PHOENIX (Reuters) - Why do Mexicans use their car horns as a doorbell? Why is Mexican television so obsessed with dwarfs and transvestites? Why do they park their cars on the front lawn?
Do Mexican children get tamales at Christmas so that they have something to unwrap? What is it about the word “illegal” that Mexicans don’t understand?
The chances are that you will know the answers to some of these questions if you live in the United States and read the wickedly funny “Ask a Mexican!” column syndicated in more than a score of weekly newspapers across the country.
The brainchild of a Mexican-American reporter, Gustavo Arellano, and his editor at the OC Weekly in Orange County, southern California, the column started out as a prank in 2004.
Since then it has become a sleeper hit read by more than a million people from California to New York each week. It has also spun off live radio appearances for Arellano, and is to be published as a book in May by Scribner.
The column began as a question and answer he made up asking why Mexicans call white people gringos. The answer: “Mexicans do not call gringos gringos. Only gringos call gringos gringos. Mexicans call gringos gabachos,” showing white people don’t even know the common Mexican slang term for themselves.
“It started off as a joke. It was supposed to be just a satirical take on xenophobia against Mexicans and it just exploded,” Arellano said, recalling the letter that started the column off.
“We knew people would be outraged ... whenever you talk about immigration in the media, there is always a response. What we didn’t expect was for people to send in questions,” he said.
Since then “The Mexican” has received a full mail bag each week mining the knowledge gap between the white Anglo majority in the United States, and Mexicans and other Latinos who make up the largest and fastest growing U.S. minority.
The weekly exchange is accompanied by an illustration of a fat, leering Mexican with a sombrero, stubble and mustache that plays to stereotype.
The questions — some addressing Mexicans as “greasers” and “beaners” — pull no punches, and are met with equally arch slapdowns meant to sneak in an unexpected cultural rapprochement with humor, Arellano said.
“It’s kind of a Trojan Horse. When you discuss things in a humorous manner you are going to find a much more receptive audience than if I just wrote a straight-ahead editorial browbeating someone into accepting what I believe.”
Through his blunt discussion of stereotypes, he hopes to defend Mexicans and their identity in the United States.
The column takes on all questions, ranging from queries about why Mexicans put images of their religious icon the Virgin of Guadalupe on car hub caps, to frankly addressing the contentious issue of illegal immigration.
“I say I will answer any and every question about Mexicans. I can’t back down from that challenge,” Arellano said.
“So, I will answer serious ones, racist ones, sexist ones and silly ones,” he adds.
At one time or another, the column has offended people on all sides of the immigration debate, although Arellano says he receives more fan letters than hate mail.
Aside from a snowballing readership, the column, which answers two queries a week, has spawned imitators.
There have been versions of “Ask a Korean,” “Ask a Muslim,” “Ask a Cuban-American” and “Ask a Jew,” Arellano said, although the Mexican neighbors remain “the big question mark for the United States.”
And despite responding to hundreds of queries in the past two years, he is far from done. Arellano believes the rich mine of cultural misunderstandings will hold out well into the future.
“As long as the readers keep sending the questions, I’ll keep on answering them,” he said. “I have enough to keep me going for years and years and years.”