100 Years of News — and Advocacy — for the Spanish-Speaking Community
By Margaret Ramirez
When an East Harlem lawyer named Oscar García Rivera was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1937, La Prensa covered the news as the history it was for its readers and the country: Rivera that day became the first Puerto Rican elected to public office in the United States.
Two decades later, La Prensa and its new competitor, El Diario, were covering not only news, momentous or mundane, but also events that changed the city’s cultural fabric: The struggle to organize the first Puerto Rican Day Parade in 1956. The assassination of Dominican Republic President Rafael Trujillo in 1961. The wave of immigration to Washington Heights.
By the late 1970s, a few years after they merged, New York’s Spanish-language papers formed a single institution so entrenched and influential that it sometimes made news itself: In 1978, after reporting on possible negotiations for the release of Cuban prisoners, its offices were bombed by a paramilitary group opposed to Fidel Castro.
The merged paper, now known as El Diario/La Prensa, is the nation’s oldest Spanish-language daily newspaper, and this year it celebrates its 100th anniversary. To commemorate the milestone, the Brooklyn-based paper has organized a number of projects and events, including an interactive centennial website and a photo exhibit tracing the growth and transformation of New York’s Latino community over the past century.
In gathering historic newspapers and photos for the centennial, El Diario editors and researchers worked closely with the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College’s Silberman School of Social Work in East Harlem. The center library houses the most comprehensive collection of El Diario and La Prensa on microfilm and an extensive cache of archival images and documents on Latinos in New York.
The modern-day El Diario traces its roots to the founding of the weekly La Prensa in 1913, around the time when Spaniards were settling in Lower Manhattan amid the strife of World War I and establishing a thriving community of families that imported wine and olives, performed operatic zarzuelas at the newly constructed Apollo Theatre and formed cultural societies.
Through the decades, the city’s Hispanic population grew and diversified with the arrival of Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans and Mexicans, and their political and economic struggles gave Spanish-language journalists much to cover — and advocate. El Diario de Nueva York came on the scene in 1948, and the two newspapers not only documented the history of New York City’s Latinos, but became their fiercest advocates on labor, education and immigration. The motto on the front page plainly states that mission: “El Campeon de los Hispanos” or “The Champion of the Hispanics.”
Edwin Meléndez, professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College and director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, said El Diario’s centennial is significant because it commemorates detailed reporting on Latino historic events that received minimal coverage by mainstream English-language newspapers.
“El Diario is a window to the history of the community here,” Meléndez said. “The newspaper reflects the vibrancy of the community.”
In a recent interview with the Spanish news agency Efe, El Diario publisher Rossana Rosado said: “During these years, we’ve been the voice of New York Latinos, especially during the times when we didn’t have a voice.”
Aside from its historical significance, El Diario editors and Latino leaders say the paper has served two additional roles: helping immigrants adjust to their new home and advocating for Latinos from the Prohibition era through today’s battle over immigration reform.
In a commemorative supplement, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Oscar Hijuelos wrote about how his father always arrived home from work with a copy of El Diario in hand. Hijuelos, a City College graduate, is the son of Cuban immigrants who arrived in New York in 1943.
“Like a ray of sunlight, this newspaper surely made my father’s hard-working days more enjoyable and, I think, less culturally lonely,” Hijuelos wrote. “For in those times, long before the event of television stations like Univision and Telemundo — when Spanish-language publications were not so easily available as they are now, the newspaper he read faithfully in the evenings after work surely helped ease the pangs of homesickness that he and my mother — and so many others of their generation — felt for su patria.”
La Prensa was founded by Rafael Viera, a Spaniard, and in 1963, its 50th year, merged with El Diario, forming El Diario/La Prensa. In 2003, Canadian newspaper executive John Paton purchased the paper, merged it with the Los Angeles-based Spanish newspaper La Opinión and co-founded impreMedia, the largest news and information company for Hispanics in the United States.
Last year, the Argentinian newspaper company La Nación purchased impreMedia, with plans to boost readership of its online and digital operations. El Diario/La Prensa has an average daily paid circulation of about 40,000 readers.
Reflecting on the archives, El Diario executive editor Erica González said that in the early years there was more emphasis on Latin American and international news. Today, the paper still includes coverage of major Latin American events, but its main focus is local news.
“What has changed throughout the decades is the diversity of Latino communities,” she said. “In the earlier decades, there is more of a noticeable reflection of Spaniards, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, then Dominicans, South Americans, and more recently, