Project highlights key figures in the history of Latino journalism

By Christina R. Hernandez

Acción Latina, a San Francisco non-profit organization, is developing a multimedia project chronicling the history of the Latino press in the United States. The initial film is expected to be finished this year to commemorate the bicentennial of El Misisipi, the first Spanish-language newspaper in the U.S.

“Voices for Justice: The Enduring Legacy of the Latino Press in the U.S.,” will also include an interactive Web site based at University of Houston’s Arte Público Press and a companion book.
Working on the project are Juan Gonzales, Dr. Félix F. Gutiérrez, Dr. Nicolás Kanellos, Raymond Telles, Eva Martínez and Jon Funabiki.

Gonzales, the committee director, is the department chair of journalism at City College and founding editor of the Mission district’s bilingual biweekly newspaper, El Tecolote.  He is also a member of the Journalism Association of Community Colleges, the San Francisco Newspaper Association and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

“The roots of my curiosity started when I was a junior at San Francisco State, taking a class on journalism history in America,” Gonzales said. “It was all white men highlighted as pioneers in the industry.”

Motivated to learn about the Latino press, he went to the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.
“Further research showed that there were even some Spanish language newspapers in San Francisco,” Gonzales said.

He encountered another El Tecolote, a San Francisco daily newspaper which was first published  in 1875.

“That experience kind of charged me up … [I thought] if there’s this much, just imagine what we don’t know,” Gonzales said. He did more research and began incorporating it into his classes. “Around 1995, I became aware there were more people doing what I was doing.”
Stanley Nelson’s film “The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords” released in 1999, documented the history of the Black press in the United States.

“When African-Americans did ‘Soldiers Without Swords,’ I thought we should do our own,” Gonzales said.

As the bicentennial of El Misisipí approached, Gonzales decided it was time to put together a committee and get the project started.

“Juan gave me a call in the summer of 2006,” Gutiérrez said. “He’s the one who got this thing started.”

Gutiérrez, named the Padrino (Godfather) of Latino journalists by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists in 1995, is a professor of journalism and communication at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication. He has written extensively about diversity in the media.

He rediscovered and identified El Misisipí, which was founded in New Orleans on Sept. 7, 1808,  as the country’s first Spanish language newspaper in 1977.

To work full-time on the project, Gonzales and Gutiérrez both took a sabbatical from teaching in fall 2008.

“We’ve been meeting for about a year and a half, every two weeks to plan and coordinate our efforts to make this project happen,” Gonzales said.

Kanellos is a Brown Foundation Professor of Hispanic Literature at the University of Houston and the founding publisher of The Americas Review. He also heads the publishing house Arte Público Press and is the director of Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage of the United States, a national research program. His bibliography, “Hispanic Periodicals” in the United States, published in 2000, provided groundwork for the project.

Telles has produced and directed over 30 documentaries, including “The Fight in the Fields”, a feature documentary on the Farm Workers’ movement. His awards include three Emmy Awards and two PBS Programming Awards for News and Current Affairs.

With his son cameraman David Telles and associate producer Yvan Ituriaga, he is currently producing a documentary about the history of the Latino Press in the U.S. The story is told in interviews, but also features historic images and articles.

“[There are] five mini-segments showing what we’re going [through]…the activist papers of the 1960s and 70s,” he said.

The committee plans to go further with each theme in subsequent films, according to Gonzales.
A 15-minute trailer was shown at the Latino Film Festival in San Francisco, the Journalism Association of Community Colleges (JACC) SoCal conference in Los Angeles and at Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Conference at the University of Houston.

Telles noted how the film would mingle with the website which will be an interactive archive of the Latino press.

“We want the website to keep track of the Latino media as it grows,” Gonzales said.
Aiding in raising funds, Funabiki, a journalism professor at San Francisco State University, is the founding director of San Francisco State University’s Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism, which focuses on improving news media coverage of minority communities and issues.

Martinez also assists with the financial aspects of the projects and oversees programs the committee is planning. She is the executive director of Acción Latina and a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

Funding has come from the Ford Foundation and private donors, but each member of the committee noted difficulty in funding the project.

“To me [funding] is the only obstacle, We have the expertise and dedication … we’re dedicated to getting this done,” Martinez said.

“At this stage, our biggest challenge is to get the money,” Gonzales said. “[In total] we need about $200,000 for the film, $50,000 for the book and $50,000 for the Web site.”

Despite these economic pitfalls, the committee members are going forward with the project, explaining the substantial influence of Latino press for Latino communities and the press overall.

Latino newspapers have provided their audiences with reinforcement of culture and identity, according to Gutiérrez.

“Historically, the newspapers were the central form of communication for a community,” Kanellos said.

Martínez discussed the concept of balancing American culture and what other cultures may be attached to being Latino and living in the U.S. “One thing these newspapers help to do is retain that duality, you don’t have to give up either thing,” she said.

“Your world isn’t all English or all Spanish,” Gutiérrez said.

The 2000 U.S. Census reported 45.7 percent of people living in San Francisco speak a language other than English at home. 36.8 percent of these people were born outside the U.S.

“California is far from being an English-only state,” Gonzales said. “The diverse population reflects that… there is a continued need for information in languages other than English.”

The committee also emphasized the significance of diversity in the press, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area. “People in San Francisco need to know their journalism history,” Gutiérrez said.


After the presentation at the JACC SoCal conference, “[Latino students] swarmed the podium,” Gonzales said. “You could see the pride in their eyes, it made me feel really pleased. We’re doing it for them. That’s satisfaction. They’re just an extension of the pioneers we’re talking about.”

Martínez remarked on the presence and contributions of women in Latino press. “I learned that there were women involved early on, as publishers, editors, and writers… at least in the early 1900s there were some very powerful Latinas,” she said.

Martínez and Telles brought up Jovita Idar, a Mexican-American journalist and social activist who wrote articles criticizing the United States government for, what she believed, was unjust.
Idar criticized President Woodrow Wilson for deploying troops to the Mexican border during the Mexican Revolution. In response, Wilson sent Texas Rangers to shut down her paper. Upon their arrival Idar stood in the doorway, refusing to let them pass until they left.

“[It] showed how fierce she was, how strongly that family believed in the power of the press,” Telles continued.

Idar’s portrait is used on the logo for the “Voices for Justice” project.

For more information on Voices for Justice, visit their Web site: http://www.eltecolote.org/voices.

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