Is Gustavo Arellano "the utimate Chicano nerd"? That's one question that might be answered this week, when Interview With a Mexican has its world premiere at Su Teatro. The setting is no surprise, because Su Teatro's Anthony J. Garcia adapted the show for the stage, basing the script on conversations with Arellano, author of the beloved, now-defunct ¡Ask a Mexican! column.
According to Su Teatro, the play follows Arellano as he challenges "gabachos" to "come out of the closet and ask the obvious, ignorant and sometimes racist questions, wherein they will be met with derision and insult, but also with a tremendous amount of insight and informativeness." In allowing Garcia to create the play, "the ultimate Chicano nerd has placed his trust in making the transformation of his experiences three-dimensional in the hands of a 46-year veteran of sarcasm and cultural enlightenment."
In advance of the opening on Thursday, September 27 (Arellano will be on hand at that show and the second on Friday, September 28), we asked the Mexican some questions about Interview With a Mexican.
Westword: The play had a reading last fall; is this the first time you're seeing a full production?
Gustavo Arellano: Yep! I saw a reading of it last November in San Jose that Tony Garcia arranged — packed house. Back then, it was going to be based solely on some of my favorite ¡Ask a Mexican! questions and answers over the years. But then I lost the column, so we had to change THAT.
Did the actor playing you study you?
When I saw the reading, there was no real "me" character, since people took turns reading my questions. When I was in Denver for Tacolandia, I met up with Tony and some of the Su Teatro crew for a good green chile breakfast at his house (and handmade tortillas, some of the BEST I've ever had, fat and buttery; I'm going to take three dozen home this weekend!). I met the guy who I THINK is going to play me — I say "I THINK" because I have no clue whatsoever what I'm seeing on stage. I had met the guy before; he had a Steven Wright sense of humor. I don't have that type of humor, or any humor at all, so perfect match!
When you're a writer, you have control over content (pesky editors aside). What's it like having your life out of your hands?
There was actually a previous play in New York written on ¡Ask a Mexican! and a Gustavo character. And there's been some pilots written with a Gustavo character that I never really liked. But I trust Tony 100 percent on this — I even told him not to show me anything, because I wanted to applaud or boo just like everyone else.
How much is this play your life, really?
Probably none. It's not going to show me doing bakery runs at 5 a.m. in the morning for my wife's restaurant, or me cursing those damn little worms that get into chile peppers out here in Southern California that ruin your crop and have no real cure. I don't live the swashbuckling life like you, Patty, so when they made a play about you, it was so easy for them to capture Patty Calhoun. Capture Gustavo Arellano? You'd better put in a segment about me playing FIFA 2018 on the XBox One, then quitting in disgust after the damn cloud erased my season with Bayern Munich.
More to the point, what do you think audiences will get out of this play? What do you want them to get out of this play?
It's telling that Interview With a Mexican is playing only in Denver, Albuquerque and San Jose. Denver and Albuquerque are my biggest unadulterated fan bases. So people who liked my column or still follow my writing should go, because you're supporting me. If you want to meet ME, go this Thursday and Friday for the opening, because I'll be there to answer questions and hang out with folks.
If you have no idea who the hell I am, I would still urge you to go to support not just indie theater, but indie Chicano theater. Su Teatro is one of the oldest Chicano theater troupes in the country, and one of the few that not only has its own theater, but is thriving. Tony and his team don't nearly get enough credit for this in Denver, and are virtually unknown in the rest of the United States. They deserve your support.
As for what to get out of the play? Beats me, because I don't know what it's about! But since it's about my writing, I want them to laugh, and I want them to get an appreciation of why I do the journalism I do: to comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable, and thumb my nose at alt-losers and PC pendejos alike whenever possible.
Okay, I have to ask: What happened to the ¡Ask a Mexican! title?
This involves Westword! So, obviously, my column ran in Westword for a decade and was always, supposedly, one of the most popular things. That's how you and I met, that's how Tony and I met, that's how I discovered the Mexican hamburger, and that's how I learned to love Denver more than anyone who hates the outdoors should. Every time I went to Denver, the crowds were always great. I ended up speaking at the University of Denver, Metro State AND Johnson and Wales, for chrissakes. The Denver love for ¡Ask a Mexican! had a huge role in my career — and for that, I'm eternally grateful.
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But in 2016, VMG, the parent company of Westword, sold the paper I edited, OC Weekly, to an elderly yacht millionaire. When I got wind of that, I remember talking to my corporate bosses and asking them if maybe they could transfer the copyright to the ¡Ask a Mexican! name to me — you know, because I wrote the pinche column, so I deserved to own it. They declined, but I didn't take it too personally because I figured I'd be at OC Weekly for life.
Well, nothing is forever, and when I resigned from OC Weekly last fall, the yacht millionaire told me I was more than welcome to continue to write ¡Ask a Mexican! on a "contract" basis. That's when I realized the damn owner was planning to keep the copyright for himself. I declined, and also decided to not continue the column under a different name, because I felt that it would make me seem like a one-trick burro — which I'm not.
But now I had a problem. Tony was writing this play called ¡Ask a Mexican!, but we couldn't use it anymore. I told him we should just drop the play altogether, but he said to trust him — that he had an idea, and a better name. Interview With a Mexican is a GREAT name.
As for ¡Ask a Mexican!, the title itself itself? The yacht millionaire still owns the copyright. I think I'm going to ask him to give it to me on the anniversary of my resignation, just for shits and giggles. ¡Ask a Mexican! is worthless without me, so thanks, VMG, for selling the yacht millionaire a copyright that now has as much value as a bag of Mexican jumping beans.
Interview With a Mexican opens at Su Teatro on Thursday, September 27, and runs through October 21. For the complete schedule and tickets, go to the Su Teatro website.