In Depth

2009 Hall of Famer: Juan Gonzales

By Deborah Kaufman

A pioneer in Hispanic journalism, Juan Gonzales founded El Tecolote, a bilingual, noncommercial newspaper in San Francisco's Mission District, in 1970. The newspaper has since become a community institution, giving voice to the community's residents and providing invaluable work experience for young journalists.

Mr. Gonzales, who has had a long career teaching journalism, created El Tecolote as a classroom project in a La Raza Studies class at San Francisco State in order to encourage Latino students to choose careers in journalism. Since it first rolled off the presses on Aug. 24, 1970, El Tecolote has been produced almost entirely by volunteers; it is the longest-running Spanish/English bilingual newspaper serving the San Francisco Bay Area.

Mr. Gonzales chairs the Department of Journalism at the City College of San Francisco, where he taught the first college-level course on Hispanic journalism.

"Some of the same issues exist today as when we first started, especially when it comes to the attacks on bilingualism," he said. "One of our main issues has been pushing for bilingual services at hospitals and public institutions, as well as the continuous redevelopment plans for the city and how that's impacted a neighborhood like the Mission. We've won some small victories. But with the gentrification of the neighborhood, that continues to be a big fight."

In fact, El Tecolote's "small victories" had a major impact on the Hispanic community in San Francisco. In the 1970s, the newspaper's reports on the dearth of bilingual operators on the 911 emergency lines, along with community activism, resulted in hearings before the Public Utilities Commission. In 1977, its consistent coverage of the lack of trained medical translators at San Francisco General Hospital led to the establishment of a bilingual unit with 26 interpreters trained in medical terminology.

The newspaper also has promoted local artists, including a 1971 interview with Jose Santana, the father of guitarist Carlos Santana, and an interview with the then-teenage John Santos, who has since become an internationally known Latin jazz percussionist.

Mr. Gonzales continues to direct the community newspaper into new areas. "We're embracing the new platforms with a Web presence," he said. "We'll start doing podcasting and audio slide shows. But we won't leap to one platform over another. As long as there's a digital divide, we'll provide information on whatever platform the community needs."

Mr. Gonzales reported that El Tecolote also is reaching out to a younger audience, incorporating more stories dealing with their issues and culture. El Tecolote also is a learning tool for immigrants trying to learn English. "We found that ESL classrooms are using it," he said. "It's free and they see the two languages side by side, so it's a tool for anyone who wants to learn the language."

More than 400 people have volunteered on El Tecolote over the years, said Mr. Gonzales.

Among those who have gone on to full-time journalism careers is Hector Tobar, Buenos Aires bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. Mr. Gonzales also chairs the Voices for Justice project commemorating the bicentennial of Latino newspapers in the U.S.

As to his induction into the Hall of Fame, Mr. Gonzales gives a nod of appreciation to other Hispanic community newspapers in the U.S. "I'm happy the small Latino press is getting its just due," he said. "These papers play just as big a role as the major newspapers."