Shades of Brown 

The L.A. Times’ Latino problem

Wednesday, Dec 20 2006

Agustin Gurza, a Los Angeles Times staffwriter who covers Latino music and culture, was in the paper’s ground-floor cafeteria last July when he heard the young, mostly Mexican and Central American workers behind a lunch counter chatting away about an item in that day’s edition. Reventon Super Estrella, a multiband bill of several Mexican acts hosted by the Spanish-language radio station Super Estrella (107.1), had been written up as a Hot Ticket in the Calendar Weekend section. At first, Gurza saw it as a good sign that the editors had previewed a Latin music concert without his usual prodding. But his contentment was short-lived. The cafeteria kids were actually laughing about the paper misidentifying the item’s accompanying photo of singer Paulina Rubio as Thalia, another huge Latin pop star — and a Rubio rival. Not only that, Rubio wasn’t even appearing at the Super Estrella event. The workers told Gurza how the hosts of the Spanish-language TV program El Gordo y la Flaca were making fun of the paper for the error. Think of misidentifying Britney Spears as Christina Aguilera.

“That’s like the worst mistake you can make, right?” Gurza recalls. “It was a mini­scandal on Latino media . . . I think the problem was the wire photo — the wire service had misidentified the photo. But the point is, no one in the paper knew any different.”

Newspapers make mistakes all the time, but the message behind the kids’ mocking was that the L.A. Times still stumbles when it tries to cover Latino-specific stories in a city that gets browner and younger every day. Latinos in Los Angeles, Mexican-Americans in particular, are fast filling the upper ranks in politics, capital, entertainment and the law. Latin American immigrants routinely push Spanish-language programming in television and radio to the top of the ratings. Their children make up the largest demographic chunk in the city’s public-school system by far. But despite instances of excellent journalism on Latino issues in the Times — including first-rate coverage of Mexico from its foreign desk — there is the overwhelming sense that the country’s largest metropolitan daily has yet to effectively cover and address the Mexican-Americans and other Latinos in its own backyard.

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“This goes back for 30 years,” says Antonia Hernandez, former general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), who has met periodically with several Times publishers and editors to discuss Latino coverage. “As our community has grown bigger and bigger and evolved into a more complex and sophisticated community, you still get the same stereotypes and images.”

Just last month, David Hiller, the latest Tribune Co. publisher dispatched from Chicago to run the newspaper, sparked a hubbub when he came to the conclusion, after arriving here in October, that to survive, the Los Angeles Times had to go “local” and “Hispanic.”

“There is widespread agreement we need a stronger overall Hispanic strategy,” Hiller wrote in the November 6 memo that was leaked to the blog LA Observed. “This will require that we resolve the future direction for Hoy [the Spanish-language Tribune paper introduced in 2004] . . . as well as better defining our strategy in the Times for reaching the English-speaking Hispanic audience.”

The dowdy naiveté and retrograde language of Hiller’s note drew disbelieving laughter and outrage from people across the city.

“My initial reaction was, ‘Okay, you’re just getting this now? You’re just starting to realize this now? Hello?’ ” says Rosa Maria Santana, West Coast director of the Parity Project at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, which advocates for newsroom diversity. “It’s like, no, we were supposed to be beyond this now. It’s mind-boggling, and also very discouraging.”

Of course the Times isn’t just now getting around to thinking about its Latino readers. It’s tried Spanish-language inserts, special sections and, most recently, a controversial effort called the Latino Initiative. But these periodic attempts to address the issue have largely failed because Latinos by and large are still viewed in the Times’ overall narrative as a monolithic subgroup instead of separate communities of Salvadorans, Mexican-Americans, Afro-Cubans, Japanese-Peruvians and so on, each with their own accomplishments, issues and divisions. Which has led to a glaring irony: Corporate initiatives designed to reach Latinos have only alienated and marginalized them, both inside and outside the paper.

Consider the scene in the Times’ downtown newsroom on November 2, 1999. It was a routine Tuesday afternoon, just after 4 p.m. On such days, the place is abuzz with the quiet intensity of journalists tapping away on keyboards to meet the evening deadline. That Tuesday, a reporter, using the paper’s internal-messaging system, typed a quick note to her colleagues: “am i the only one being driven crazy by this paper’s tendency to use the words ‘latino’ ‘mexican’ and ‘spanish-speaking’ interchangeably?

Her words sparked a flurry of responses on a message loop labeled “Latino,” created so that editors and reporters working Latino-related beats could keep in constant communication. Many of the staffers were Mexican, Cuban and Guatemalan. They were part of the paper’s Latino Initiative, which was in full swing at the time.

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