By Melanie Romero
Orange County native, Gustavo Arellano sits at an ornate wooden picnic table in the middle of Alta Baja Market, cornered at 4th Street and North Bush Street; the offbeat rhythms of reggae and the hushed conversations of patrons buzz behind in the background, while circular displays promote jars of chili oil, organic bar soaps, and Zacatecas chocolate. Michelada in hand, Arellano casually scrolls through his Slack, answering messages as they come, giggling here and there at what can only be assumed to be inside jokes or colorful gifs.
“This is my wife’s restaurant,” Arellano explains as he nurses his drink. “It’s easy for me to come here because we don’t live too far away, it’s good food. Is this to me the most symbolic restaurant in all of Orange County? No, I can tell you many restaurants that signify more about what Orange County is, but this is my wife’s restaurant.”
And, who other to mention the brilliance and diversity of Orange County other than the county’s glittering tell-it-how-it-is Mexican-American journalist? Born in Anaheim to Mexican parents, Arellano sought from the get-go to spotlight both the American and Mexican cultures in a divided Orange County, where “good Republicans go to die,” as Ronald Reagan once coined. The controversial reputation of Orange County never scared away Arellano, but rather it fueled his fire; he never asked to be a journalist for a progressive paradise, as he always wanted to be taken to where the fight was. What other place than Orange County to be on the frontlines of the Truth?
As editor of the now-defunct OC Weekly, Arellano became a pillar for writing about Truth, an act that is now considered antiquated by contemporary journalists. At the peak of OC Weekly, its writing staff amounted to the status of prophets; they became prophets of the multitudes of land, most commonly known as Orange County, and the reputation of the magazine became the golden egg of the goose. It wasn’t the Register or the Voice of OC delivering these stories, but rather the OC Weekly. The staff, as natives of this so-called land, hated Orange County, but they were willing to risk their reputations for the stories out of love. All good times, however, come to an end, and Duncan Macintosh, the Newport Beach yacht millionaire, killed the goose. Goodbye to fresh takes on Orange County! Arellano left in fall 2017, but not without a growing career ahead of him.
From writing about food spots in OC Weekly and submitting sarcastic and witty answers to the questions sent to the ¡Ask a Mexican! column, Arellano created a name for himself in the early aughts. His ¡Ask a Mexican! column became so successful that he wrote a book based on the nationally-syndicated column, consolidating his voice as the explosive middleman between cross-cultural understanding in a county so close-minded. Afterward, he published two books – Orange County: A Personal History (2008) and Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America (2012) – that further sparked his career discussing the two topics he knows best: Orange County and food.
Orange County: A Personal History reached new horizons in that it told parallel stories: the history of Orange County in relation to Arellano’s familial roots, beginning with his parents who immigrated from Mexico to the United States. In discussing this project, Arellano mentioned how he had the privilege to write his story into the Orange County narrative, put it out into the bigger narrative, and then write Orange County’s narrative into the bigger story that he dictated. Arellano’s don is the ability to see trends before anyone sees them become trends. He knew fully well that there was no book like this in the mass market and acknowledged that its sales would depend on local ones, not national levels; there was no one else than Arellano that foretold what he knew all along: Orange County professors, from the ranks of orange Coast College, Chapman, UC Irvine to name a few, would eventually tie it into their curriculums and assign it to a whole generation of students to learn about Orange County through his eyes.
But, to this day, Arellano is firm about who he writes for. All his stories, his books, his columns – they aren’t meant for the Latino community. He clarifies that, obviously, as a Latino, he knows more about the stories that parallel the Latino community, but he also writes stories for other communities that he isn’t part of ethnically. As part of the community of Orange Countians, he belongs to the interconnected web of diversity, but, at the end of the day, he doesn’t take the responsibility to be representative of the Latino comunidad. He writes for himself and himself only. To hell with anyone else!
Arellano now serves as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, originally joining as a contributor; he now writes about Southern California generally…and just a little bit of everything else. He may no longer have time to write more specifically about the smaller stories of Orange County, but, once in a while, he makes the space to continue writing on the county that molded his career. The way he approaches and delivers stories might be slightly different, but his voice, once penned controversial “against a conservative Orange County,” remains the same. It’s never left.
He writes for himself and himself only. To hell with anyone else!
So, is Arellano happy? Well, it damn straight looks like it. But, he doesn’t look back at his previous career milestones with nostalgia. He hates nostalgia, and he can’t be bothered to romanticize. At this moment, Arellano holds his dream job, working for the Los Angeles Times but remaining here, in Orange County, to live. He’s content to be left alone as a writer, but knows his editors are there to push him to be better. He’s able to write what his heart desires and rarely gets told no. It seems he can’t begrudge this opportunity that has truly brought him the best of both worlds, or counties for that matter.
Arellano even recently co-authored another book about Orange County, titled A People’s Guide to Orange County, with Elaine Lewinnek and Thuy Vo Dang; it was released at the beginning of 2022. Phrased as an “alternative” guide, this regional guidebook is not the usual look into the tourist destinations of the county, such as Disneyland and Newport beaches. Rather, it explores the lesser-told locations of each Orange County city, with a blurb on its existence and importance, while also diving in the underbelly of these sometimes dark or politicized histories that don’t make the cover page of newspapers or even graze the usual guidebooks we see at the mainstream bookstores. So, what’s next on Arellano’s book agenda?
Arellano isn’t working on his next novel; there’s no book plans even. He’s too busy being a columnist, searching far and low for stories that try to tell us – the readers – who we were, who we are, and who we’re becoming as Californians. If he had it his way, he’d be working up a sweat in his garden or swimming in his family’s pool in Anaheim or even washing dishes at Alta Baja if it means helping his wife with whatever she needs. But, his horizon remains on writing columns and ultimately writing for what he believes in. And, not to mention, he’s in the midst of his beloved tortilla tournament.
And, when he’s not preoccupied with plenty of deadlines or being a dog dad to two loveable canines, he’s writing feverishly for his weekly newsletter, Gustavo Arellano’s Weekly, where he dives into political news stories all the way to restaurant recommendations. It’s a digital hub for Arellano’s writing voice to conjoin all the things he reports on into one place.
It seems that writing, or better yet reporting, is Arellano’s life goal, the light at the end of the tunnel. But, Arellano dashes that romantic ideal, apologizing for being flippant with his response.
“Look, I have no goals,” says Arellano, finishing up his michelada. “People get mad, my wife gets mad, my boss gets mad. But when looking for stories, if you have plans, you’re going to miss what’s right in front of you.”
It seems like Arellano’s new horizon is the now.
Read more about Gustavo Arellano and all his journalistic endeavors & adventures here.
Melanie Romero is a trilingual writer born and raised in Orange, CA. It was during childhood weekend trips to Randy’s $1-a-book stall at the OC Market Place that she discovered a passion for reading and, eventually, writing. Today, she serves as Editor at Lil’ Libros and has written two children’s books, Amor de colores and J is for Janucá under the publisher. In her free time, she can be found indulging in challah and getting lost among the shelves of independent bookstores.
#OffThePage is taking pitches via email and paying contributing writers. Our Arts & Culture column was initially founded by local journalist Gabriel San Román, who is now a featured writer at Times OC and a former OC Weekly staff writer. Subscribe to his weekly Slingshot! Newsletter. And in case anyone is wondering, he's still the tallest Mexican in OC.