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L.A.'s Latinos to the Chandlers: Que se Vayan...

The Times: The soon-to-be former owners of this paper never won the hearts of the city's newest majority.

March 19, 2000|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is an associate editor of The Times and a regular columnist

Like many other Chicanos who grew up here, I've never considered the Chandler family, owners of the Los Angeles Times, to be the paragons of civic leadership that some other Angelenos do.

I know all too well the sometimes ugly history of their newspaper, and have tried never to forget it even as that same newspaper treated me as well as any journalist could ask.

Until she died, my dear mother would never subscribe to The Times--even as her son prospered here. "Tell me when you write something, mijo," she'd say. "I'll buy it at the store."

Like many other Latinos of her generation, she never forgot the yellow-journalism campaign this newspaper and Hearst's now-defunct Los Angeles papers waged against "zoot suiters" in the 1940s. Minority youngsters wore the outlandish clothes to flaunt their differences, but the local press helped turn that term into an anti-Mexican pejorative. In the process it also helped spawn the Zoot Suit Riots of 1944.

Granted, in those days The Times may not have been much different from many other papers and institutions in this country, but the alienation was nonetheless strongly felt in Pacoima, where I grew up, on the Eastside, and in other local barrios.

I know better than most Latinos just how much The Times has changed since then.

During the early part of my career I was mentored by one of the finest journalists to ever work here, Ruben Salazar. His Times' columns about the Chicano movement remain some of the best, and most prescient, journalism written about Latinos in this country. I also know some of his Times colleagues detested Salazar's work. And that he felt much more fulfilled when he left here to work at KMEX-TV, the precursor of today's Univision network.

And for the past couple of years most of my time has been taken up helping The Times do a better job of covering Latinos as they steadily emerge as this region's majority.

A generation ago, Mexican Americans and other persons of Latin American extraction were just another minority in this city. Now demographers expect next month's Census to confirm that Latinos are not just the region's largest ethnic group, but possibly a bit more than 50% of the population in the five-county Los Angeles region.

Almost two years ago, Times' Editor Michael Parks and then-Publisher Mark Willes put me in charge of what we call the "Latino Initiative," an effort to ensure our newspaper covers this dramatic demographic shift in a more consistent, careful and constructive manner.

As Parks and I put it in an internal memo to The Times' staff in October 1998, it is time to stop thinking about Latinos as "them" and to start thinking about Latinos as "us."

We now try to cover Los Angeles accordingly, with reporters working in all sections of the newspaper covering myriad stories that focus on the presence and significance of Latinos in all aspects of everyday life. We also focus more on Latin America in foreign coverage, and have forged a closer working relationship with our sister newspaper, La Opinion, which has become the best Spanish-language daily in the country under the leadership of the Lozano family--who, by the way, could teach the current generation of Chandlers a lot about dedication to quality journalism and to Los Angeles.

I won't pretend our Latino Initiative has been without flaws. We still miss good stories occasionally, and our Spanish is still rusty. We've also annoyed some longtime readers who complain about too many "Mexican" stories.

Actually there are not that many more Latino-oriented stories in The Times, according to University of Missouri researchers who have monitored our effort. But they say we are providing a more balanced picture of the Latino community than we used to. We don't just focus on illegal immigrants and gangbangers anymore. We report on the Latino workers who are L.A.'s blue-collar backbone. We write more about the small-business people and Latino students who are diligently working toward becoming this city's new middle class. And we even notice that some Latinos are wealthy, contribute to local cultural and civic affairs and actually use the Internet.

We've learned lessons here that could help other media cover rapidly growing Latino communities in their backyards, including the Chicago Tribune, its sister newspapers in Florida and far-flung television stations across the country.

In fact, like many a smaller city in the Midwest, Chicago has seen a dramatic growth in it's Latino population lately. I wonder how many of my new Tribune colleagues know that Chicago's Mexican-origin population has surpassed Houston's to become second-largest in the country after you-know-whose. So we have lots to discuss about covering large, growing and distinctly different Latino communities.

And as for the Chandlers: They won't be missed in the Latino community. Let them leave. Or, as folks say in the barrio: Que se vayan. . . .

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