Attempting to Bridge the Divide
‘Entering immigrant America on behalf of an English-language newspaper is, by definition, a cross-cultural experience.’
When I was an adolescent growing up in 1970's Los Angeles, I devoured the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner: more than anything, for their sports pages and the statistics contained therein. I clipped out box scores from L.A. Rams games and pasted them in a scrapbook. Occasional big news events merited the same treatment: For example, when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, I collected all of the afternoon "extras."
The idea that I might one day write for a newspaper never occurred to me or my Guatemalan immigrant parents. It wasn't in the realm of my experience, or that of my friends and neighbors in predominantly working-class and immigrant East Hollywood, that people became writers. Newspapers reported events that took place in Washington, D.C., in sports arenas, and on the moon. It wasn't until years later, when I started working at my hometown newspaper, that I grasped the idea that newspapers were supposed to mirror the daily life of the communities where they circulated.
In a certain sense, that segregation between news writers and news consumers lives on in the growing number of American communities where immigrants and other Spanish- or Spanglish-speaking people make up a sizeable chunk of the populace. American newspapers have, generally speaking, failed miserably to penetrate these places. When I started at the Los Angeles Times in the late 1980's, I learned that certain editors referred to the immigrant and "minority" heart of the city as "the hole in the donut." The Times was then pushing hard to increase circulation in the city's suburbs with twice-weekly supplements that covered local news in every corner of Los Angeles and Orange County — with the glaring exception of the neighborhoods directly adjacent to downtown.
Those communities didn't have large numbers of residents in the Times' preferred "demographic;" they were a readerless void as far as our marketing gurus were concerned. Over the years the Times' "hole in the donut" has appeared to grow larger. The other day a colleague of mine sat in on a front-page meeting at which one editor argued against putting a story about a proposed Los Angeles city ordinance "out front" because "We don't have that many readers in the city of Los Angeles anyway."
The Times' coverage of immigrant communities is like that of most other papers: It focuses on cultural conflict, on the "otherness" of the people who live there. The daily life and routine of these places, the specific aspirations of their residents, are often lost in the discourse that asks whether "these people" have a right to live among us Americans — when, in fact, the vast majority are legal residents of the United States. Yet there are important, history-defining stories about the Latino United States that can be found reported, but only sporadically, in American newspapers: for example, the explosion of Latino community institutions in nearly every corner of the country; the evolution of a rich, bicultural identity in which Latin American symbols are incorporated into American traditions; the gradual Latinization of working-class American culture.
Experiencing a Disconnect
In general, the diversity of the Latino and immigrant experience escapes American journalism due to the lack of diversity in the country's newsrooms. As late as 1998 an observer of the Los Angeles Times city desk would have noticed a somewhat disturbing fact: there was the only Latino reporter working dailies for the city desk, a guy called Héctor Tobar. Latinos then constituted almost 47 percent of the city's population (that is the figure the Census Bureau would arrive at two years later), and it seemed to me unconscionable that I would be the "sole representative of my people" at the city desk of its largest newspaper.
I used that phrase, spoken with equal measures of hurt and sarcasm, when I told my city editor that I was going to quit. I wouldn't stand for being a "token" one day longer. Ruben Salazar, the pioneer and martyr of Latino journalism in Los Angeles, who was killed by L.A. County sheriff's deputies in 1970, wouldn't stand for such a situation if he were still alive, I said. The city editor then was the veteran and much respected Bill Boyarsky. He talked me out of it: "I knew Ruben Salazar, and he wouldn't want you to quit." Things were going to improve quickly, he told me; Latino reinforcements were on the way. New blood did indeed arrive some months later for the short-lived "Latino project" overseen by the late Frank del Olmo.
Entering immigrant America on behalf of an English-language newspaper is, by definition, a cross-cultural experience. Smart editors know it helps to have people in their newsrooms who can jump back and forth between worlds: interview people in one language to report to people who speak another. Being good at it requires not just sharp linguistic skills, but also the ability to navigate the cultures.
Americans, generally speaking, prefer the direct and succinct approach: cutting to the chase and asking pointed questions is not necessarily frowned upon. Latin Americans, generally speaking, prefer indirectness and deference: It will take you a while to get around to questions such as "Did you abscond with the funds, Mr. Mayor?" First you must establish the respect you have for the mayor and his position, even if there is an angry mob outside demanding his head. You address the interviewee with the appropriate title if he or she has one: licenciado, doctor, ingeniero. The guy picking through the garbage in the alley gets a title too: the all-purpose "jefe." You start off most conversations with the formal third-person "usted" but switch to the informal "tœ" at the appropriate moment. If you walk into an interviewee's home and he or she offers you a cup of coffee or invites you to sit down for a meal, you never say no.
When you finish your interview and return to the newsroom, you step back across the cultural divide into corporate America. Your stories circulate in English, and you can't say with any certainty that the people you've interviewed and written about will know their tales are in the newspaper. Some years back, I traveled to a neighborhood south of downtown Los Angeles to report on a gang war that had claimed more than a dozen lives. The police were having trouble solving these killings because no witnesses would step forward, despite the fact that several of the shootings had taken place before large crowds of onlookers. I interviewed the father of one victim, whose teenage son had been killed about half a block from his front door. This man spoke English, but was more comfortable in Spanish. He made a startling admission to me: He had sought out his son's killers and had tracked them down to a nearby Mexican neighborhood, though he was at a loss about what he should do next.
I put all this in the story, protecting his anonymity, describing him as an unnamed "relative." The story was on the front of the Times' Metro section, and the name of the teenage victim was featured in the lead of the story. I called the father a week later to see if he had heard of any arrests in the case and discovered he wasn't aware the story had been published. The newspaper circulated in his neighborhood — I could see it in newspaper racks near the bus stops — but neither he nor any of his neighbors or relatives knew of the story's existence. So large was the cultural gap between my newspaper and this neighborhood in the heart of working-class Los Angeles, a place akin to a Brooklyn or Queens, that our seemingly all-powerful newspaper carried no weight there.
This is the dilemma of the reporter who ventures into places where Spanish and Spanglish are spoken. Your readers and your subjects may think they inhabit parallel universes, but you know they live in the same country, separated by stretches of freeway and a zip code or two. You write in the hope that one day they will both read your words and that both will see their city and nation reflected in them.
Héctor Tobar is the Mexico City bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times and, most recently, the author of "Translation Nation: Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States."