Child is the father of man, I thought Freud said — but it turns out Woodsworth actually penned that insight, of whom I REALLY need to read more.
Where was I? Nicknames.
If you follow me on Twitter — and you totally should! — you know that apodos are an obsession of mine, especially #mexicannicknames.
I love the morphological miracle that turns a Jose Maria into a Chema, or a Refugia into a Cuca. Or the ball-busting that gets someone called El Kennedy (for being born on the day of JFK’s assassination) or El Osama (for merely sporting a big beard).
If you’re a subscriber to my cantos — and you should be! — you also know the aversion I have to strangers giving me nicknames, ESPECIALLY Gus.
I never really gave any thought to where such anger came until last week, when the Mexiclan (the nickname that my eight core friends and myself have for ourselves — yep, we’re cholo nerds) discussed on our group text the case of Mr. Elgas.
He was the band teacher at Sycamore Junior High in Anacrime when half of us attended during the early 1990s. A recently filed lawsuit claimed Mr. Elgas sexually abused dozens of students over a 40-year career, something none of us ever suspected — mostly because none of us were band geeks.
That led to a general discussion of our junior high and high school teachers — the good, the bad, and the dumb ones. Then, because he had to, Art went for my jugular.
He texted #nomellamoniño
My response was simple: “Fuck Señor Z*.”
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Ninth grade, Anaheim High School (go Colonists!).
It’s no longer the horrorshow that was Sycamore, but barely any better. Seniors are still allowed, even encouraged, to beat up freshman just for the hell of it. Counselors push me to sign up for auto shop instead of college-prep classes.
My only salvation are my cousin Vic and our mutual best friend Art.
By a miracle of scheduling, we have one class together. The teacher? Señor Z.
He had been at Sycamore when we were there, and I had heard good things about him, so I was excited.
But at Anaheim, he has turned into a dour, humorless man.
I should have some sympathy for his situation, I guess. His students are mostly guys in 9th and 10th grade, all talkative as hell. There was a rivalry between us children of Mexican immigrants, and actual Mexicans. We called them “wabs” (the OC version of “wetback”); they called us “pochos.”
I’m not particularly disruptive, but I sure like to talk. So one day, while we’re supposed to do an in-class assignment, he tries to get me to remain silent.
But he doesn’t call me by my name. Instead, he keeps saying “Niño.”
Child. In this context, “Boy.”
My response was quick and furious:
“No me llamo niño.”
My name isn’t Boy.
The classroom stays quiet for a couple of seconds, stunned. My hit lands.
But Señor Z hits harder.
“Ño me ñamo ñiño,” he whined, in a baby voice.
The room erupts in laughter.
During my K-12 career, teachers snapped at me, screamed at me, gave me detentions and suspensions and after-schools, and even accused me of stealing answer keys.
I only remember the latter incident, and vaguely recall some of the others. But I hadn’t thought of Señor Z and his petulant remark in at least 25 years.
It was that pathetic that I guess I blocked it out all these years. But the memories of it came fast once Art brought it back.
For the rest of my freshman year, my classmates called me Niño, and repeated “No me llamo Niño” until I nearly got in fights with them. Seeing Art text that line brought back all the anger from so long ago — not at the students who hurled it at me, but Señor Z.
When he gave me a nickname that day, that’s really the day I learned that people in authority aren’t necessarily on your side. That the helpers might hurt you if you unmask them as pendejos.
They’re great insights to have when you’re a reporter, and I guess I should be grateful to Señor Z for that unlikely lesson so many years ago.
But I’m not.
Señor Z was really the teacher that sent me off into two years of underachieving that brought me perilously close to flunking until Mrs. Spykerman snapped me into attention at the beginning of my senior year (in my book!).
Now that I think about the incident all these years later, to see a teacher act so childishly is inexcusable.
That’s what got me so angry when Art texted me that memory. I got angry for all the students who have ever suffered from terrible teachers, terrible counselors, terrible administrators and all the the adults who fail children when the littlest among us need help the most.
Child is the father of man.
*Yes, Señor Z is a pseudonym. I’m more than happy to say his name, but I’d rather not give the fool any more shine that I already have. But it’s pretty easy to figure it out for those who were my classmates at Sycamore and Anaheim — go for it!
GRÍTALE A GUTI
This is the column where I take your questions about ANYTHING. And away we go…
Any chance you can do a bilingual newsletter? I would love to give my students a viewpoint other than my own on SoCal and the U.S. in general from, well, from you. The being Mexican-American is part of it, but you mean so much more to me than that basic side of you. Anyway, not to blow smoke up your ass, but I would love for my students to engage with a major American thinker (in his prime).
While I appreciate your sentiment, it’s not going to happen. Partly because I don’t have the time to do so. But mostly because I’m looking to change the hearts and minds of people who speak English, not Spanish.
So my quotations, my jokes, my all just won’t translate. Like, when I want to make a joke about how weak-salsa the Anaheim Angels of Anaheim are, how do I translate it so that it hits the same en español? Make a joke about the Atlas soccer team? No suena lo mismo, broder.
