Gustavo Arellano’s Weekly, Canto XVI: Life and Death in the Garden of Gus*


Gentle cabrones:

Gardening is in my veins. Both of my grandpas were farmers in the ranchos of Jerez, Zacatecas. My dad helped mi Pepe plant corn, back in the days when you did it by poking a small hole in the ground with a stick and putting a kernel in it.

Here in the States, my mom and dad created a suburban oasis of lime, lemon, tangerines, bougainvilla, sugarcane, chilies, and so much more from their Anacrime home.

Despite all this institutional knowledge, I never bothered to learn from them or ask questions. It wasn’t youthful rebellion; it just never happened. The one job I’d get tasked with was to cut the grass and escarvar—till our meager soil with a talache, a tool that has no real English translation (the closest is a pick mattock—and who the hell knows what THAT is?) but is a hell of an instrument.

But even then, I loved the garden. To see small plants grow into giants and give their bounty, to see the citrus trees blossom and give fruit, then get pruned so that they could give more the following year, was to see the universe itself.

As I grew up, my dream became to make enough money to buy a big enough home where I could put my parents in when they retired so they could garden for the rest of their days.

That’s probably going to never happen—journalism don’t really pay, you know? But I at least got halfway there with my own house.

Last year was the first time my nopales gave tunas. This year, there’s going to be a LOT, insha’Allah
First time reading this newsletter? Subscribe here for more merriment! Feedback, thoughts, commentary, rants? Send them to mexicanwithglasses@gmail.comI’ve now been a homeowner for six years: a PO Box in Anaheim. I bought it at the perfect time: almost at the bottom of the housing crash. My wife implemented her vision of an outdoor kitchen, cute living room, planter boxes, and much more.

Me? I just wanted to garden.

My main crops: tomatoes, chilies (my chiltepín plant is five feet tall), citrus, beets, cactus, apricots, peaches, blackberries, and random herbs like pápalo (which my wife hates) and lemon verbena (which I hate because we really don’t use it and the damn thing is now a tree). I let my fennel flower, not just because of the awesome seeds it finally produces but because their small blossoms turns our backyard into a pollinator highway.

Oh, the bounty. Last year, I went a good month and a half where we picked at least 10 pounds of tomatoes a day. My wife turns everything I grow into jams, jellies, preserves, soups—everything. Just this morning, she made me a bowl of sauteed patty pan squashes. I give stuff to friends and family, and Instagram everything like crazy.

The harvest for just one day last summer—FUUUUUCK…
When my wife and I leave for vacation every summer, my parents come and tend to the garden. And now, they teach me and I listen: how to abonear (put fertilizer—compost is nice, but we still like steer manure), how to talachear (short, shallow digs at first to break up the soil, then deeper ones in the opposite direction a day later to let the soil breath), and even the names to different parts of plants.I see the light in their eyes when we talk about gardening—it takes them back to their childhood, to the Edens they left behind and the imperfect Paradise they built for themselves in el Norte

And yet despite all the love, all the effort and attention, it doesn’t always work out.


My apricot tree gave no harvest last year, and barely anything this time around. My peach tree gave a massive amount of fruit last year that all went to waste because worms got into them, wanting to feast only on the pit. Plants suddenly die for no explanation.

And then there was my Thai lime tree, a ten-foot tall beauty that grew among my rose bushes (ever a Mexican, the roses are probably the only non-succulent plants I have that isn’t a fruit or vegetable). Every year, it gave me hundreds of Thai limes that my wife would turn into everything from liqueurs to salt. Chef friends of ours from across Orange County would get our leaves and do wonderful things.

Last month, the California Department of Agriculture discovered that it had the dreaded Asian citrus psyllid, the bug that causes the equivalent of Lou Gehrig’s disease. The tree was in the beginning states of fruiting. It didn’t matter: the state had to take out the tree immediately. It needed to get executed, and there was nothing I could do about it. And I could never grew a citrus tree in that section of my garden ever again.

Six years tending to beauty—gone in two days, removed to the roots.

I cursed the citrus gods. Then I planted a pomegranate tree. Death is the one thing we cannot beat—but we must always fight back with life.

*Editor’s note: Only people who knew me in high school can call me Gus. Anyone else tries, I’ll respond with “Who’s Gus?” You can call me Tavo, though. Hell, even Guti…

Beautiful nasturtium. A couple of days later, I had to pull it all out because of damn black aphids.

Enough ranting. This was the semana that was:

LISTENING: Son del Ombligo”: Son istmeño is a different beast from everything in Mexico—and to hear it with banda oaxaqueña AND marimbas AND throw in Zapoteco? BRUH…

READING:  “The Politics of Helen Keller,” International Socialist Review: This magazine gets too wonky at times, but their historical analyses always shine.

Gustavo in the News

More Anthony Bourdain Coverage: Slate did a whole interview with me about the importance of Toño to marginalized communities, New York Times did the same in a bigger package regarding people of color, and I got a shoutout in syndicated columnista Esther Cepeda’s homage to el compa.

“Previewing the Play and Politics of the 2018 World Cup”: I appeared on KQED Forum up in the Bay Area to talk el Mundial.

“Food writer urges South Carolina to recognize region’s most unique Mexican restaurant dish”: In which a James Beard-winning food critic takes on my research around ACP, the South’s most ubiquitous Mexican dish…and doesn’t like the dish but does love my research!

“iPads to Luxury Vacations: How TV Comedy Writers Get Paid to Punch Up Jokes”: I make an unsolicited cameo in this Hollywood Reporter story, when a screenwriter revealed Lionsgate gave him an iPad to work on an ¡Ask a Mexican! screenplay that never went to pilot. All I got was a shitty paycheck…

Gustavo’s Stories:

“Stockton’s $500 basic income experiment is a commie-libertarian pipe dream”: My latest California columna for the Los Angeles Times took on the city’s mayor over a proposal to give people cash just for the hell of it. KEY QUOTE: “To me, the problem with Tubbs’ proposal is that it suggests that $500 — or any amount of cash — is what gives people dignity. Forgive me for sounding like Dr. Seuss, but if you can throw $500 a month at someone to help keep them afloat, shouldn’t you instead help build them a boat?”

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