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Volume 45, No. 3
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El Espectador
The muckracking, Spanish-language newspaper founded in the '30s by Ignacio Lutero Lopez '31 to serve the invisible communities of the Pomona Valley still shows the way for today's burgeoning ethnic media.

By Agustin Gurza

Week after week, for almost three decades, through the Great Depression and World War II to the eve of the Great Society, a scrappy, crusading newspaper was delivered to barrios all across the Pomona Valley. The passage of time brought some dramatic changes to the masthead of El Espectador del Valle, or The Valley Observer. The typeface, the logo and the slogan all evolved, and English crept into the nameplate as the paper tried to broaden its appeal beyond its immigrant readership base. In its second decade, a new post-war slogan suggested Latinos were here to stay: “An American Publication Written in Spanish.”

But one thing remained constant during the paper’s long run—the name of its editor and publisher, Ignacio Lutero Lopez ’31, an erudite and intrepid Mexican immigrant who edited the eight-page broadsheet out of his home. And from the time the paper was launched in 1933 until it folded in 1960, Lopez stuck to a guiding principle which, though never stated overtly, might as well have been engraved next to his name: All News Is Local.

Lopez’s readership base, and his constituency, were the invisible communities of working-class Mexicans scattered along the railroad tracks or hidden amongst the citrus orchards. At times, it seems the editor was determined to include every resident— and potential subscriber—by name in his newspaper. In the Feb. 5, 1937, edition, under the heading “Hospitalizations,” we learn that “the popular young man” Gabriel Quezada was recovering from appendicitis at San Antonio Hospital in Upland. And in the column headed “De Viaje” (On The Road), we’re informed of the pending trip to New Mexico by Luis Marujo, “the active and much appreciated employee of Rebello Grocery.”

Yet, not all local news was trivial. Whenever Lopez encountered issues of social justice and civil rights in his backyard, the journalist jumped in with all the passion and outrage he could pack into the pages of his paper. In that first week of February 72 years ago, his front page bristled with this two-deck headline in large type: “A Mexican Youth From Ontario Was Beaten by Three Policemen.” The victim, the paper recounted, had been mistaken by police for someone else. Inside, in an editorial titled “We Ask For Justice,” Lopez called for an investigation into the case and an end to police beatings, in the name of “the only Mexican organ in this district and the defender of the Mexican people.”

The sheer sustained energy of his fight is evident from a review of three decades of El Espectador, kept on microfilm at the Ontario Public Library. Scrolling through year after year, I found a record of weighty travails and small triumphs. Lopez expressed outrage on behalf of the soldier refused service at a restaurant after returning from World War II and righteously denounced the killing of braceros by criminals in his own community. But he also ran pictures of students who graduated from high school and, in one of his last editions, hailed Judge Carlos Teran as the first Latino appointed to the state Supreme Court.

LOPEZ, THE SON OF a Congregationalist pastor, is part of a little known but historically important tradition of Mexican- American journalism in California, one that dates to the first half of the 19th century when the area was still part of Mexico. For more than two centuries, hundreds of papers have flourished both in the Southwest and beyond, starting in 1808 with what scholars consider the first U.S. newspaper published in Spanish, El Misisipi, based in New Orleans.

Lopez’s crusading spirit also has historic precedents. In New Mexico, El Crepúsculo championed the rights of Indians, while in Los Angeles, the influential El Clamor Público (1855-59), which scholar and literary critic Luis Leal calls the precursor of the Chicano militant press, denounced a series of Mexican lynchings by Anglo mobs, while also chiding Mexicans for not standing up to the abuses. In displaying the courage to be both the scourge of the powerful and the conscience of the community, the paper set an editorial model that Lopez would follow 100 years later.

Very much a man of his era, Ignacio “Nacho” Lopez was a strict disciplinarian with old-fashioned values who opposed drug use and delinquency as much as discrimination. The twin values of personal success and public service were bred into the family by his father, the Rev. Ignacio Máximo Lopez. That upbringing explains his choice of journalism as a profession, says Luz Jaramillo ’49, Lopez’s niece and godchild.

“The philosophy was, you choose a profession or occupation that provides for you but which also is a blessing for those that come into contact with you,” explained Jaramillo, who preserves the family history and heritage at her modest home in Alta Loma. “That’s the way we were brought up.”

The publisher’s later role as a political mediator and social conciliator may also have roots in his family upbringing. Lopez was a middle child, the only boy in a family of five, a sibling position known to nurture skills of negotiating, peace-making and compromise.

“Operating between the white world and the Mexican colonia, Lopez attempted to shape both communities into compatible entities within a pluralistic society,” writes Brown University Professor Matt Garcia in his book A World of Its Own: Race, Labor and Citrus in the Making of Greater Los Angeles 1900-1970. “Lopez simultaneously promoted integration and resistance.”

