Si se puede, making a difference: El Tecolote turns 40

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After a 1986 UFW boycott press conference in the paper's office, Cesar Chavez hoists an issue of El Tecolote
Photo courtesy of El Tecolote archives

It was with relish that I awaited my interviews with El Tecolote's managing editor, Roberto Daza, and its founding editor Juan Gonzales on a homey couch in the paper's modest office on 24th Street. Being a community journalist, it isn't every day that you are able to check out the digs of another community newspaper – particularly one with as storied a history as the Mission's bilingual go-to for news on social issues that affect the historically Latino and working class neighborhood. El Tecolote is celebrating forty years of activist journalism this month, kicking off with an opening reception tonight (Wed/11) at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts of an exhibit featuring their extensive photo archives. 

I'm stoked to be there, so I chill and savor the feeling that good work is being done around me. Reporter-advertising manager Francisco Barradas' computer keys are nearly the only sounds in the office, though passing staff assure me that this is a deadline day in the office. He answers the phone and speaks alternately in Spanish and English, most often a genial mixture of the two. Calendar editor Alfonso Texidor stalks past me multiple times, his distinctive hat and cane combo instantly marking him as one of the driving forces of last week's popular literary review issue as identified by Eva Martinez, executive director of Accion Latina, the organization which houses Tecolote. 

The office itself reads – as many of the headquarters of these rags will do – like desks and computers framed by a collection of events past. Owls (the newspaper's namesake) stare at me wide-eyed from the corners. An owl cuckoo clock here, a mascot originally meant to frighten birds away from property perched on a potted tree next to the couch there, a kite on the back wall, the reception desk lined with a cache of ceramic hooters. The walls have a bright collection of silk-screened posters announcing EL Tecolote fundraisers going back through the history of the paper, some which announce that proceeds will also go “for Chile democratico.”  

Later, after it is determined that rush hour traffic and recent hip replacement surgery have held up Daza and Gonzales, respectively, we settle on phone interviews all around. Still sitting on the couch in the office, I ask Gonzalez which stories he is most proud of looking back on the past forty years. His three examples are all moments in which his paper made a difference in the lives of Missionites. In the '70s, a woman came to them who had recently lost a child. She had gone to SF General Hospital complaining of stomach pains and bleeding, but with no Spanish translators on hand, staff sent her home, told her to lay down. When she returned with her English-speaking son later that day they admitted her, but it was too late: she miscarried soon thereafter.

“We jumped on it,” Gonzales tells me. The newspaper discovered woefully inadequate translator staffing levels at General, and impelled their readers to act. “We mobilized the community,” says Juan. The hospital was forced to sign an agreement with activists from the neighborhood to guarantee translators on duty – the first such accord between a hospital and a community group. El Tecolote pursued similar campaigns with telephone emergency services in the '80s, and more recently has supported tenants in a fight against Mission Housing Development when they attempted to raise rents in one of their apartment buildings.

“It's one thing to make people see a newspaper around all the time. It's another one to speak to the heart of the community,” Gonzales reflects.

From the get, the creation of El Tecolote was meant to give voice to those whom it was elusive. Gonzales started the paper as an off-shoot to his work in SF State's fledgling Ethnic Studies program, itself born of the Alcatraz occupation and its own student strikes. A recent journalism graduate from the university himself, Gonzales was tapped by the administration to put together a course syllabus that analyzed media coverage of Latinos and taught ways to talk about issues that affected the population. He called it La Raza Journalism, but also craved a place where his students could get on the job experience.

So he held a series of fund-raising events, including an amateur talent show which drummed up the necessary $300 to publish the first El Tecolote on August 24th 1970. And then some. “At that time $50 was enough to publish 500 copies,” Gonzalez muses. His team chose to locate its office in the Mission, in a space donated by non-profit organization Centro Latino on 25th Street and Potrero to avoid reliance on university funding, which they felt could be pulled at any time. Already known to the community from his efforts in covering the area for the SF State paper, Gonzales and his paper were off and running.

“The bottom line is, the paper had to reflect the neighborhood,” he tells me. In those early days, the issues weren't that much different than now: housing, tensions with the police, immigration, bilingual services and education, schools. They took care to represent all the facts of the controversies. “Don't be afraid to ask the other side their reaction,” Gonzales says. “They could say things that help the cause.” El Tecolote, running as it does today 90-95% on the efforts of dedicated volunteers, also published pieces on young artists, many of which were at the center of an exciting new push for Latino-centric art forms. “We had to reflect how the cultural movement was really expanding,” its founder tells me. 

Nowadays, the paper experiences its share of the challenges to adapt that are facing most print publications. “We've had to make concessions: the quality of the paper we print on, the number of pages,” says Daza, who at a chipper 25 years old comes to the paper as another recent SF State grad. He first entered the Tecolote offices two years ago on a field trip as part of a technical writing class, and tells me the paper's website upgrade earlier this year was much needed. “The running joke prior to that was that we didn't want to tell people we even had a website.” 

Which is not to say that they are moving past the paper page. “For us,” Daza says “the print edition represents something completely different. It's for people that don't have an iPhone, don't spend a good percentage of their lives online. That's the kind of people we want to provide for.” Many community members still use El Tecolote to learn a language – initially, scanning the English articles for new vocabulary words, but more recently, with changes in the neighborhood's demographics, checking out the Spanish pieces to develop new skills in español.

Daza makes it in after the majority of our interview, in time before his staff meeting to escort me through the paper's recently organized binders of historic photos (from which we selected this piece's graphic of Cesar Chavez's visit to the paper's office for a press conference on a UFW boycott). We flip to it past shots of a struggle immortalized. Demonstrations in the playgrounds of schools, under murals who this week I will recognize as I fly past them on my bicycle. Fists raised, hands extended, changes wrought – and it's all there in El Tecolote, typed down in two different languages so that we can remember that this neighborhood has a past (and present, and future) worth remembering. 

“El Tecolote is all about making a difference in the struggle for social change,” says Gonzales, who will reassume the managing editor position when Daza heads across the Bay to pursue a graduate degree at UC Berkeley this fall, tells me. Safe to say the paper has, and will continue to do so, si se puede.

 

Imagining the Mission: El Tecolote's 40th anniversary

Wed/11 6:30-9:30 p.m., $5

Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts

2868 Mission, SF

(415) 643-2785

www.missionculturalcenter.org