'Ask a Mexican!' Author Gustavo Arellano Publishes New Book

Orange County Register
September 15, 2008

OC Weekly writer Gustavo Arellano made a big splash in the national media a few years ago (and made his colleague Commie Girl cry) when he signed a two-book book deal with Scribner.

'Ask A Mexican!' reached bookstores last year, compiling dozens of his smart-alecky, irreverent and informative columns of the same name.

His second book, 'Orange County: A Personal History' (Scribner, $24), arrives this week. It mixes his family history and a coming-of-age story with an overview of well-worn local lore.

At 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 18, Arellano will sign and read from the book at the Yost Theater, 307 N. Spurgeon St. in Santa Ana. (The event is sponsored by Libreria Martinez, so be nice and buy your copy there.)

That's the event, so let's now move onto the book itself. You want to know, of course, if it's any good. And the answer is sometimes.

The history of his family, and their deep ties to El Cargadero, their old village in Mexico, is a fresh presentation of a common story for many in Orange County. His geeky adolescent years both amuse and reveal. (The image of L'il Gustavo in a Stetson, which he only agreed to wear after extorting a Genesis game system from his dad, is hard to forget.)

But the Orange County history is mostly stuff you already know if you've been paying attention, or presented through such a relentlessly negative lens that by the end of the book you wonder why, if he's so appalled by the place, he didn't move away years ago.

For more random notes on the book, read on….

A few more things that caught our eye as we read the book:

1) He's a bit of a momma's boy. One of his earliest memories is of his mother giving him a bath. He liked it. So it's not surprising (though still kinda odd) to read that he only moved out of the bunkbed he shared with his brother at the family home two years ago. He was 27.

2) He's better at screeching opinions than he is with reporting the facts. He writes that Disneyland opened in 1958 — only three years off. He counts Thomas Kinkade as a famous artist from Orange County, which will be news to Kinkade, who comes from Northern California. He mistakenly places Saddleback Church off the 261 Toll Road. Some of these he corrects in the OC Weekly this week, but if you buy the book and never see the Weekly then you'll be left with all the bogus details. Someone hire Gustavo a copy editor (and teach him the story about those who live in glass houses…).

3) Picked on as a kid, he picks on others. He's a little runty fella — we paraphrase the book there — who lashed out (usually with his mouth) at even weaker kids, and sometimes still does. He writes about how junior high kids mocked him for his stench, and how he in turn "socked a Korean kid once because I was bored." He taunted an overweight girl who was losing her hair and got suspended. Even after his success with the column, there's thin skin: a Latina who expresses distate for his irreverent style in the column gets mocked in the book for being fat. Nice.

4) In trying to be clever and cutting, he can go too far. We get that the whole alt-weekly deal is to push the envelope, spout off outrageous opinions, and try to get people riled up at the same time other people are laughing. Still, there's a line that you sometimes might not want to cross. Like when Arellano lays into the Diocese of Orange for its piece of the priest abuse scandals, and refers to it as "…the most horrific crime perpetuated in Orange County's history, even more disgusting than Taco Bell: the rape of innocents." Comparing mediocre Mexican food to molested kids? Does that really help make your point? Really?

5) He really should give $10,000 of his book advance to Cal State Fullerton. The advance copy of the book that arrived in June sneered at the achievements of local sports teams with this line: "…Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine host Division I squads, but the day either of them make March Madness is the day I donate $10,000 to a scholarship fund — you heard me, suckers." Of course, months earlier Cal State Fullerton had made the NCAA tournament, so for the final edition, the line was snipped. Still, fair's fair — pay up!


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