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Columnist Gustavo Arellano Discusses What Nation Can Learn from Orange County

Columnist Gustavo Arellano Discusses What Nation Can Learn from Orange County
What's the deal with Orange County? Many San Diegans only know of the "OC" as that area between Camp Pendleton and Los Angeles were all the traffic on I-5 backs up, and little else. We speak to columnist Gustavo Arellano about his book "Orange County: A Personal History."

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

DOUG MYRLAND (Guest Host): I'm Doug Myrland, sitting in for Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days in San Diego. Well, what's the deal with Orange County? Most San Diegans know of the "OC" as that area between Camp Pendleton and Los Angeles where all the traffic on I-5 backs up, and maybe not much else. Gustavo Arellano has written many articles for the Orange County Weekly. He's also the author of the "¡Ask a Mexican!" syndicated column, carried locally in La Prensa, and also a book by the same name. He's joining us over the phone, though, today to talk about his brand new book "Orange County: A Personal History." Gustavo, thanks for taking the time to talk to us.


GUSTAVO ARELLANO (Author): No, gracias for having me.

MYRLAND: I was struck, when I read your book, about a similarity to "The Grapes of Wrath." And if you remember reading Steinbeck in high school, he did what you did in your Orange County book, he did a chapter of essays and then a chapter about the Jode family. Now they were fictional and your chapters are about your actual family. But I wonder if anybody else has pointed out to you the similarity between these two?

ARELLANO: This is an honor. John Steinbeck is my favorite author and "The Grapes of Wrath" is my favorite book. It is the only time my name will be mentioned with him unless somebody says you're absolutely not like John Steinbeck. I – The way I told the story of "Orange County: A Personal History" was, yeah, part of it was my family story then the other part was essay, really like essays on the impact Orange County has had in different regions, the impact Orange County has had on the United States in different capacities. And it was done on purpose because I felt that I want to tell my family story because, you know, my family story, I think, is telling an interesting (sic) of the Mexican experience in the United – the modern day Mexican experience. But I also thought that in telling my family story, I wouldn't be able to give enough justice to Orange County and just really how wonderful and insane the place is.

MYRLAND: Well, and you really dug up some interesting historical facts. Did it take you a long time to do the research on the chapters about Orange County? Or were these things that you had kind of picked up along the way as a writer and columnist for the Orange County Weekly?

ARELLANO: Yeah, as a staff writer with the OC Weekly, I'm an investigative reporter and also, though, I do historical essays. I'll take stories of the past that aren't really known in the Orange County historical chronology and do these 5,000 word essays, investigative research, more like dissertations on them. So most of the research that comes out in the Orange County book, I had done over the years or I had picked – never written about it but picked it up just in researching other issues. But, nevertheless, I also did a little bit of research for some parts that I never were (sic) really clear about it. And what – when it comes to history, history's always evolving. Even though it happened in the past, we're always finding out more and more things about it so even now as I read the book, I wish, darn it!, I wish I could've put in this fact or that fact. Or, for instance, I made a brief mention of how one of the original founders of Orange County was actually a member of the Ku Klux Klan, a proud member even up until the 1920s when the Klan was supposed to be outlawed. But in the years – in the months ever since the publication of the book, I found even more prominent Orange County figures who also either belonged to the Klan or were pretty racist themselves.


MYRLAND: Now I want to talk for a little bit about your family and the chapters about your family. And one thing that jumped out at me is their connection to their original hometown in Mexico, and that seems to be a theme that's coming out in a lot of literature these days. I got to interview Luis Urrea about his novel "Into the Beautiful North." I don't know if you've had a chance to read it.

ARELLANO: Yeah, oh yeah, great author, yeah.

MYRLAND: And it's – and the theme is kind of the same there about that really strong connection to the hometown and yet how that hometown changes.

