Latino Coverage Is Crucial for Many Alt-Weeklies

A Wide Range of Efforts Are Being Made to Reach the United States' Largest Minority

Whether alt-weeklies ought to increase coverage of Latino communities — and how best to do so — became an issue with particular power this past March when the U.S. Census Bureau announced Hispanics were now the country’s largest minority group, surpassing African Americans for the first time. By 2050, the Bureau expects Hispanics to be almost a quarter of the country’s population.

Association of Alternative Newsweeklies publishers are beginning to recognize this potential readership. Nearly a third surveyed by AAN’s national office last year said they are working, or intend to work, on attracting more Hispanic readers.

This is no easy task. “The Hispanic community” is hardly a monolithic or even homogeneous one. Even the word used to refer to a particular city’s Hispanic mix shifts from region to region. While “Hispanic” is the U.S. Census Bureau’s broad term, “Latino” is more commonly used by Hispanics themselves. But in Miami, says Celeste Fraser Delgado, a Miami New Times staff writer, “Latin” is preferred, since so many local residents are not North Americans of Hispanic descent, but immigrants in this generation from Cuba, Colombia, Argentina and Peru, and other Latin American countries. And in Santa Fe, New Mexico, says Julia Goldberg, editor of the Santa Fe Reporter, 14th-generation state residents proudly use Hispanic but don’t identify with the concerns of the newest New Mexicans who share their ethnicity — those from Mexico in this century.

In deciding how to best cover an ever-growing and varied Latino population, alt-weeklies face a great number of issues. For each paper, the issues are as unique as the communities they serve. Editors have taken a variety of approaches to meet these varied needs. Some hire Latinos as staff writers or freelancers. Others rely on Anglos with good cross-cultural training and adept Spanish-language skills. A few papers have even tried publishing certain articles in Spanish, but with limited success. What follows are just a few case examples from writers and editors at AAN member publications.

Santa Ana, California
Latinos covering Latinos

Santa Ana, California, home to Orange County’s OC Weekly, has the highest concentration of Latinos and the highest percentage of Spanish speakers among larger American cities — 75 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Orange County itself, despite its reputation as a wealthy white bastion, is today about 30 percent Latino.

To cover Orange County at all is to cover Latino issues, says Gustavo Arellano, a news and investigative reporter for the Weekly.

“That said, I think there is a need,” he adds: “a need to write articles that the community can have access to.” More often than not, it falls to Arellano — the only Latino on staff — to make that happen.

Many local Latinos are recent immigrants and not bilingual, so he translates some of his own articles into Spanish for the paper’s Web site. Last year, during a contentious recall attempt on a Santa Ana Unified School District board member who claimed his largest support among recent immigrants, Arellano saw both sides of the fight distributing Spanish-language printouts of his coverage to the community.

“We’ve had complaints and commendations from Latinos here,” Arellano reports: “Thank you for covering our community correctly,” “You’re not representing the Latino community properly and you have more responsibility, being the sole Latino on the paper,” and “Why don’t you write more articles?”

Arellano feels extra responsibility to write about the Latino community because he is an Orange County native — and because he is an alt-weekly writer. While the local daily has a lot of Latino reporters, Arellano believes writing for the OC Weekly is tantamount to making a political choice. “We consider ourselves more of an activist paper,” he says. Other Latino reporters may prefer the greater exposure — or greater pay — of the dailies. “I feel I have a responsibility to report on my community and to write on more hard-hitting issues.”

Non-Latinos are capable of covering the Latino community, too, he allows, “but there is some nuance lost.” Recently, Arellano was reading a San Francisco Chronicle piece on accordion-based Latino band Los Tigres del Norte. Not only did the Chronicle misidentify the group name, he says, but they applied the wrong label to the group’s style of music — something “every Latino would know.” Covering the Latino community means knowing not just the language but the culture and history

And it helps to know the locals. If Arellano moved to New York City, he says he’d feel unqualified to cover its Latino community until he had been there long enough to understand the local issues and culture.

At most AAN papers, that task of covering the Latino community falls, by and large, to Anglo writers. Some have found it desirable to immerse themselves in the study of Spanish language and culture; others live in Hispanic communities so established that such reverse assimilation seems unnecessary. Where Latinos dominate the local landscape, they dominate the AAN paper on both the news and arts sides. Where the Latino community is small or hidden, coverage is more limited and much less noticed by the community.

Miami, Florida
Coverage in an affluent Latin community

In Miami, “If you didn’t cover the Latin community, you wouldn’t have a lot left to cover,” says Miami New Times’ Celeste Fraser Delgado. Miami is 60 percent Latin — 1.4 out of 2.3 million in Miami Dade County — and the majority of New Times readers there are Latin. Los Angeles may have more Latinos, says Delgado, but Miami has more in positions of power and influence.

Delgado taught Latino Studies at Pennsylvania State University and wrote a book, “Everynight Life,” about Latin music and dance. Only once in five years has there been any criticism of her as an Anglo reporter covering Latins, she says. “There’s not that burden of representation here. You have a lot of American-born writers writing about Latin issues.” Her perception is that “with some countries like Argentina, they would rather have me write about an [arts] act than have an Argentine write about them, because there’s more prestige if an American is writing about them.”

San Antonio, Texas
Anglos covering Latinos – a cross cultural challenge

Covering another majority Latino city — San Antonio, Texas — is a challenge for the editor of the San Antonio Current, Lisa Sorg. Latinos are a presence in the paper’s pages from front to back; her staff includes Latino writers as well as bilingual Anglos like herself. Already Spanish-fluent, Sorg has improved her skills since joining the Current three years ago via University of Mexico extension courses.

