A decade ago, I landed in Tucson with something to prove.
I was a couple of weeks into the debut of my third book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. The first two signings were well attended but not the debut smashes of my previous two books. My second book had sold so little that my publisher hadn’t even arranged a book tour for Taco USA, assuming it would be a flop. My editor shunted me off to his assistant while I wrote my taco book even though I thought we were homies.
I really don’t have much of an ego, but I do have pride – and I wasn’t liking what was before me. My bosses didn’t trust me. They had no faith in what I had accomplished, or what I could do.
Taco USA was the first book to take the totality of Mexican food in the United States in a historical context. It broke news, debunked myths, and it gave a lot of love to restaurants that deserved it.
So on my own, on my own dime, I arranged a book tour across the Southwest.
In Tucson, I read at the University of Arizona through someone who has since become a friend, the brilliant profe Maribel Alvarez. I then got a rental car and went to El Paso, where over 100 people — more than at my book signings back home — showed up to the Barnes & Noble over there, shocked that I would know so much about its food scene.
I then drove up to Albuquerque and flew in my not-yet wife so we could have the book signing at the legendary El Pinto with the legendary Al Hurricane, the godfather of New Mexican music, as entertainment. We went then up to Santa Fe to the awesome bookstore Collected Works.
I went to Flagstaff after that, which didn’t have its own indie bookstore, but my Ask a Mexican column was popular there so we had a signing at a bar. I followed with a trip down to Phoenix – actually Tempe – to its famous bookstore, Changing Hands.
And then I drove down back to Tucson and back home, ready for more.
The first shipment I got of the libro — you can still buy it, you know!
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I do doubt myself a lot, but I just roll with it and figure I need to figure things out as I go along.
I usually do.
Taco USA wasn’t a bestseller like the first book, but it wasn’t a flop like the second book. But it was a book that opened up far more for me than the other books combined.
I’ve made so many friends because of it. I’ve gotten so many invitations to write for multiple publications because of Taco USA . I never got a television show out of it (and no one bother me with it anymore — I’m honestly done, and I have more important things to do), but I did become a regular talking head about anything Mexican food.
To this day, reporters working on a national story about Mexican food will usually call me up to offer my opinion. More importantly, Taco USA inspired an entire generation of food writers to dive into Mexican food and take up my challenge: my book was only a first draft, and others would have to pick up the torch.
A decade later, Taco USA still holds up and its legacy is secure, which makes me happy. And yet it was more important as a lesson for me, one crystallized by that Southwestern road trip. I was just a couple of months into my reign as editor of the Infernal Rag, and although I know I was secure in that spot, I was at a point in my career where I needed to figure out if that was the best thing for me.
I’ve yet to write a solo book since. Instead I doubled down on the journalism I continue to do, and the coaching trees I’m realizing are the most important thing someone can do. Yet the ultimate lesson I learned from Taco USA is very much a personal one:
At the end, you cannot rely on other people to help you – you have to do it yourself. And you have to believe in what you do, despite the doubts of you and others.
It’s never just about you — but you gotta handle your part, you know?
GRÍTALE A GUTI
This is the column where I take your questions about ANYTHING. And away we go…
Since you have always been somebody who is after the truth and you spare nobody, have a number of your relatives considered you “unpopular”? I have witnessed your flashlight on issues that have involved Mexicans and you never attempt to “frost the cake.” I can imagine that you saw stuff, when you were quite young with members of your relatives and “questioned” it.
If my relatives have ever talked shit on me as an adult, I haven’t heard of it. I hear nothing but pride, both from them and my sources, because they all remember me as Guti and Gus and know I was never the malicious or gossipy or problem cousin, you know?
My siblings and I were always the Switzerlands of both branches of our family: goody two-shoes who never caused our parents TOO much grief. I’m sure some primxs didn’t like it. I don’t care.
Got a question for Guti? Email me here.