ARELLANO: Well, what I've discovered as I've gotten older and just read more American literature, is that the phenomenon that I thought was unique to myself, that of a small community, in my mom's case the town of El Cargadero, which is in the central Mexican state of Zacatecas, transplanting itself in whole and en masse to the United States. It's something that immigrants have done from the beginning of the foundation of this country, whether it was the pilgrims taking their own community, whether it was Italians before they were really – there was really an Italy settling in New York City or on the east coast according to their region, whether it was Cambria or Sicily, and even settling to hometowns. This is something that humans, once they start immigrating, it's natural to them. It's natural for them to, when they come to this country, of course, they're going to assimilate but they still want to be in the comfort of their mother culture at least for the first couple of years in their – of their life year in this country. So – And I also think it's important to note in this globalized society that no longer will you see many immigrants immediately just cut the umbilical cord. There's always going to be some type of connection but at the same time, I would also argue the connection is very much more of the Americanized immigrants who came to this country influencing their mother country and, I would argue, for the better. But even with – then there's some consequences that go along the way.

MYRLAND: Now you were very revealing about the way you felt about things when you were a teenager and while it was a very natural thing for your parents to be part of this extended community, it wasn't always all that comfortable for you.

ARELLANO: Well, it wasn't comfortable for me because I'm a nerd. And as I always tell young people nowadays because it's cool to be intellectual and a nerd nowadays but when I was growing up, it wasn't among any cultures. So when you go – In the book, I talk about how with my – with my parents' culture, the main thing was the dance as a celebration where we – where the men would dress up in their Stetsons and cowboy boots and with the big belt buckles and the women were supposed to only, you know, be demure. I didn't like that because I couldn't wear – I still can't wear a Stetson. I wear glasses, for crying out loud. The only people who ever wore glasses in the western films were the city slickers and I – it was just – I was at odds with it, not because I despised the culture. I really enjoyed it but I just couldn't see myself participating in it without thinking of myself as a phony because that's – that wasn't my culture. That was a part of me but that wasn't who I was. And that came as a big disappointment really to the people around me, the people from El Cargadero who – they would tell my parents, oh, he's too Americanized. In Spanish, we – or, Mexican Spanish, we use the word bocho (sp) and so they would say, he's too much of a bocho. And, really, you know, how can you be proud of him? But eventually things changed and I think people saw my perspective more than they saw the perspective of the mother country.

MYRLAND: Now I thought it was kind of touching when you wrote about how your father was always trying to get you to wear the jeans and boots and the cow – and how a couple of times you did that just for him.

ARELLANO: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Well, in one chapter in my book I talk about how I basically bribed my dad, or I tricked him really. I told him if he bought me a Sega Genesis, which was the Xbox 360 of the early 1990s, if he bought me that, I would wear the Stetsons and cowboy boots. And so a chapter in the book, or a passage in the book, just talks about how foolish, really—and that's the only word to describe myself—how foolish I looked in that Stetson, and I knew that was the case but at the – if that meant me – if me dressing as a fool meant I could buy – or, I could get a Genesis, I would do it. And my dad, even years later, even just a couple of days ago, always tells people, well, I always wanted him to dress in a Stetson and cowboy boots, a ranchero style, a rancher style. And one time he tricked me into buying him a Genesis to doing it (sic). In retrospect, and always, my dad's always loved me no matter – even if I never really dress like him, he's always loved me, but still I think it rankles him that his son couldn't have dressed a little bit more like him, at least as a teenager.

MYRLAND: You didn't put their picture in the book but I have a strong mental picture of your family, you know, with your mother dressing in business casual clothes and your father in the Stetson. I really think I know what your family looks like. I've got to ask you a question about high school because we have about 25 high school teachers taking a tour of the studio and they're looking in the window. And I wanted to ask you to talk a little bit about your experience in high school because that's kind of a big part of your book.

