The innovators: people moving ideas and action in 2008.

 
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IN OUR SECOND ANNUAL INSTALLMENT, ColorLines profiles a selection of people of color working for justice--and doing it with creativity, passion and humor. We feature among them an urban farmer who wants to feed the world, a journalist taking on racists with satire, a playwright whose monologue sears our collective memory with the experiences of Katrina survivors, and a team of organizers who pulled off an amazing feat of logistical coordination and political discipline to hold the first U.S. Social Forum. Read on for these stories of hope and patience, and enjoy.

GUSTAVO ARELLANO

Subverting racism with humor

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GUSTAVO ARELLANO WRITES a nationally syndicated column about Mexican culture for the OC Weekly in Southern California's ultraconservative Orange County, which alone is a subversive act. Except that the satirical column is called "Ask a Mexican," and in it, readers submit queries about Mexico, Mexican culture, and Mexicans. Questions range from the sincere to the ribald, and Arellano's responses are poker sharp, skewering the racism that underlies many of the inquiries while dishing out statistics and history lessons at the same time. "Ask a Mexican" has even inspired a host of other writers with similar intentions (but less successful results), including "Ask a Cuban American," "Ask a Chola," and "Ask a Korean." Arellano is writing a bold kind of critical resistance: satire to silence racists.

What were your goals with the column when you started?

It actually started as a joke, as a commentary on the twisted immigration debate in Orange County. My background is as an investigative reporter, and for years I've been covering Orange County, the Mexican-hating capitol of the world. We're the home of Prop 187, the Minutemen, and sheriffs and a mayor who proposed making police deputies into immigration officials.

I'd been doing more serious pieces on these people, but we wanted to figure out a different angle. The column is a satirical commentary on how crazy the debate is. So we created a fake column, where Mexican people are such a mystery that we need a Mexican to explain things to everyone else. And there were people who thought it perpetuated stereotypes, plus those who thank us for taking on these things.

Right, because you do get a lot of very sincere questions about Mexican culture.

Yes, and I will answer those questions, but my second motivation is to debunk stereotypes. My philosophy is the racist questions where people cannot stand them [are fair game], but when someone asks something like, "Why do Mexicans use the word "ojala," which means "hopefully"--is it just because we can't give up our Arabic roots?" I mean, where the guy wanted to know the answer to a simple etymological question, I will answer him honestly.

Has the mixed response from other Latinos surprised you? Not everyone embraces your column.

More people do than don't, especially when they realize the intentions behind it. I completely agree with some of my critics if you read just one column It seems like all it does is prop up these stereotypes, especially with the logo of the Frito Bandito, a sombrero-wearing, mustachioed Mexican man, an image Americans have been familiar with for about 115 years. But I've had many what I like to call "conversions." People tell me, "I never realized you were this in-depth," For people who are turned off, I tell them to read the column for a month.

How much do Orange County, the political climate and the local immigration debate influence your column and your voice as a writer?

The column is influenced by two things in particular. One, my personal story, the son of immigrants, one who came to the U.S. illegally in the back of a Chevy. And myself, my first language is Spanish, yet here I am speaking in English, the recipient of a Master's degree. Yet so many people don't want to believe that Mexicans can go to college.

Second, it's influenced by the visceral reaction that I have to people I call anti-immigrant All-Stars who insist Mexicans are ruining the country, they are waging the Reconquista on American soil. As an investigative reporter, by this point, these people are beyond parody. I've exposed anti-immigrant activists through a lot of different formats--investigative reporting, first-person perspectives--but really the only way to deal with these fools is to make fun of them. By making fun of them, what I'm saying is, "I'm not going to allow your hatred of my ethnic group to affect me. Not only can you throw stereotypes at me, but I will take them, patch them up and throw them back at you, and there's nothing you can do about it."

I went to school in Orange County and read your column there. I actually feel like living in Orange County and being exposed to suburbia and extreme conservatism really radicalized me. It feels like "Ask a Mexican" is a uniquely Orange County column.