Enough rambling. This was the semana that was:
IMAGE OF THE WEEK: Flyer for an ethnic studies class at Los Alamitos High. Ethnic studies. AT LOS AL. This isn’t John Wayne Orange County’s anymore — hell, it’s not MY OC, and that’s AWESOME.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Teaching is a constant phenomenon, with its highs and lows. It’s more like a flowing river, than tidal waves. Some teachers remember their excellent students. I do too, but the ones that I’m proudest of are simply those that made the most progress; that’s where I felt the best about my teaching. I had one student who started as a C- and worked up to a B+”
–Chapman University professor Bob Slayton, who’s retiring this year and is one of just two professors in my undergrad years whose courses I took twice, so awesome he is.
LISTENING:“El Buey de la Barranca,” Los Felinos. A ROLA if there ever was one — the jumpy organs of grupero, a catchy chorus, a bit of Western swing, and a HILARIOUS story that relies on the double meaning of the subject word. Has Dieter at Dodgers Stadium played this one yet?
READING: “The Post Offices of Eastern Kentucky’s Unincorporated Communities”: A great example of community journalism mixed with the historical: Take public records found online, craft an essay about place and stereotypes, and voila!
PODCASTING: “Suave”: My compas and sometimes-jefes at Futuro Media just won a Pulitzer for this extraordinary dive into incarceration and redemption.
SHOUTOUT TO: Diane, who kindly donated 100 tacos to sponsor TWO full month of MailChango! She asks that you all sign this petition to ask the OCTA to grant a Business Interruption Fund to merchants on 4th Street in SanTana — like my wife — affected by the construction of its stupid OC Streetcar project. Sign it here.
BUY MY NEW CO-BOOK! People’s Guide to Orange County tells an alternative history of OC through the scholarship and reporting of myself, Elaine Lewinnek, and Thuy Vo Dang. There’ll be signings all year — in meanwhile, buy your copy TODAY. And, yes: I’ll autograph it!
Monday, May 23, 3 p.m.-6 p.m.: I’m going to be part of KCRW’s FUNdrive, but you can give right now at kcrw.com/give — become a member TODAY.
Gustavo in the News
“With Caruso absent, L.A. mayoral candidates argue for progressive moves on homelessness”: My own paper quotes a quip of mine in the debate I co-hosted.
“Trouble eating, sleeping, and being social? You may have crypto addiction”: A crypto publication shouts out a podcast episode of mine.
“¿Cuál es el origen de los dorilocos, ‘la botana más loca del mundo’?”: Speaking of Taco USA…
“Latinx Files: ‘Replacement theory’s’ fatal aftermath”: An L.A. Times newsletter you should subscribe to plugs a columna of mine.
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!
“The Future of Abortion Part 3: Money”: South Texas is a whole different world…
“Tijuana in the time of opera and cartels”: More from the great podcast we’re hosting about TJ.
“How California popularized the Great Replacement”: We truly are the state of hate.
“Cryptocurrency’s addiction problem”: Crash away!
“ICE released dying detainees, avoiding responsibility”: It’s even worse than what the headline hints at.
“Grítale a Guti”: Latest edition of my Tuesday night IG Live free-for-all brings on the DESMADRE.
“After salty debate, plans for OC desalination plant are wiped out”: My latest KCRW “Orange County Line” talks about the Poseidon project that won’t perish!
“Mexican LA: The Long 20th Century”: Me in conversation with Macarthur geniuses Kelly Lytle-Hernández and Natalia Molina about their incredible new books, as my wifi kept failing? Must-see Vimeo!
“L.A.’s Big Debate: Homelessness”: I and my kinda-colleague Anna Scott of KCRW co-moderate a debate between L.A. mayoral candidates Karen Bass, Kevin De León and Gina Viola.
“Taco Fest”: I gave a lecture during this great festival in San Antonio that I’ll be discussing more soon.
“I’m part of the ‘great replacement.’ It’s not what believers say it is”: My latest Los Angeles Times columna talks about Buffalo and the bullshit behind the killer’s thinking. KEY QUOTE: “What especially freaks out the Carlsons and Gendrons of this country isn’t that people like me aren’t the inheritors of the American dream — it’s that we’re its inquisitors.”
“Corruption scandal shows that in Anaheim politics, there are no angels”: My next latest LA Times columna profiles what’s going on in my beloved hometown of Anacrime. KEY QUOTE: “The headlines were bad enough; the details in the court filings were dirty.”
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