Stuck in Translation

Photo by Jenafer Gillingham

On a warm spring morning at the height of last year’s gubernatorial primary contests, Gray Davis, Jane Harmon, Al Checchi and Dan Lungren did something they’d never done before: fought for the Latino vote.

The three Democrats and lone Republican squirmed when asked about their positions on immigration, tripped over themselves pledging to improve public schools, and dipped into their not-so-recent past to find legislation they hoped would score points with Latino voters. It was the state’s first bilingual debate.

Standing just a few feet from the stage where reporters from the city’s Spanish-language media quizzed the candidates, a slender woman in a red blazer and blue skirt quietly smiled and shook hands with well-wishers. As associate publisher of La Opinión, Monica Lozano was basking in her stature as the sponsor of a precedent-setting event. But the moment was clouded by an unsettling showdown with the paper’s majority shareholder.

"I got a call 40 minutes before the debate from the people at the Los Angeles Times, and they said to me, ‘Monica, you’ve got 40 minutes to decide.’" Sitting in a 12th-floor office at a glass table next to her brother Jose, Lozano appears much younger than her 42 years. She speaks, however, with the candor and confidence of a seasoned public figure.

As Lozano recounts it, the caller from the Times informed her that the paper was planning to hold its own, separate debate, "‘and we’d like to say that a transcript will run in Spanish in our sister publication, La Opinión.’" Despite her steady composure, Lozano’s indignation is apparent. "When we went to ask them if we could participate in the planning, they said, ‘No, you can’t participate in the planning.’ We said, ‘Well, can we ask some questions?’ And they said no. We said, ‘Well, can we co-sponsor the event?’ And they said, ‘No, this is an L.A. Times event. You can take what we want to do and run it in your newspaper if you want.’ So at that point we just said no thanks."

The state’s Latino community is enjoying newfound political and economic power, and the Spanish-language media are surging as well: KMEX Channel 34’s newscasts consistently pull in top ratings, and KLVE 107.5 AM’s pop Spanish format garners leading numbers. But like its English-language print counterparts, La Opinión is struggling to keep pace. The granddaddy of America’s Spanish-language press suffers from a stodgy image, inroads by other media, and stagnant readership — circulation has remained stuck at 105,000 for more than six years. In addition, the paper must overcome a troubled relationship with its giant English-language partner.

And there’s no time to lose. The city’s immigrant population is rapidly assimilating and rapidly acquiring English, meaning that La Opinión is gradually losing its lock on a captive audience of as many as 2 million monolingual readers. As Latino L.A. comes of age, La Opinión must as well.

La Opinión rolled out its first edition on September 16, 1926, the brainchild of Ignacio E. Lozano Sr. Nearly 73 years later, the history of the paper remains in large part the story of the Lozano family.

Ignacio Lozano was one of the Mexican elite who fled their homeland at the first signs of revolution. He’d already tasted success in San Antonio, Texas, where in 1913 he founded La Prensa, a weekly paper. Two years later it became a daily, drawing a solid readership by publishing exiled conservative Mexican intellectuals. By the time he arrived in Los Angeles, Lozano understood that the city’s growing Mexican community was eager to learn of events back home. By the end of 1926, La Opinión was a full-size daily with a circulation of 9,000.

For the next two decades, Lozano continued publishing Spanish-language papers in two cities. But by 1948 he decided to turn the day-to-day management of La Opinión over to his son, Ignacio Lozano Jr., known to friends and employees as Nacho. Like his father, Nacho maintained the newspaper’s gray, conservative tone. And despite the wave of progressive politics that broke in the 1960s and 1970s, including the Chicano movement, the paper’s editorials seemed to ignore demands for social change. A Republican, Nacho moved the family to Lido Isle, a yachting enclave adjacent to Newport Beach, where he played golf, collected art, and sat on some of the state’s most prestigious corporate boards, including Disney and the Bank of America. Avuncular, with a round face and wire-rim glasses, Nacho eventually left the newspaper in 1976 to serve as the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador.

By 1975, a third generation of Lozanos took the helm at La Opinión, led by Leticia Lozano, who worked as co-publisher and editor for nearly a decade until she married and moved to Italy. When younger brother Jose was appointed co-publisher in 1976, the pair faced a problem: The paper’s circulation was stuck at under 20,000. Convinced they needed to shake up a complacent newsroom, the Lozanos turned to Armando Guerra, a Mexican journalist who left Mexico City after the 1968 student uprising. Guerra worked briefly at La Opinión, then left the paper to join a new Spanish-language television station, KMEX.


He returned to the paper to edit a special 50th edition in 1975, and stayed on as managing editor. "When I got to the newspaper, things were slow," says Guerra, who now runs a small newspaper in Bell Gardens. "We had a guy who would go around 4 p.m. to a local newsstand and buy the paper from Mexico. He’d bring it back, and that’s where we’d get our coverage of Mexico." Convinced that readers would respond to stronger coverage, Guerra hired new reporters to write local stories and traveled to Mexico to negotiate terms with NOTIMEX, an authoritative Mexican wire service.

Under Guerra, the newspaper grew dramatically. During his five-year tenure, the paper’s circulation more than doubled, and the number of pages increased from 14 to more than 40, but Nacho chafed at Guerra’s innovations, and by 1981 their tumultuous relationship became too strained. According to Guerra, the Lozanos’ conservative streak — Nacho insisted that the paper endorse Pete Wilson in his race for the U.S. Senate — coupled with their lack of vision for the newspaper, eventually drove him to resign. "For as long as I can remember, La Opinión was a paper without an opinion," Guerra says now. "I wanted to move it in the direction of having a perspective, a sense of the community."

Guerra’s departure coincided with new stresses that were beginning to emerge in the newsroom, as reporters campaigned for a union. "We earned next to nothing," says Ofelia de la Torre, who left La Opinión in 1986 for a job at Telemundo Channel 52. "You have to understand: Latinos are very faithful workers, and to go against the hand that feeds you is very troubling, so things must have been really bad for us to do that."

Among those leading the organizing effort was Beatriz Johnston Hernandez, a reporter Guerra had hired. When the campaign failed by a narrow margin, Hernandez was fired. In protest she began a weeklong hunger strike outside the newspaper’s Main Street office. "It was an issue of respect," says Hernandez, who went on to become a correspondent for Processo, a Mexican newsmagazine, and currently works as an organizer with the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union in San Francisco.

De la Torre says that after Guerra left, the paper reverted to Nacho’s conservative thinking. "I think what happened was there was a shift at La Opinión. The paper went from looking at some immigrant issues to middle-class issues. The paper became a mirror of the Lozanos."

"We felt bad for Don Ignacio, because he was a nice man, but the kids weren’t really interested in running the paper properly," says de la Torre. Other reporters from the time concurred but asked not to be identified.

That’s when Monica Lozano arrived on the scene. Nacho’s youngest daughter had spent the previous 10 years living in San Francisco, working at a graphic-arts company. Her arrival seemed to quell the newsroom unrest and marked a new era at the paper.

"She seemed to really want to listen to people for a change," says one former reporter who declined to be identified. "She seemed very down-to-earth, very idealistic, very liberal next to her siblings and father."

She was put to work immediately, and reporters in the newsroom recall her being open and approachable. For her part, Monica describes the early days as a time when she worked on special supplements and began reaching out to community groups such as the Central American Resource Center and the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, relationships that would later become crucial to the newspaper’s role in the immigration debate. She seemed to be everywhere, attending community events sponsored by the Watts Century Latino Organization one evening, meeting with emerging Latino elected officials the next day.

Her energy and effort were reflected in the paper’s circulation, which continued its dramatic rise, from 25,000 in 1980 to 100,000 10 years later.

In 1986, Nacho made his semiretirement official, turning the title of publisher over to Jose Lozano. Jose had grown up around the newspaper, working most summers in the paper’s printing plant. A tall, athletic man who loved the beach, he moved briefly to Monterey, but by the time he assumed the role of publisher, he was a familiar face to everyone. Still, despite Jose’s title, most staffers say it was his sister who really understood the family business.

With Monica as managing editor and then as associate publisher, things appeared to stabilize. A union was finally brought in to represent some of the printers, although a second attempt to organize the editorial staff failed, and reporters remained poorly paid. Many of the senior reporters began leaving for more lucrative jobs on the emerging Spanish-language television newscasts, where some, including Martin Plascencia and Rosa Maria Villalpando, enjoy successful careers.


The 1990s brought a fresh infusion of cash and a new set of problems for what had become the nation’s leading Spanish-language paper. In 1990 La Opinión moved its offices downtown to a new building on West Fifth Street, and the Lozanos agreed to sell a 50 percent share of the newspaper to Times Mirror, corporate parent of the L.A. Times.

"I can still remember the day they came down to tell us they’d sold half of it to the Times," says one reporter, who declined to be identified. "We just stood there in silence. We were already demoralized, and I just think at that point we couldn’t even muster up the energy to ask why they would do such a thing."

