Born of El Sol

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

Today, seven Spanish-language newsweeklies hit the newsstands at almost the same time, but head-to-head competition barely exists among them. They do not differ in format--all the newspapers are broadsheet, not tabloid size--or greatly in content, though some usually publish two sections, others, only one. All but La Prensa and La Tribuna have become four-color affairs.

Most of the papers rely heavily on wire services for their copy, despite having staffs. This reliance has odd consequences at times: El Sol's use of The New York Times' Spanish-language service recently resulted in a story about Big Apple homelessness running on the Dallas paper's front page. El Extra frequently runs Dallas stories provided not by its reporters but by Notimex, the government-owned Mexican news agency.

But if the newspapers differ, it's largely by location. Their offices are scattered, like the Hispanic population, across the city's map. London has its Fleet Street, and many of Mexico City's dailies congregate along Reforma Avenue, but the Hispanic press hasn't created any Journalism Row in Dallas.

The Spanish-language weeklies in Dallas are unlike Mexico City's biggest dailies in other respects, as well. All seven practice what might be called high-brow or civic journalism. None takes its editorial cues from the passionate corridos that play on the city's half-dozen Spanish-language radio stations, or from the slant of the bygone English-language afternoon dailies: making sports and crime the banner stories. None is enamored of Mexico's government, or of its opposition--their Mexico coverage is uniformly lukewarm and reserved.

Elections, wars, and disasters account for most foreign reportage; elections, public meetings, and protest demonstration stand in the fore of local coverage. "We have to teach our people a civic consciousness," explains Tribuna editor Gomez. "Most Hispanics who come to this country don't have any interest in political participation. We have to encourage them to become citizens and to learn the mechanisms of politics."

In last year's hotly contested Texas House of Representatives race between Roberto Alonzo and Domingo Garcia, he adds, the seven publishers mostly leaned toward incumbent Alonzo. U.S. Senate candidate Victor Morales was a natural favorite. But because most of their readership doesn't vote, the Hispanic publishers aren't kingmakers, and political advertising is not a mainstay of their trade.

Nothing in the American business tradition, perhaps, explains the run-with-the-pack mentality of the seven weeklies, but La Tribuna's Gomez thinks he understands. "Our people aren't happy to live with one newspaper," he observes. "In Guadalajara, there are 11 newspapers; in Monterrey, about 20; in Mexico City, more than 40. In our countries, when readers go to the newsstands, they buy not one paper, but two or three."

The editorial approach of the seven papers rests on two somewhat contradictory notions. The newspapers try to inform immigrants about the many-faceted process of assimilation. But at the same time, they try to encourage the preservation of Hispanic culture.

They also try to hold together the sometimes hostile elements for whom Spanish is a common language.

Talk about these goals, however, quickly leads to confusion, resentment, and more confusion. The problem begins with the word "Hispanic," which is rarely used by Spanish-speakers to refer to anyone they know. "Hispanic" is a one-size-fits-all term whose main virtue is commercial: El Hispano News, or Hispanic News, the Suarez weekly, attempts to stake a broad claim on the market by putting the word in its name.

"I have learned here at the newspaper to use the word 'Hispanic,' but whenever we discuss terms, it leads us into dialectical discussions," shrugs El Sol publisher Santillan.

Inside the "Hispanic community" and its press, nationality terms are far more relevant. In daily conversation, no one refers to "that Hispanic." The references, instead, are to "that Mexican," "that Cuban," or "that Salvadoran." Grocers stock merchandise not so much for Hispanics as for Mexicans or Hondurans or Cubans.

But American-born Hispanics present problems that nationality designations don't solve. During the 1980s, most organizations that would have formerly called themselves Chicano--a term that probably comes from the Aztec pronunciation of the Spanish word "mexicano"--adopted the label Mexican-American instead. That label, however zealously its proponents defend it, is used only in political and bureaucratic affairs. It isn't used in the Hispanic press.

The terminology differences reflect something deeper: ill-will within the Hispanic community, differences among its nationality strands. El Hispano reporter Fernando Zapata, a Mexican, commented on one face of this rivalry in a recent column.

"Mexicans and Chicanos of the United States note differences among themselves," he wrote. "One cannot confuse them with being from the other group, because people will get offended...the Chicanos scorn the immigrants for being newcomers. And the Mexicans make fun of the Chicanos for not knowing how to speak Spanish well...While we come to agreement about which of our peoples is 'better' or 'worse,' and who merits more than the other, outside of our ranks they discriminate against all of us."

The city's Hispanic publishers agree that they must encourage assimilation--but they don't agree about the essential nature of the experience. At one pole are the opinions of Jesse and Sara Gutierrez. "For most of us, immigration is tragic," Sara declares. "People who come to this country are exploited and humiliated, and who doesn't lose their family here?" In their retirements, Jesse Gutierrez says, both he and Sara have begun to think of returning south of the border. "I don't want to die here," he says.

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