Los Angeles Times journalist Gustavo Arellano received the Luis Leal Award for Distinction in Chicano/Latino Literature on Feb. 7 for his work as a journalist, columnist and reporter. 

Arellano has authored three books in addition to his LA Times satire column ¡Ask a Mexican!. Courtesy of Gustavo Arellano

The Southern California native’s work over the years includes personal stories about discovery as a Latino man growing up in Orange County with two Mexican-immigrant parents and answering questions from Mexican-American readers about cultural identity in Orange County Weekly column, ¡Ask a Mexican!

Most notably, Arellano emphasized that he is not afraid to tell stories that make people uncomfortable. 

“I try to tell stories that say something about Southern California right now,” Arellano said. “But I don’t shy away from things that I might not agree with.”

Despite writing for the LA Times for five years from December 2018 to the present and working as a columnist for three years from 2020 to now, journalism wasn’t always Arellano’s calling. 

He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in film studies from Chapman University in 2001, and said he hoped to become a professor after receiving his Master’s Degree for Latin American Studies at UCLA. It wasn’t until he wrote a fake angry letter to the editor in response to an article written in the April Fool’s edition at OC Weekly  — one of Orange County leading newspapers — in 2000 that he began to develop an interest in journalism.

“I came into journalism completely by accident. I have always cared about injustice and I liked the idea of having newspapers pay attention to what’s going on. And they unlocked in me something I never knew existed: this passion for storytelling.”

Arellano has authored three books — “Orange County”, “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America” and “Ask a Mexican” — in addition to his satire column.  

In his work, Arellano explores themes on racial marginalization, political activism and connection to one’s cultural identity. As a Mexican American journalist, Arellano said he seeks to educate readers on issues that expose injustices in Orange County, as well as teach cultural appreciation of Mexican heritage. 

“It was supposed to be a satirical column, but it also just taught people about Mexican history.”

In “¡Ask a Mexican!” Arellano found readership “perfect” to relay these topics to because of the social environment Orange County is set in. 

“It would make complete sense to mock Orange County — that they would believe something like that. It is very easy to ridicule Americans for their ignorance of Mexicans, and that’s what my column was about.”

“In Orange County, there is so much racism against Mexicans,” he said. “Only in Orange County could there possibly exist an advice column about Mexicans.” 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 38.0% of Orange County is white, while 34.0% of the population is Hispanic or Latino. A large majority of this makeup has roots in Mexico. This area has seen the extremes of racially motivated violence over the past several decades, especially against the Latino community. In 2021, Pew Research reported that 54% of U.S. Latinos experienced some form of discrimination during the first year of COVID-19. 

Growing up in Anaheim, Arellano explains that while he personally didn’t grow up with racism, he struggled to find his identity as a Latino man, specifically being Mexican American. “I didn’t grow up being castigated for being Mexican. I was castigated for not being Mexican enough,” he said.

According to Arellano, the column was an opportunity to teach about the complexities of Mexican identity to an audience to combat ignorance, as well as answer genuine questions about Mexican history.

Arellano primarily writes on issues that affect Orange County and the Greater Los Angeles area, often covering sensitive topics in his investigative work such as the role of undocumented immigrants in California politics or Donald Trump’s infamous taco salad. 

“I have always cared about political activism, and I wanted people to care about what was going on,” Arellano said.

In one of his latest pieces for the LA Times, Arellano reflects on an investigative story he covered earlier in his career that exposed Father Eleuterio Ramos for sexual misconduct in the Orange County and Los Angeles parishes, in which Ramos admitted to molesting at least 25 young boys. In his follow-up work, Arellano reports on misconduct in the public sphere, sourcing from lawyers, parish officials and law enforcement. 

In stories such as these where powerful leaders turn a blind eye, Arellano says he makes sure to bring attention to these subjects that “comfort the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.”  

“I never throw anything against the wall. I am going to do everything possible to tell the full story.”

Arellano’s journey in shaping how audiences view Orange County and Southern California doesn’t come from his four published books, his prize-winning columns or his various awards over the years. He said it comes from his focus on others.

“You need to tell the stories of others,” Arellano said. “Eventually, that is how you are able to speak your voice.”

Above all, Arellano emphasized how integral various genres of writing are to articulate political activism and disseminate “great stories” to the world. 

“Satire is always a vehicle of political humor and oppression. People will want to consume a great story, and that will never change.”

A version of this article appeared on p. 5 of the Feb. 15, 2024, print edition of the Daily Nexus.

CORRECTION [2/22/2024, 12:48 p.m.]: The article previously stated several incorrect facts about Arellano, which are now reflected in the current version.