Born of El Sol

Germinated in the rich tradition of El Sol de Texas, the Spanish-language press takes root in Dallas

In 1985, the drama that had been the newspaper's life came abruptly to an end. Jesse and Sara Gutierrez were approached by a group of three investors, two of them Anglos. The couple sold their newspaper to the trio, one of whom, Charles Orten, remains on the scene. El Sol's new owners brought in a new executive team--including the new sales manager who demanded the override from Silva.

Unwittingly, it was the new bosses who inspired the nearly conspiratorial lunch at Luby's in 1985.

Though disgruntled, the three employees still felt lingering loyalty toward El Sol. Given the history of failures by upstart challengers, launching a new paper seemed like a radical move--and one doomed to fail.

As they talked, an idea struck Emmy Silva, who knew the paper's books and knew that advertising alone could pay most of a newspaper's cost. "There ought to be a new newspaper," she suggested. "But it ought to be free." The trio discussed the prospect and agreed that El Sol's policy of selling single copies and mail subscriptions discouraged both readership and circulation.

But none of the unhappy employees resolved to do anything. Emmy Silva soon resigned from the newspaper, while Juan soldiered on. Suarez moved to Corpus Christi, where he launched an ill-fated Spanish-language news service.

It would be another year before the fruits of the Luby's meeting were born.

Late in 1986, Marcos Suarez telephoned Emmy Silva to let her know that he was back in Dallas, and that he'd returned to launch a free weekly paper to compete with El Sol. "That's funny," she remarked. "Juan and I have just decided to do the same thing."

Cooperation was out of the question, she says, "because I always believed that a business has to be family-owned." The three onetime pals from El Sol now confronted each other not as partners in a new venture, but as competitors. Or so it seemed.

Suarez and his wife, Guadalupe Colmenero, a Mexican national, prepared the first edition of their start-up El Hispano News on a kitchen table in late 1986. A few weeks afterward, the Silvas began doing the same with their new weekly, El Extra. "It took us 48 hours of nonstop work to put together that first issue," Emmy Silva says.

But the city's new Hispanic publishers had an edge, and they knew it: Each planned to give their papers away, meaning broader circulation. "El Sol's circulation was about 7,000 at the time," Juan Silva reminisces. "We printed a little more than twice as many. At the print shop, I ran into a man from El Sol, and I called him over to my pickup, which was loaded. 'Look at that,' I told him. 'I just want you to see what 15,000 newspapers look like.'"

Within a year, both newspapers were paying their costs. El Sol was forced to abandon paid circulation and was surviving in the giveaway market. People at all three papers were stunned by the miracle of their mutual survival.

The roots of success were planted in a changing city. The emerging newspapers came about just in time to ride an increasing wave of Mexican immigration to Dallas. Nobody knows how many immigrants arrived--since most of them came illegally--but the city went from being a largely Chicano, or Mexican-American, town to being an immigrant city.

From about 150,000, or nearly 10 percent of the total in 1980, Dallas County's Hispanic population had grown by 1990 to at least 315,000, 17 percent of the whole. Living in Hispanic Dallas was like living in a boom town. "We had to increase our circulation time after time, just to keep up," Emmy Silva notes. Her numbers show leaps in El Extra's readership from its meager beginnings to today's circulation of 28,000.

The population growth shows no signs of stopping. Nobody knows how many Hispanic immigrants have come to the Metroplex since the 1990 census, but Marcos Suarez places the number at about 25,000 each year. If that figure is anywhere near accurate, Hispanics number a half-million in Dallas County today.

Not all read newspapers, of course; probably only a minority do. About 85 percent of newcomers are Mexicans; the others are mostly Central American. In Mexico, only 15 percent of families habitually read newspapers, and most immigrants to Dallas come from that country's lower economic and educational ranks.

Nor does anyone know how many of the Mexican-origin group is native-born and how many are immigrants. Suarez estimates that 30 to 35 percent of the Hispanic population is second- or third-generation, with little interest in reading a Spanish-language newspaper. "You can also subtract from the number of readers a certain higher-class immigrant Hispanic who may be assimilated and gets his news from the Dallas Morning News," he adds.

But the Silvas and the Gutierrezes, still active observers, contest that assessment. "When we first came, the Chicanos didn't want to read Spanish, or didn't know how to read Spanish. But in the years since, they have developed a great appreciation for their roots, and now they are reading Spanish in greater numbers," Sara Gutierrez insists.

"I even have Anglos who try to read our papers," Emmy Silva contends. "They don't know all of the words, but some of them try."

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