I’m still trying to process the death of Agustín Gurza.
He was a longtime Latin music critic — one of the best — who died too young a week ago at age 73.
I found out about his passing just hours before we were supposed to do a panel on the legacy of Vicente Fernández, which would’ve represented at least the fourth time we worked together on something.
Collaborations between Agustín and I always surprised people who knew us, or paid attention to our writings, because we were professional frenemies who delighted at taking public potshots at each other. He once called me “the Paris Hilton of the Latino journalism world”; my best comeback was asking him in front of others why he never covered the late Jenni Rivera while she was alive, for which he couldn’t offer a cogent response because he knew he had fucked up.
It happens — just ask Mark Twain and Bret Harte.
Agustín’s legacy is secure. His articles on Latin music and culture praised, roasted, unveiled, and demystified hundreds of artists and remains essential reading. He had an arguably more important role with my alma mater UCLA as their resident corrido expert for the Strachwitz Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings.
But for a generation of Orange County readers, Gurza isn’t any of that. He’s one of our most maddening what-ifs in Latino OC history — a voice for the voiceless who silenced by the very paper that employed him.
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Agustín Gurza’s first L.A. Times column was on Feb. 9, 1999. He was just the paper’s fourth-ever Latino columnist, so of course his debut took time to genuflect (just like I would two decades later) at the memory of the first, the martyred Rubén Salazar.
But Gurza’s beat was different from that of his predecessors — he was to cover Orange County for the Times’ O.C. edition.
“There’s a dynamic, optimistic air that charges even the most routine business mixer,” he wrote. “I can’t go anywhere without gathering stories, like lint on a coat. Stories about people helping out, moving up, fighting back.”
Gurza was the natural choice. He was previously a columnist at the Orange County Register, which he gladly left for higher pay and to flee its troglodytic readers, he’d tell me years later. I remember reading that Gurza as a college student and remembering why he was so soft on OC’s lunatics.
He more than made up for those days at the LA Times.
Agustín’s Orange County was a gallery of artists, musicians, common folks, entrepreneurs, politicians, and stories big and small. He took on SanTana politico vendidos before it was cool to do so, but also celebrated its gentrification. Gurza regularly wrestled with the big Latino political issues of the day — immigration, political representation, bilingual education — and did profiles, dispatches, and everything a city columnist is supposed to do.
Gurza was timely and timeless, and wrote twice a week: an 800-word Tuesday columna that let him explore Southern California, and a 1,200-word Saturday OC deep dive. His fan base was passionate — we finally had a literary baseball bat against the hilarious haters who had the run of O.C. back then.
Those fans were as speechless as he when Agustín announced in his April 3, 2001 column that L.A. Times editors were yanking his gig. He was getting re-assigned to what he eventually became more famous for, music and cultural criticism. But he openly yearned to keep his column, because he had work to do.
“I had critics who called me divisive, even racist, for asserting a strong ethnic viewpoint,” Gurza wrote in his farewell. “But I didn’t draw the battle lines. I just took sides for a community that has been under attack for too long.”
The letters to the editor came fast and furious asking that Agustín’s column be renewed. I remember that time, because I was just embarking on my own journalism career and being mad at the Times for their move. It became a big-enough scandal that then-Times executive editor John Carroll met with Latino leaders at the paper’s old Spring Street offices.
“For roughly an hour,” reported my former colleague/forever-compa Nick Schou in OC Weekly, “they insisted that Gurza was the only writer, Latino or otherwise, who really knew how to cover Orange County’s ever-growing, increasingly complex Latino community.”
Nick also went to a rally of sorts for Gurza at the late, great Librería Martinez. There, he told the crowd that his editors felt the column was “running out of steam and needed to be phased out,” which Gurza dismissed with this: “I felt that it would run out steam when the [Latino] community ran out of steam. That hasn’t happened yet.”
The pressure campaign worked: Carroll offered Gurza his column back within a month of yanking it. But Gurza — for reasons known only to him — declined, and continued with his career.
Imagine if Gurza had stayed? He would’ve covered an Orange County that eventually turned majority-minority, one where Latino grassroots activists planted the seeds that eventually turned into the powerful progressive power with branches from city councils to unions the O.C. Democratic Party, non-profits, and so much more.