The answer was simple: money. The Lozanos needed funds to improve the newspaper, and Times Mirror was willing to provide it. "At the time we were planning to increase our press capacity and production capacity, and the partnership offered us an infusion of capital," says Monica Lozano. "The partnership allowed us to go on with some expansion plans."

Both La Opinión and Times Mirror decline to disclose the terms of the sale, including the price, but it didn’t take long for the relationship to sour.

By 1991 La Opinión posted a loss for the first time in the paper’s history. Its very success was part of the problem: In 1992, when it launched zoned editions in the San Fernando Valley and Orange County, the paper’s circulation was just over 100,000, meaning substantially higher production costs, especially at a time when the price of newsprint was spiking.

In 1993 the Times enraged its new sister publication by revamping Nuestro Tiempo, a monthly, bilingual supplement, as a bright, entertainment-oriented weekly. New staff were hired, headed by editor Sergio Munoz, a former editor at La Opinión. One of the first major new advertisers at Nuestro Tiempo was Circuit City, until then a mainstay for La Opinión. Spanish-speaking L.A. was convinced that the Times was trying to sink La Opinión.

Jose Lozano reacted sharply. "We were taken by surprise by Nuestro Tiempo, and there was a sense of betrayal," Lozano told the Los Angeles Business Journal in an interview that year. "But those feelings are being harnessed now. We have survived every other competitor, and I’ll be damned if we don’t survive this."

The Lozanos compounded their problems with some dubious decisions of their own. The paper’s managers moved in 1995 to abandon home-delivery service, giving up the sort of steady, home-owning readers many advertisers consider crucial. "We made the decision at a point at which the cost of newsprint had increased by 40 percent, therefore driving up the costs significantly," Monica Lozano explains now. "So we essentially decided that distribution needed to be cut, and we deleted unprofitable areas. [Home delivery] was costing us more than what we were generating in revenues." The paper also closed down its delivery to 2,000 retail outlets.

The Lozanos may also have believed that the Times would bail them out by including the paper in its own distribution network. "It was on the list of things we were interested in doing when we went into the partnership with Times Mirror," says Monica Lozano. Jose adds that a series of direct appeals to their partners were flatly rebuffed. "Over the years, as we have developed strategies and presented ideas and plans to them, they get shelved if they get anywhere." Whoever shoulders the blame, La Opinión has not managed to resume home delivery.

While circulation remained stagnant, Monica’s impact on the culture of the paper became more pronounced. If, at its inception, La Opinión was identified with Ignacio Lozano Sr.’s politics, by 1994 it had moved to the other side of the political spectrum, and it was Monica Lozano’s more progressive views that were reflected on its pages.

"We don’t like the cult of the personality, but it’s unmistakable that [La Opinión] has wound up being Monica," says Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State Los Angeles. "Inevitably, when you think of the paper, you think of her."

Already a familiar face to Latinos, politicians and Democrats, Monica Lozano emerged as a public figure during the fight over Proposition 187. From the start, she understood the implications of Pete Wilson’s decision to stake his re-election on blaming immigrants for the state’s economic woes. And from the beginning, La Opinión took a strong stand against him, running stories of how different segments of the community might be impacted and on the fear 187 was generating. But Monica also put a personal stamp on her opposition, reducing ad rates to solicit money for anti–Prop. 187 groups, helping host a fund-raiser for Taxpayers Against 187, and donating $5,000 of her own money.


Monica Lozano explains it as part of the paper’s educational function, a role that emerged in 1986 when the newspaper published numerous special supplements on the debate over immigration reform. "All of this goes back more than 10 years, when we were probably one of the most important information outlets during the whole IRCA [the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act] amnesty process," says Lozano. "We followed that closer than any other media outlet."

The shift in tone has caught the attention of the state’s political leadership. "Everybody knows that if you want to reach Latinos, you go to La Opinión," says Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. "Just look at how all the candidates met with their editorial board before the elections."

And yet the paper continues to face flat-line circulation, a problem its managers can attribute only in part to their partners at Times Mirror. Last fall, the two papers struck a deal, and on November 1 they combined to launch a pilot home-delivery program in Santa Ana. While Times executives refused to comment, the Lozanos describe the deal as "very promising," adding that they have "great hopes for moving it into the Los Angeles area." They are less forthcoming, however, when asked why the program was not implemented in Los Angeles. Part of the answer may be that the Times hopes to answer Excelsior, a free Spanish-language weekly published by the Orange County Register since 1992, which subscribers can opt to receive along with their Friday Register.

