I Got That Story” series, in which Academy for Alternative Journalism fellows reveal the processes of the writers and editors who won first-place AltWeekly Awards. These interviews also appear in Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2008.

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