TODAY, IN THE PRESUMED post-racial environment symbolized by the election of the country’s first Black president, skeptics may question the need for ethnic media such as El Espectador. Newspapers that once served as a bridge between the barrio and the broader world should be obsolete in a society that has supposedly bridged its racial gaps and settled all its ethnic grievances.

Indeed, analysts foresee troubled times ahead for some ethnic newspapers and magazines, pointing to the recent closing of Chinese and Spanish-language newspapers in New York. The forces that threaten the survival of the general newspaper industry, undermined by competition from the Internet, have finally caught up to the ethnic press. The recession has now forced many ethnic papers to cut staff, reduce the frequency of publication or convert entirely to online editions.

Yet, not everyone is pessimistic. The continuous influx of immigrants from around the world virtually guarantees the need for new ethnic media to address those communities in their own languages.

“Man, almost on a monthly basis you find a new Arab- American magazine or newspaper in Detroit, New York or Los Angeles,” says Jalal Sayed, marketing strategist for Allied Media Corp., a Virginia-based multicultural marketing firm. “We’ve got to be careful not to bulk all ethnic media in one pocket.”

Sayed, who comes from Egypt, says he specializes in hard-toreach markets, including Arab-, Russian- and Polish-speaking communities. Since Sept. 11, authorities have intensified efforts to reach out to these newcomers through ethnic media, making the government one of Allied Media’s major clients. Demand is also driven by a human need that’s as old as migration itself. “People want to get their news from a trusted voice, a familiar face,” says Sayed. “These communities like to read in their own language.”

They also like to read about themselves. That’s why the shrinkage of major urban newspapers can be a hidden boon for ethnic media. “When it comes to readers finding that article about something relevant to their culture, that’s where I think these [ethnic] papers hold an upper hand, especially as dailies like the L.A. Times get smaller and smaller,” says Kirk Whisler, president of Hispanic Print Network, a marketing and advertising firm that works with more than 550 Hispanic publications in the U.S. with a combined circulation over 17 million. “It’s certainly rough times for Hispanic print, but they’re going to come back a lot faster than the mainstream press.”

A recovery could be fueled by the general industry trend towards specialized publications aimed at targeted groups— what USC journalism professor Félix F. Gutiérrez calls the move “from mass media to class media”—that spells growth for this sector, though not necessarily in traditional forms.

“To understand the importance of the growth today, you have to look at papers like El Espectador and others, and the role they played,” says Gutierrez, an expert on ethnic diversity in the news media. “Their role has now been taken on by other media, other technology, but the needs are just as great. The population is larger and the general audience still has trouble understanding who we are and how to address us.”

THINGS HAVE RADICALLY changed since the days Lopez cranked out El Espectador from his home office on Chester Place in Pomona, sharing a large add-on space that doubled as his son’s bedroom. For one, competition in the Latino media market has vastly intensified. In those days, for example, Spanish-language radio was limited to brief broadcast segments on a smattering of stations across the country. Today, there are more than 700 stations broadcasting fulltime in Spanish. Since 1970, Latino newspapers and magazines in the U.S. have grown almost fivefold, from 284 to 1,348, according to a survey conducted annually by Whisler’s firm. In Southern California there are now 158 Hispanic newspapers and magazines with a circulation of more than six million, according to the agency’s 2008 count.

But the role that Lopez played in print, as advocate and intermediary, is currently being fulfilled on a much more massive scale by Spanish-language television and radio, which were still in their infancy when El Espectador went out of business. Ample proof of their emerging—nay, maturing—importance came in 2006 when Univision radio host El Piolín and other Latino celebrities helped organize a massive pro-immigrant demonstration in downtown Los Angeles. It’s considered the largest demonstration in the city’s history, drawing more than half a million people, and it’s credited with helping halt a congressional drive for new anti-immigrant legislation. Lopez could not have dreamed of this kind of power.

For the children of those immigrants, those who read and write primarily in English, the media landscape is rapidly evolving. There’s a whole raft of Latino bloggers who no longer need the imprimatur of old media to express themselves. And digital pioneers such as LatinoLA.com are tirelessly exploring ways to make the Internet a profitable platform for Latinos by keeping it local.

For the print media, the struggle to stay in business will require adaptations. Many Spanish-only publications are switching to bilingual formats, notes Whisler, in an effort to keep up with the pace of assimilation.

EVEN THAT STRATEGY, however, is not new. Lopez tried it 70 years ago with the Nov. 4, 1938, launch of his “sección en ingles,” dedicated to Mexican youth. As guest columnist, he recruited a young student and DJ named Candelario J. Mendoza, whose first contribution reminds us of the axiom plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Writing on the eve of World War II, when “el nuevo Chevrolet” was selling for $796, Mendoza addressed the issue of youth rebelling against “the old folks,” as he put it. “Our parents grew up on a time when everything moved at a slow pace, when things were done in a leisurely manner,” he wrote. “Today, we live in the streamlined age, when things are done in rapid speed.” Appropriately titled “And So It Goes,” the column goes on to advise young readers to weigh the experience of their elders, “but use your own sane judgment” as a guide.

