Born of El Sol

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

Accurate local studies and statistics on the readership of the Hispanic press are few and far between. Rogelio Santillan, the 32-year-old Mexican who is now publisher of El Sol, cites a study by a California firm. "Our newspaper is read by 2.8 percent of the Hispanic population," he says. "Our typical reader is a male between 18 and 48, with a high percentage--about 23.4 percent--in their late thirties, about 38 years old.

"The younger immigrant puts off reading because he's so busy trying to adapt to life in this country," he explains.

The general picture is of a blue-collar and somewhat occasional readership, motivated to pick up newspapers, perhaps, more by their advertisements than by their content. Typically, Mexican immigrants arrive with no resources but family connections. As they establish themselves, they become consumers, if only of basic items, like groceries and used cars.

"They need a newspaper as a guide to life in this country," Suarez maintains. In time, they rent places of their own and ultimately purchase houses. They become increasingly similar in their habits to working-class consumers born in the United States, but always with a twist: Few Mexicans leave traditional dietary and musical tastes behind, and few turn their back on the country's herbalist medical tradition.

Most of the Dallas weeklies are rife with ads from used car lots and auto agencies, from dentists and real estate agents, from grocery stores that import Mexican food items, from bakeries that prepare distinctly Mexican cookies and cakes. Chiropractors and clinics that treat on-the-job injuries find clients among the newspapers' blue-collar readership, as do lawyers who handle personal injury and accident lawsuits. The dozen bus lines that run shuttle trips to cities and towns in northern Mexico are big advertisers, as are radio and television stations that appeal to Mexican audiences.

If you want to find a curandera or herbalist to cure your ills--"Genuine Cat's Claw," "Margarita the Gypsy," the ads proclaim--or hire a mariachi group to sing birthday greetings, the classified ads are the place to turn. The help-wanted listings are fat with appeals for housekeepers, cooks, and bricklayers. Two of the newspapers run special insert sections: one devoted to sports, the other to nightclub, dance hall, and concert attractions.

"Here in Dallas, I feel like I'm living in a city from one of Mexico's northern provinces," publisher Santillan says--and one of the reasons is that the weeklies, through their advertisements, offer the means to duplicate much of Mexican life.

The commercial success of El Sol de Texas and its two spin-offs did not go unnoticed by others in the trade. Quite the contrary. In 1987, Enrique Gomez--a trained and seasoned Mexican journalist who had been a new-regime editor at El Sol--founded another weekly, La Prensa, with a partner. Gómez launched his paper despite his respect for competitor Suarez, whom he calls "the best reporter I ever had." Another new weekly, Novedades, was only months behind. Both newspapers survived, but Gomez grew tired of the effort and, like Guadalupe Duarte, returned to El Sol.

In 1992, Antonio Torres, who had been a dentist in Mexico, quit writing sports articles for El Hispano. The reasons for his departure are controversial--he says that Suarez "believes that Mexicans are a bunch of drunks who don't know how to read," but on one point, people from both publications agree: Torres was not paid for his reporting. He was one of those contributors--who even today may write as much as a third of the copy published in the weeklies--who worked on a voluntary basis. Torres--who studied journalism with a widely published Mexican columnist calling himself Caton, or Cato--founded El Heraldo News, a weekly that soon distinguished itself in editorial contests. His own column, full of political observations and gossip, became widely read. But El Heraldo had not been on the newsstands long when, in 1993, Enrique Gomez left El Sol again, to establish Cambio 2000, a newspaper he edits today under a new name, La Tribuna.

Specialty publications joined the flood. In 1988, auto dealer Ray Lozano Sr. founded the bilingual Auto Revista, a tabloid aimed strictly at car buyers. Jesse Gutierrez came out of journalistic retirement to christen Mira TV, a television guide, then sold it to the first in a series of owners. It is now owned by Oak Cliff's Amador Insurance Agency. La Subasta, a Spanish-language equivalent of the Greensheet, a tabloid devoted entirely to classified ads, began appearing on newsracks in 1993. Even the Dallas Morning News got into the act with the bilingual--but mostly English-language--weekly La Fuente, a tabloid of fluff features, originally delivered as an insert, but now sent to subscribers, free for the asking, by mail.

In the great commercial rush that followed the Silva-Suarez break from El Sol, Dallas publications even spilled over into Fort Worth, whose smaller Hispanic community now supports three weeklies of its own, including La Estrella, a Fort Worth Star-Telegram insert that last month, like all the others, began free distribution from newsracks.

The Hispanic press has also begun expanding beyond just newspapers. Last year, Suarez and a partner launched a television station independent of the two Spanish-language networks. The station is not available by cable, and its signal is weak, but thus far, the upstart remains on the air. In launching Channel 19, the mercurial Cuban's enterprise became the first from the Hispanic press to have an interest in both the electronic and print media.

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