Not every choice in covering the Latino community has been successful. The Current had a monthly Spanish-only column by a local professor that Sorg ended because the writing was “too baroque,” she says. “I wouldn’t have run it in English.” In mid-April, the Current ran its first bilingual feature, a Q&A with the Mexican Consul General.

San Antonio is a Latino hub for the U.S.; its Bexar County is more than 50 percent Hispanic. The North American Free Trade Agreement was signed there; now Sorg is bracing to cover its 10th anniversary. In July comes the 75th annual national convention of LULAC — the League of United Latin American Citizens. Sorg calls it “a pretty controversial organization. Covering LULAC fairly is going to be a challenge for us. As with many reporters who undertake cross-cultural coverage, she frequently asks herself, “As an Anglo, can I cover it?” In this case, Sorg says she will probably send a Latino. “As an Anglo, I’ll get crucified — probably. Will I be accused of being racist? I don’t know.”

More Statistics on Latino Readership

According to’s “State of the News Media 2004” report, from 1990 to 2000, the number of people not speaking English at home increased by nearly 50 percent in the United States. At 28.1 million and growing, Spanish speakers were are the largest group in this category. Even though half the Spanish speakers said they spoke English “very well,” the report also found that Hispanics used Spanish-language newspapers 41 percent of the time. Hispanics were least likely to read press in English as well as their native language. The other groups surveyed — Asian, Middle Eastern, African American — read newspapers specifically geared toward them much less frequently.

Some of the growth in Hispanic population and readership is reflected in a burgeoning Spanish-language press: dailies tripled circulation in the last decade and increased ad revenue by 700 percent. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, found that U.S. Hispanics see Spanish-language media both as more important than English-language media and as more likely to show Hispanics in a positive light. But the same survey also found that those Hispanics with longer residence in the U.S. still get more of their news from English-language newspapers.

Madison, Wisconsin, and Jacksonville, Florida
Covering a small population where influence is elusive

“There’s much more going on here than there is news coverage” of Latinos, says Susan Kepecs, a Spanish-speaking freelancer who covers all-things-Latino for Isthmus in Madison, Wis. Kepecs’ experience is typical of what happens in cities where Latinos are still a relatively small thread in the urban fabric. “The dailies do very little. Isthmus doesn’t do much either. This is a white-collar, white town. The news media has been slow to pick up that the major influx is Latino. There are not many other if any [other] reporters in Madison who are bilingual.”

While not herself Latino, Kepecs has lived on and off in Mexico while doing research for her doctorate in archaeology.

“No one knows” how big the Latino community really is, Kepecs says, “because there’s illegals here.” Indeed, the census found that in Madison’s Dane County Hispanics make up less than 5 percent of the population.

“We have quite a few Mexican groceries, quite a few panaderías muy típicos [very typical bakeries],” she says. “There are quite a few dances for the illegal immigrant communities. It’s just like being in Mexico.”

Still, she fears there isn’t room for more Latino news in Isthmus. While she has done features on the new immigrant community and on a local Spanish-language academy, she writes mostly about Latin music and on the local ethnic restaurant business. She isn’t sure Isthmus even reaches those she covers.

“Most of them are not fully bilingual,” Kepecs says. “They probably only read [Isthmus] when there is an article about them coming out.”

In Jacksonville, Fla., Folio Weekly Editor Ann Schindler and Managing Editor John Citrone also cover a relatively small Latino community, especially for Florida. Out of a population of 805,000 in Jacksonville’s Duval County, Hispanics number only about 39,000, or less than 5 percent.

“There are things happening here,” says Citrone. “Whether we’re giving them fair coverage is another question.”

After the 2000 presidential election, he notes, the paper researched disparities in the black vote but didn’t look at the Latino vote. The paper has, however, covered some issues of particular importance to local Latinos recently: issues that arose when a county jail served as a temporary customs facility, as well as those surrounding the mayor’s Hispanic advisory board. Folio Weekly reporters have also been covering music events and Spanish restaurants.

“It’s a priority on a list of a lot of priorities,” says Schindler with a laugh.

Columbus, Ohio
A small but emerging community — you have to start somewhere

When Columbus Alive’s monthly Spanish-language column was launched two years ago, Editor Brian Lindamood told AAN News he hoped it would not only serve this Ohio city’s fastest-growing minority but let people know of the group’s presence. Now he isn’t certain anyone has noticed.

“I’m not sure that we’ve had much of any response,” he explains. “A one- or a two-page spread on a monthly basis isn’t high-profile enough to attract a Spanish-speaking audience.”

The column has been home to everything from hard news to arts features. It has gone through several freelancers and even included the occasional Spanish translation of an English-language piece — a move Lindamood doesn’t recommend, since “it read like it was written by a computer,” or by someone with high-school Spanish and a dictionary.

It probably hasn’t helped that in Columbus’ Franklin County there are still only 27,397 Hispanics out of 1.08 million people — or just about a quarter of one percent, by last official count.

Columbus Alive covers local Latinos throughout the paper, Lindamood emphasizes. The Spanish column “was more symbolic or a goodwill gesture.” Rather than scratch it, he says, they would gladly consider doing more.

Whatever his decision, reaching Latinos remains a priority, Lindamood says. The only thing he’s decided so far is that “having this one monthly column is not enough.”

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