ARELLANO: It is. It is. As I said earlier, I've always been a nerd so I always liked studying but when I went to Anaheim High School—I graduated in '97—I was that stereotypical Latino high school student, especially male student, who didn't care at all about school, who didn't want to study. I, personally, just found it too boring and I'm a bit too much of a hellraiser to really convey (sic) to traditional standards. But eventually, in my senior year in high school, my algebra teacher told me that – she told me that she understood I didn't like high school. She completely understood that. But she told me the necessity of me getting my high school degree so I could go to college, and then I would enjoy high school. And the main problem was my parents, they never said, oh, you have to fail in high school. It was more like, okay, we know you have to do good in high school in this country, but my mom dropped out of school in the United States in ninth grade, even though she was an immigrant from Mexico. My dad dropped out of school in fourth grade in Mexico to take care of cattle, so we didn't come from a family where we had a tradition of education. Flash forward to just yesterday where my youngest brother, Gabriel, he graduated from Anaheim High School. He's going to go to a four year university, I think it might be Cal State Fullerton. And the – me and my two younger sisters, I have a master's, so does the sister after me, and then the youngest sister, Alijandrina, she's 21, just a couple of weeks ago she graduated from Cal State Fullerton and she's going to go on to become a pediatrician. So just in one generation you have people didn't even go to high school, their children being all college educated, and that happened only because I was able to set the example for my parents that education was important in this country. And more importantly, my parents are not stupid and they realized quickly what educational achievement can do to their children here in the United States.

MYRLAND: Well, Gustavo, that dovetails nicely into one of the themes of your book about how Orange County is changing so quickly. And in the couple of minutes that we have left, I'd really like to hear you talk about how Orange County that we may think about of the 1970s, very conservative, or the Orange County image that we see on reality shows is really quite different for most of the folks who live there.

ARELLANO: Absolutely. Up until – To a certain extent, to this day but really up until the 1990s, Orange County was probably best known through a quote by President Ronald Reagan when he said Orange County is the place where all the good Republicans go to die. So Orange County had this image as wealthy, white, ultra-conservative, and even much more than San Diego because San Diego, of course, has had that image as well. And nowadays, the image that we have of Orange County, the national imagination is Orange County as this vapid place of ostentatious status-seeking as seen by the "Real Housewives of Orange County" and many other reality shows. But the truth is, in about, I think, 2000-2001, Orange County became what's known as a majority minority county. In other words, whites constant now less than 50% of the total population of Orange County. Latinos make up about a third, Asians make up about twenty-some percent, African Americans is a really tiny number, unfortunately. And so those stereotypes of Orange County, those two traditional stereotypes, yeah, in some parts of Orange County it's true, but in the City of Santa Ana, for instance, where I live, it's the most Latino big city in the United States, about 85% Latino. In Little Saigon, the area around Westminster in Garden Grove, that has the largest concentration of Vietnamese in the world outside of Vietnam. We have humongous communities of Persians, of Arabs, of Hmong, it's a much, much more diverse community than what comes out in the press. And that's why in my book I wanted to make that point so the nation knows that Orange County, we're not just stock stereotypes. We really are a complex, dynamic place.

MYRLAND: Well, I think your point was actually a little larger and that is that the rest of the United States is going to start to look more and more like Orange County as the population changes. And I want to ask you, do you think the rest of the United States is ready for that?

ARELLANO: They're – They better be ready where – whether they want to or not. Orange County didn't want to be ready. Orange County, the people who live there, they started migrating away from, say, central county where the minorities started moving in, and moving more – closer toward San Diego, down in San Clemente, Dana Point, those cities, and that's where the real traffic is. You can't blame the rest of Orange County on I-5. It's really San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano and Dana Point. But in the book I make the argument that Orange County is really the Ellis Island of the 21st century because Orange County was also thought of historically as the ultimate suburb. Then, of course, we're the suburb of Los Angeles. Well, this suburb now is 3 mil – it's 33 cities with three million people. If we were our own municipality, we'd be the third or fourth largest city in the United States. So what happens after suburbia? Sociologists call it exurbia but that's what Orange County's going through now so other cities – or, other regions in the United States, either as they turn to suburbs or the suburbs themselves become almost their own cities, they're going to go through what we've been going through for really now the past 15 to 20 years.

MYRLAND: Well, Gustavo Arellano, thank you very much for joining us and thank you for writing a terrific book and I highly recommend it. It's called "Orange County: A Personal History." Again, we've been speaking with Gustavo Arellano, who has also written a book based on his "¡Ask a Mexican!" syndicated column and his column is carried locally in La Prensa. Gustavo, thanks for joining us.

ARELLANO: Oh, thank you for having me.

MYRLAND: You're listening to These Days in San Diego. I'm Doug Myrland.