Instead, I got to cover that OC.
Agustín and I didn’t really talk about his OC days, but I know he looked back at them with pride. I did tell him he was dearly missed in these parts all these years later, and he’d just smile.
Now, with his death, I’ll always think of Agustín as the journalist version of Fred Ross, the legendary community organizer and mentor to Cesar Chavez. He actually began his career in Orange County but was driven out by a clueless L.A. gabacho as well — in his case, Archbishop Joseph Cantwell.
Vaya con Dios, Agustín. You became a someone — but for OC, you’ll always be the one who got away.
GRÍTALE A GUTI
This is the column where I take your questions about ANYTHING. And away we go…
I just wanted to reach out and let you know that I admire really your hustle. The hustle is something that I always strive to keep going, because my grandparents instilled in me that laziness is bad. But lately I have been feeling worn down and beat up — I guess I feel unmotivated. What do you keep on hustling and get to werk? What motivates you?
What motivates me? The knowledge that what I have can be gone justlikethat. So while I got it, I’m WERKING.
BUT…it’s okay to feel down, beat up. It’s NOT okay to stay there by yourself. When you feel unmotivated, do the things that you love, connect with the people who’ll pull you back up, and get back to it. Don’t suffer in silence.
Got a question for Guti? Email me here.
Enough rambling. This was the semana that was:
IMAGE OF THE WEEK: A bowl of Indio mandarinquats, which my wife summarily turned into Indio mandarinquat liqueur — FAAAAADED.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
–Lyndon B. Johnson
LISTENING:“Mis Sentimientos,” Los Ángeles Azules con Ximena Sariñana. One of the slinkiest songs you’ll ever hear, with an underrated singer, a legendary cumbia group, and a really funny video. I always wanted to use this song in a TV show for a madcap drive through SoCal as a guy is trying to chase the gal that he loves…but that ain’t happening. Still love the song, though!
READING: “Life After 7’6″: Shawn Bradley, Paralyzed in a Bike Crash, Knows ‘It’ll Never Be the Same’”: I still remember when Sports Illustrated debuted the basketball center to the world with a clichéd photo for tall hoopsters that never gets old: him standing beneath a hoop while reaching up to pull it down. To see him now permanently in a chair is heartbreaking, and the story slowly builds on that — and then offers unexpected hope.
SHOUTOUT TO: Someone, who kindly donated 50 tacos to sponsor a full month of MailChango! Their plug is for all y’all to subscribe to my podcast below, so DO IT DO IT DO IT!!!
Gustavo in the News
“The LA Newsletter”: The LA Podcast’s own canto shouts out a newsletter of mine.
“Agustin Gurza, a former Times columnist and influential Latin music critic, dies at 73”: I get quoted in Agustín’s obit.
“New ‘Citric Acid’ quarterly journal gives O.C. some literary tart”: I’ve got a book coming out soon through UC Press that gets a plug here — but I ain’t writing about it until I get a copy, you know?
“FMF president Yon De Luisa leads an overhaul of Mexican soccer: ‘We’re catapulting ourselves towards a new era’”: The Athletic quotes a previous columna of mine, but you tell me what it says — I don’t subscribe to The Athletic!
“Latinx Files: Will Puerto Rico stop being for Puerto Ricans soon?”: An LA Times newsletter you should subscribe to plugs an article I recommended.
Latest roster of episodes for “The Times: Daily news from the L.A. Times,” the podcast that I host. Listen to them, and SUBSCRIBE. Don’t let me become the Poochie of podcasts!
“Goodbye, gas stoves? The fight heats up”: Do you want an induction burner heating up your comal?
“Issa Rae, take a bow”: That last line in the Insecure finale, tho.
“Work from home, get spied on by your boss”: AKA don’t install that app that IT tells you to!
“Chuck E. Cheese forever”: This was a fun one.
“The tragedy of Latinos and COVID-19”: Sigh…
“Grítale a Guti, Ep. 80-algo”: Latest edition of my Tuesday night IG Live free-for-all brings on the DESMADRE.
“Schadenfreude follows COVID death of OC anti-vax Republican”: My latest KCRW “Orange County Line” talks about Kelly Ernby.
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