Got a question for Guti? Email me here.
Enough rambling. This was the semana that was:
IMAGE OF THE WEEK: A soul-food combo plate from Mica’s Soul Kitchen in Palm Springs, which figures in my latest LA Times columna. It’s GOOD…
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Indigenous stories are in some way more sophisticated than the Bible because they include the reality that we are only animals among animals, one thing among many, although we comically strive to pretend otherwise.”
LISTENING:“Bingo,” The Whispers. Mid-’70s R & B straight outta Watts, by a severely underrated group. GREAT refrain!
READING: “This Last Earthy Sweetness.” A tone poem on how to make sorghum, by The Bitter Southerner? Yes, please!
SHOUTOUT TO: Paolo, who kindly donated 50 tacos to sponsor a full month of MailChango! He writes: “Since hearing Rancho Santa Margarita being blasted (rightfully so, by the way) during your guest appearance on David Chang’s podcast, I’d like to plug a small business located in the hellscape I call home.
Elissimo Coffee competes against the four Starbucks that are within a mile of each other. Always great pastries and roasts. Both are a treat after a nice walk or bike ride through O’Neill Park.”
Consider the plug DUN.
Gustavo Community Office Hours!
I’m rebooting my stint as scholar-in-residence at Occidental College’s Institute for the Study of Los Angeles! Every Tuesday, from noon-3 p.m. people can book half an hour with me and we can Zoom (over a secure line, of course) one-on-one about WHATEVER. Interested? Email me to book your time NOW!
Oct. 18, Gustavo’s Great #TortillaTournament Finale: We can’t have an in-person pachanga, but we can sure as hell have one on Zoom! Reserve here — FREE for KCRW members, at least $1 for everyone else!
Gustavo in the News
“Why Latino Representation at The L.A. Times Matters”: LATV interviews me for a story about the lack of a Latino in the Los Angeles Times masthead.
“Coachella Valley Independent”: The Inland Empire’s last remaining alt-weekly shouts out my latest LA Times columna.
“Good Tortillas and California Politics: The Gustavo Arellano Experience”: I appear on The Dave Chang Show podcast and talk a whole bunch of stuff with the celebrity chef.
“To Move Forward on Racial Equity, Newsrooms Need to Reckon with Their Pasts”: LA Times editorial page editor Sewell Chan shouts out my contribution to our reckoning with the paper’s racist past.
“Essential tacos in Long Beach: Pretty much every good taco, 2020 edition”: Brian Addison, in one of his last articles for the Long Beach Post until the publication unceremoniously fired him, cites my taco knowledge.
“Cómo es que los tacos se volvieron tan populares en Estados Unidos”: New York’s El Diario cites my taco knowledge.
“California Playbook”: Politico’s Golden State newsletter always kind with the shoutouts.
“Eine Runde Sache”: A German publication cites me in writing about a new Mexican restaurant in Berlin.
“Here’s your virtual L.A. Times Festival of Books lineup”: In which it’s revealed I’m going to be in conversation with former California governor Jerry Brown and his biographer. JERRY BROWN!!!
“Answering your burning tortilla questions and Beware of the sour corn tortilla”: In which I talk to my fellow KCRW #TortillaTournament judge, Good Food host Evan Kleiman, about tortillas.
“What happened when poll guards showed up in heavily Latino OC districts in 1988” My latest KCRW “Orange County Line” talks about Curt Pringle’s infamous poll-guard incident in SanTana.
“Harris-Pence debate: A round-by-round scorecard of the vice presidential matchup”: I join three other political correspondents with the LA Times Campaign 2020 team to talk the Pence-Harris debate.”
“Pence, Harris get fiery, but somehow remain civil”: I join my LA Times colleague Tyrone Beason in discussing the Pence-Harris debate.”
“Lunchtime Chat on ‘Our Reckoning with Racism’ Project Offers Perspective”: I join my LA Times colleague Tyrone Beason in discussing the Pence-Harris debate.”
“Tortilla Tournament, Week 3: Cal-Mex vs. Tex-Mex vs. Mex-Mex Go on to Eso Eight!”: My latest update for my KCRW #TortillaTournament — look at the event above, and be prepared for tortilla DESMADRE.
“Ask a Tortilla Tournament Judge! Gustavo Arellano answers your questions”: Because I wasn’t content with just being a columnista for the LA Times, I started a new one for KCRW! Let’s see how long it’ll go!
“She decided her magazine had to proclaim that Black lives matter — in Spanish”: My latest LA Times columna goes to Rancho Mirage and finds the remarkable La Revista, which chronicles Latino life in the Coachella Valley. KEY QUOTE: “But it’s one thing to hector someone toward your worldview. It’s another to literally put your money where your beliefs are, like Ivette Zamora Cruz.”
You made it this far down? Gracias! Follow me on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram while you’re down here. Don’t forget to forward this newsletter to your compadres y comadres! And, if you feel generous: Buy me a Paypal taco here. Venmo: @gustavo-arellano-oc