I think you're right. I always make the joke that the only publications that would run this kind of column would be the OC Weekly and a neo-Nazi publication. It is very much an Orange County thing, where the best way to confront it is through this radical perspective. As opposed to East L.A., where, in some ways, they've been fighting it much longer, the debate is different in Orange County. This is oversimplifying it, but in L.A. there is much more of a Chicano identity, whereas in Orange County it is much more of a Mexican community. In L.A. they're insulated from some of the real, real racism that we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

Why do you explicitly use the term "Mexican," instead of "Chicano" or "Latino"?

Because growing up, that's what I was taught I was. That's what my parents would say: "You're not Latino, what the hell is that? You're definitely not a Chicano, because that's American," Go to any high school with a large Mexican-American population, and I guarantee you, the overwhelming majority will call themselves Mexican. If you tell most people "Chicano" or try to explain it to them, they won't get it. I don't think people have problems with Chicanos, they have problems with Mexicans. If you say "Mexican," you have a very clear image of what that person is. Mexicans are viewed as an invading force, a sinister mass, here to inflict harm on good, upstanding Americans.

Do you still go on the Al Rantel show on KABC? Why do you go on conservative talk shows? And what's it like? I would imagine it's completely draining.

Far from it being a drain, it energizes me. I don't want to operate in an echo chamber, only working with people who agree with me. I want to jump into the belly of the beast. I need to be able to know how people are thinking to help [me know] how to write. And I don't just go on conservative shows, I'll go on Kevin and Bean and other stations and field questions, but I love conservative talk shows because a lot of these people, they're the audience I want to go after. Liberals are good-minded people--they don't have these questions, their questions are more innocuous. They don't need to hear these put-downs. But it's conservatives who need to be put in their place. I think they're a blast.

One question I got [on a conservative talk show] was, "Why do Mexicans rape people so much more than whites?" And my answer was, "Well, no, that's not true, And if you look at the statistics like I have, you'd see that the opposite is true. Whites actually rape others at a rate double that of Mexicans. What about you? What are you going to do after this? Are you going to rape someone right now?"

And frankly, having to confront wackos like that helps my writing. It keeps me on my toes and helps me sharpen my arguments.

I know you maybe didn't start writing the column with very lofty goals, but how many minds do you think you change?

I don't have any statistical information--"Changing 50 billion minds a year since 1963" or anything--but I do have anecdotal evidence, where people have told me, "I actually do have a better appreciation of Mexican culture after reading your column."

This is the goal that I have: I want to show people [that] Mexicans are just as American as everyone else, maybe even more so. And the one thing I can do, I can put the truth out there--the statistics I quote are always real--and let the truth fall where it may.

--Julianne Ong Hing

CHITRA GANESH

Painting the Hindu gods from a queer perspective

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A QUEER SOUTH ASIAN ARTIST from New York, Chitra Ganesh has been making a breakthrough in art circles with her recent paintings inspired by the popular 1970s Indian comic books known as Amar Chitra Kathas.

Like many young South Asians on the subcontinent and in the diaspora, Ganesh grew up reading these comic books, which teach proper behavior, sexuality and nationalism based on Hindu mythology. "I love the language of comics," Ganesh says, "because it draws in a diverse audience." In her rendition of the vibrant comics, Ganesh pushes traditional boundaries of gender, femininity and power by wielding references to Indian god iconography like severed limbs and lotuses and overlaying her own female-empowered text.

Four female figures with multiple heads and dismembered fingers play in the colorful comic print Secrets. Juxtaposing whimsy and violence, the piece conveys how secrets that may seem harmless can have the power to consume. Ganesh tops the comic strip with this line: "Secrets ... [p]ried themselves loose from the cracks of her palms, crawled from the pages of illuminated manuscripts ... armies marching into darkness, or prophesies for rotting corpses ... to rise from their slumber and speak? Leaving her no choice but one: [t]o breathe in between the lines."

Ganesh, who has a literature background, earned her M.F.A degree from Columbia University in 2002. She has garnered awards from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the New York Community Trust and the Astraea Foundation. Her work has been shown in Italy, New Delhi...

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