Many years later, as a Pomona Unified school board member, Mendoza would move to name a school after the man who had inspired his newspaper career. In September of 2007, the Ignacio Lutero Lopez Elementary School was dedicated on South White Avenue, directly across the street from the Pomona Mexican Church founded by Lopez’ father almost 80 years earlier.

The program for the school ribbon-cutting ceremony lists all the members of the school board and district administrators, a routine formality for such public works project. But the multicultural district roster also serves as a silent tribute to Lopez’ lifelong drive to help his fellow Mexican-Americans take their rightful place as leaders in American society.

“He was way ahead of his time,” says the publisher’s son, Jaime Lopez, 68, who worked as a paperboy for his father’s weekly, delivering to barrio homes on his bike. “The community wouldn’t be what it is if it hadn’t been for the newspaper. He was a fighter for other people’s rights. Through the newspaper, he had the ability to get changes done, which as an individual you cannot do.”

A Bittersweet Breakthrough
For me, it was a healing exercise to look back on the work of Ignacio Lopez, and through him reconnect with my own roots in ethnic journalism. I felt an affinity for his fighting spirit, his literary interests and his struggle to keep his paper alive by wearing two hats as editor and ad salesman. I also found hope in his legacy, despite the hardships faced by newspapers in general and my recent job loss in particular. For the mission he pursued so passionately in print has not outlived its usefulness, but rather has evolved along with the times and the revolutionary changes in media.

The enduring role of ethnic media has been recently underscored by the historic election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first Black president. In his press conferences, Obama has cast a new spotlight on this often overlooked segment of the White House press corps by taking questions from Black and Latino reporters, at times even ahead of the mainstream press, upending the media’s Beltway pecking order. The president astutely uses the most popular minority media outlets, from Univision to al-Arabiya, to directly target minority audiences.

But the breakthrough Obama represents is also bittersweet. Just days before his election, I was laid off after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times, along with several other journalists of color. I cried during Obama’s inauguration because the hope he symbolized only seemed to exacerbate my loss. For even as the paper celebrated the nation’s first minority president with the sale of a wildly popular special edition, minority journalists in its own ranks had hit a ceiling in the newsroom, no more represented than they were 10 years earlier when I started there. Last year, the Times editorial staff was still more than 80 percent white, and only 7 percent Latino (presumably still counting me), according to the most recent newsroom survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

In the industry’s current climate of crisis, with falling circulation and revenues, affirmative action naturally takes a back seat. Who cares about racial quotas when layoffs hit everybody indiscriminately? It would be like striving for ethnic parity in lifeboats lowered from the Titanic. Survival of the fittest means nobody gets any special breaks any more.

Yet, how can a newspaper survive in a city like Los Angeles if it loses touch with the ethnic communities that surround its own urban core? Ten years ago, being Latino was still an asset because management desperately wanted to reach the group that was fast becoming half the city’s population. As part of its ballyhooed Latino Initiative, the Times assembled specialists for its cultural coverage, with beats from Latino radio and television to film and the arts. But that was three owners and five editors ago. Today, there is not a single Latino assignment editor, critic or columnist in the Calendar section.

The Times may as well have a cultural moat around the building. In covering ethnic communities, reporters often seem like foreign correspondents in a foreign land. Twice in recent weeks, the paper has misidentified Puerto Rican percussionist Tito Puente, one of the most famous Caribbean artists of all time. One writer called him Cuban. Another called him “Tia” Puente.

“The loss of people of color from our newsrooms is especially disturbing because our future depends on our ability to serve multicultural audiences,” said Charlotte Hall, editor of the Orlando Sentinel and immediate past president of ASNE, in a press release last month announcing results of the annual ethnic survey of the nation’s newsrooms. “ASNE is committed to keeping newsroom diversity on the front burner even in tough times.”

Good luck. Being color-blind in a post-racial society apparently means nobody notices, or cares, when people of color go missing. When I started out in this business, making our presence felt was the whole point. I was an aimless Berkeley student majoring in sociology when I was drafted as editor of La Voz del Pueblo, published by Frente, a Chicano group led by a former San Bernardino gang member turned law student, Manuel Delgado. In those days, there were scores of Chicano publications across the Southwest, all inspired by the social and political movement of the 1960s. Inspired equally by the crusades of César Chávez and the muckraking of Woodward and Bernstein, Latinos took up the pen for its power to change society and its instant ability to give voice to the voiceless.

Like Lopez and other Latino publishers before us, we didn’t wait for the mainstream media to give us a job. We made our own way. Maybe it’s time to open paths for ourselves again.

©Copyright 2008
by Pomona College
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