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Election Week should have marked another milestone for journalist Gustavo Arellano, best known for his syndicated column “Ask A Mexican.” It was during this week in November 2004 that his column began appearing in the OC Weekly, an alternative newspaper in Orange County, California. Arellano later rose through the ranks at the paper, ultimately becoming its top editor in 2011.
But last month, after a dispute with the OC Weekly’s new owners, Arellano resigned from the newspaper – and is now facing the future without the column that helped make him an influential Latino voice in media.
“Those are the breaks,” Arellano told NBC News. Arellano said that his departure came about because of a demand by the paper’s new owners, the Duncan McIntosh Company, Inc., that he cut half of his staff. Opposed to this idea, Arellano offered his own proposal and said he would resign if the company didn’t like the plan. “I offered to cut my own salary. I offered to sell ads. I submitted a proposal to them, and then they basically ghosted me for about a month before our final meeting.”
Arriving on October 13 for a meeting with the OC Weekly’s owners, Arellano found that the locks were already changed at his offices. “I actually thought, until that day, that we might be able to work something out,” he said. The meeting lasted fifteen minutes; Arellano’s proposal was not accepted by the new owners, and he then resigned.
Multiple efforts by NBC to contact the Duncan McIntosh Co., Inc. for comment were unsuccessful. In a statement to the Los Angeles Times, Duncan McIntosh said OC Weekly’s editorial staff and budget “have remained virtually unchanged for a decade” and that editorial expenses “consistently exceeded” the set amount. A status update on the OC Weekly’s Facebook page noted that Arellano had “served as the ambassador and face of OC Weekly” and that “He will be missed, but his contribution to the newspaper and legacy of leadership will always be remembered.”
Until his departure, the OC Weekly had been Arellano’s professional home for virtually his entire adult life. He began freelancing with the newspaper while still a student at Chapman University. He became the OC Weekly’s food editor in 2002, and then a staff writer the following year. Along the way he wrote about everything from Lucha Libre fighters to Islamophobia.
But Arellano made his biggest splash with his “Ask A Mexican” column, which answered questions from readers about lowriders, Hispanic identity, and Spanish slang in a biting, satirical voice. The inquiries could range from the offbeat (“Why do Mexicans swim with their clothes on?”) to questions about assimilation and immigration. Part provocateur, part cultural interpreter, Arellano used humor - and sound research - to debunk stereotypes about Latinos in general and Mexicans in particular.
“I’m proud of the work I did with the column,” Arellano said. “A lot of people like it, and a lot of people don’t. A lot of people hate me; I don’t care," said Arellano. "All I cared about is that you were reading my work and that it made you feel something.”
Over the years, Arellano was profiled by the New York Times and appeared on The Colbert Report and the Today Show. He is the author of several books, including Orange County: A Personal History (2010) and Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America (2013). He has also been honored for his work by groups ranging from the Los Angeles Press Club to the California Latino Legislative Caucus.
“The news of his leaving was dismaying,” said journalist and author Sam Quinones. “Gustavo is an original voice, and I can’t believe the OC Weekly would let such an asset get away. He raised the profile of that publication.”
Orange County is not an easy place to cover, Quinones explained, because it is a large geographical area that lacks one central city. Instead it has several cities about the same size, such as Anaheim and Santa Ana.
“I enjoyed Gustavo’s brand of rambunctious journalism,” Quinones said. “He was willing to try a lot of things, and was not limited by how things have traditionally been done.” He pointed out that Arellano did investigative reporting as well, on stories like the sex scandals of the Catholic Church in Orange County and the KKK affiliations of some of the county’s founding founders.
Arellano’s departure from the OC Weekly resonated beyond Southern California, because Latinos continue to be underrepresented in top leadership and editorial roles in newsrooms. A 2017 study by the student division of the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) found that, although minorities make up 39 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 17 percent of the jobs in newsrooms that responded to their survey.
Although Los Angeles is about 48 percent Latino, for example, the AAJA study found that the Los Angeles Times does not have any Latinos on its masthead. The Washington Post masthead is all white except for one Latino managing editor, who oversees digital operations.
A 2016 study by the Radio Television Digital News Association found that newsroom diversity has changed little in more than a decade and does not resemble the growth of people of color in the United States.
These numbers are a matter of concern to Alex Nogales, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, a group that seeks fair representation of Latinos in news and entertainment. “We are going to have to make a change. For years, Latinos, including me, were Mr. Nice Guy, trying to work with media organizations and being understanding their business pressures,” he said. “But if you look at the numbers and reality of today, there is obviously not an appreciation of what we bring to the table. We are tired of being told be patient and told your turn will come.”
“From here on out, the NHMC and our allies are going to be more militant and more confrontational if we have to be,” Nogales continued. “If we have to launch boycotts, we will. If we have to call upon advertisers to make changes, we will.”
Carolina A. Miranda, a staff writer with the Los Angeles Times, believes that the lack of Latino representation in newsrooms is due, in part, to outdated views.
“It seems that, often times, Latino culture is somehow not regarded as important as mainstream culture,” she said. “A lot of people in the news industry treat Latino lives and culture as a foreign thing, therefore writing about it takes a back seat to other things.”
Miranda noted that, at the L.A. Times, she works in a diverse newsroom and reported to another Latina. “But Latinos aren’t represented in news organizations at the higher levels," said Miranda. "Until you have more people in the highest, decision-making roles, I don’t think demographics alone will change the way or the types of stories that are covered.”
Miranda said that she enjoyed Arellano’s writing because in his work, "Latino culture never felt like the sidebar, it felt like the main event.”
Alexandro José Gradilla, associate professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at California State University, Fullerton, said that Arellano’s accomplishments were unique. “He treated the news of Orange County and its environs as if he were writing for the New York Times. He expanded the audience for the Weekly.”
Although often thought of in popular culture as the home of “The Real Housewives” and Disneyland, Orange County is actually a majority-minority county, with Hispanics accounting for about a third of the population. The city of Santa Ana is 78 percent Latino.
According to Gradilla, the “Ask A Mexican” column was “genius.” “The whole point of the column was to draw in non-Latinos to ask questions about Latinos,” he noted. “This is a way to embed Latino themes and stories in context for everybody.” Even people who didn’t care for Arellano’s work, Gradilla added, read his columns out of curiosity and because of the significance of the topics he covered.
Arellano’s signed off on his last column in October. Because the OC Weekly owns the trademark, he cannot re-start the column somewhere else.
Arellano is not too sentimental about the end of his tenure with the OC Weekly. “Of course it hurts,” he reflected. “I turned down other, more lucrative opportunities because I believed in Orange County and in the Weekly.”
“Maybe it hasn’t hit me yet,” Arellano said. He has remained an active contributor to other outlets. “Right now, I’m just focused on moving on.” While he is taking many meetings with potential employers, he has no plans to leave Orange County.
“I thought I was going to be working at the OC Weekly forever,” he said. “Well, uno nunca sabe, one never knows. I am always going to hustle and grind and lo que venga, venga, whatever comes, comes.”