It’s an experiment the Lozanos can only hope gets transplanted to L.A. soon. As Latinos continue to move to outlying communities surrounding Los Angeles, La Opinión’s reliance on newsstand sales will become an increasing liability. "We have a problem with circulation," Jose Lozano says with apparent frustration.

While business relations seem to have entered a new era of détente, the Times’ interest in the Spanish-speaking market has only increased.

Last year, then–Times publisher Mark Willes announced that the newspaper would launch a "Latino initiative" built around a team of reporters who would focus on Latino business, entertainment and politics. That same year, the Times published a bilingual voter-education supplement, which was promoted on KMEX newscasts, and the paper is currently exploring ways to expand on that relationship, according to a spokeswoman for the station.

"That, to us, was a very clear signal that they were not only going to pursue an increased Latino readership, but that they were going after Spanish-language readers," Monica Lozano says warily. "They were going after our readers."

There’s little question as to Willes’ reasoning: Latino buying power is growing. A 1998 study by the Strategy Research Corp. found that in Los Angeles and surrounding counties, an estimated 6.3 million Latinos were spending an estimated $57 billion annually. And in publishing, Los Angeles jumped out as the fastest-growing market, according to Kirk Whisler, author and co-publisher of the National Hispanic Media Directory in Carlsbad. Whisler says that in 1997 advertisers spent more than $68 million just in Los Angeles County.

While La Opinión continues to offer more comprehensive coverage of Latino education, politics and immigration issues, the competition is catching up. And while most of the paper’s readers prefer it because it publishes in Spanish, even that glaring advantage is beginning to erode. "Up until recently the Spanish-language media had it easy because of the language issue," says David Hayes Bautista, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health at UCLA’s School of Medicine. "But as immigrants learn English and become functionally bilingual, then there is a change of language patterns.

"The next generation of Mexicans and Latinos is bilingual," Hayes Bautista continues. "They don’t call themselves bilingual, they just have that choice. So the media, both in English and in Spanish, is going to have to compete on content. The battle will be over content, not simply language."

So: Can La Opinión compete in the content wars?

At least for the time being, activists and political analysts say La Opinión still covers Latino stories and understands the community better than any other newspaper in the city. The day INS was scheduled to resume the deportations of 60 Guatemalans whose removal was stayed temporarily because of Hurricane Mitch, for example, La Opinión ran a banner headline, while most English-language news outlets ignored it.

But La Opinión has yet to achieve the same stature that the Times has in English-speaking L.A. Part of the problem may be the newspaper’s small staff. While the paper covers immigration and education, it retains the dull, distant tone of wire-service copy and rarely produces stories that impact the life of its community. The Lozanos admit they could be doing more. "We acknowledge the limitation of our coverage," says Monica Lozano. "We’re underinvested in the editorial staff and need to make a commitment to bodies."


La Opinión’s strong suit continues to be its focus on Latin America. Although this coverage is culled primarily from wire reports, the newspaper carries more articles on the region than any other outlet.

Its sports section is also a magnet. It provided several supplements during the World Cup and even sent three reporters to cover the event — an extravagant expense for a newspaper that says it lacks the funds to maintain its editorial staff. La Opinión is also seeking to keep pace with other media. In March it launched a new public-affairs show with KMEX; it also provides newsroom broadcasts for the morning show at the Spanish-language talk station Radio Unica 1580 AM.

Hayes Bautista believes that La Opinión remains secure in its niche, if only by virtue of momentum. "Both newspapers have to deal with the changes. The L.A. Times will try. But I think of La Opinión as more of a gazelle that will be able to leap more gracefully. They have a better understanding of the Latino population. And so for them it’s more of a natural progression."

And that is something that makes Monica Lozano laugh. "Yes, we are moving down the road," she says, having just returned from accompanying Governor Gray Davis on his visit to Mexico. "Are we doing everything we can? I don’t think we are. We need to figure out ways to extend our reach so our newspaper doesn’t become a second thought."

Yet while influential L.A. Latinos praise Monica Lozano as well-qualified to build bridges to bilingual readers, there are those who wonder if the new generation at La Opinión is ready to do the sort of journalism that can keep the paper a relevant force in the lives of its readers.

"Nacho always said he wanted La Opinión to be just like the L.A. Times, but in Spanish," says former editor Armando Guerra. "Well, he may have finally gotten it."


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