Born of El Sol

One afternoon in the fall of 1985, three disgruntled employees gathered for lunch at the Luby's Cafeteria at Interstate 635 and Midway Road. They didn't know it, but their meeting would be one of the more portentous in the history of Hispanic Dallas, signaling a new course for the city's Hispanic press.

The trio was a microcosm of whatever the word "Hispanic" means. One, petite Emmy Silva, was an immigrant from Mexico. The second was her husband, bronze-skinned, laid-back Juan, who came from Guatemala City. The third was Marcos Nelson Suarez, a 35-year-old white Cuban, high-strung like a caged panther. All three worked at El Sol de Texas, the city's first Spanish-language newspaper.

Emmy had been the publisher's secretary and bookkeeper for nearly 17 years. Juan, a carpenter, had taken a job as El Sol's assistant pressman 15 years earlier, then shifted into advertising sales. "I did everything, at one time or another, even washed the windows," he recalls. Emmy had been in the United States since her teens; Juan, 37, had come more than 20 years earlier. They married, began a family, and became accustomed to American life.

Suarez, on the other hand, was a relative newcomer to both the United States and the newspaper trade. He was a "Marielito," one of the Cubans who arrived in Miami during the 1980 boatlift from the port of Mariel. The Marielitos stood out among other Cuban exiles like a sore thumb. Some were former mental patients. Others, criminals who'd been steeled and wizened by Cuba's severe penal regimes, committed new crimes and became the nightmare of American wardens. But some, like Suarez, who was first confined at the age of 16, had been imprisoned for purely political offenses. Though he says that "in Cuba there is no efficiency," when Suarez wasn't in jail, he worked as an efficiency expert--an unpopular job anywhere. Suarez, a reporter at El Sol, was used to going against the grain.

Meeting over lunch, the three shared their discontent. Working at El Sol wasn't the same anymore, they all agreed. Almost everyone on the staff, which at times numbered 22 employees, had always grumbled that the weekly didn't pay handsomely. But the paper had recently been sold, and things were getting even worse.

A new business manager had been brought to the paper from Guadalajara and lost no time in making his mark. "He told me, right off, that he was going to take 5 percent of my commissions for himself," Juan Silva says.

"I told him that I paid for my own gasoline and drove my own car, and that I paid for my own medical insurance. 'Everything I make, I make myself,' I told him. 'I have a family now, and if you take money that I earn myself, that's theft. Why do you want to steal from me?' I asked him. He said, 'Because you're earning too much.'"

Juan Silva tolerated the imposition, which ended when the new manager was replaced by one not much better. But he was growing frustrated with El Sol. Emmy Silva was already thinking about quitting, and Suarez was on the verge, too. But all three felt that merely quitting was not enough. "Somebody should start a competing newspaper," Suarez declared.

Six months earlier, everyone at El Sol, including the three people sitting at the Luby's table, would have rolled their eyes at the suggestion, for business as well as heartfelt reasons. El Sol wasn't just an employer; it was an institution. Working there wasn't just a job; it was part of a cause. The paper attracted people who understood its gadfly--almost provisional--position on the Dallas scene. Feeling like members of a besieged family, they had put up with the low pay and other troubles of working at El Sol.

But the luncheon conversation served as one of the first acknowledgments that times were changing, that loyalties to the paper were under strain. El Sol's hold on its workers--and the Spanish-language newspaper market in Dallas--was slipping away.

Worker loyalty is what helped El Sol de Texas slowly build itself into the city's dominant Spanish-language paper. The objects of that loyalty were Jesus "Jesse" Gutierrez, the paper's publisher, and his wife, Sara--affectionately known as Sarita--the paper's editor.

Jesse was a Mexican from Torreon, educated at the National Autonomous University. He'd come to the United States in the late 1940s as a city desk reporter for La Prensa, the Spanish-language daily that, until World War II, outsold all other newspapers in San Antonio.

"When I came to the United States, I came legally," Gutierrez recalls. "I came in at Eagle Pass, started the paperwork for residency at 10 o'clock in the morning, and by 3 o'clock that afternoon, I had my green card in hand. But this was 50 years ago, when immigration was much easier."

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Dick J. Reavis