Gustavo Arellano isn’t from the South.
He’s a journalist in Orange County, Calif., with a cheeky sense of humor. He writes a column carried in almost 40 newspapers, “Ask a Mexican!” that attempts to explain Latin American life to “gabachos” – aka non-Mexican people.
But Arellano is paying more attention to the South lately. He thinks native-born Southerners and recent immigrants from Mexico have a lot in common. Namely: Music, culture and food.
The music? Listen to the fiddle and falsetto voices in traditional Son Huasteco music and think of Flatt & Scruggs.
The food? Corn, pork and the original barbecue, barbacoa.
And the culture? A couple of weeks ago, Arellano delivered a lecture on that at the Southern Foodways Symposium, the annual gathering in Oxford, Miss., where people dissect Southern culture.
Warning: Arellano’s sense of humor is not always politically correct. But like the best humor, his joking has a point.
As a first-generation Mexican in Southern California, Arellano admits he was surprised when a reader “from a little podunk area that relies on raising tobacco” pointed out how much Mexicans and rural Southerners have in common: Big trucks with rear-window decals (Confederate flags for Southerners, Our Lady of Guadalupe for Mexicans), boots made from exotic animals, and a love of beer.
Arellano agreed the reader had a point and quipped: “The South will rise again. Thanks to the Mexicans.”
But then he thought about it some more. And he realized there was a reason for this. Mexicans who live close to the border move to border states. People from Mexico City move to cities, like L.A. and Chicago.
But another region in Mexico tends to be the source of people who move to the South.
La Huasteca isn’t a state, it’s a cultural region in the northeast that crosses a lot of states, including Veracruz, Hidalgo and Puebla. People there are loved for their cooking and mocked for their country ways. It’s like the Appalachians of Mexico.
People from La Huasteca tend to move directly to the South, to places like Nashville, Atlanta, Charlotte and Raleigh, and then gravitate toward the countryside.
“Raleigh is really now the Ellis Island for Mexicans in the United States,” Arellano jokes, pointing out that North Carolina is second in the country in immigration.
Arellano’s family was from La Huasteca. So he really notices the food similarities.
Carne asada, or skirt steak grilled over charcoal. Carnitas, pork cut from the Boston butt, boiled in lard and then crisped. Mixiote, chicken or fish wrapped in maguey leaves and cooked slowly over charcoal in an open pit.
Any of that sound familiar?
“It’s not so much that Mexicans are going to change the South or that the South is going to change the Mexicans,” he says.
What he thinks is that we have a lot of common ground.
“You’re brothers from another madre.”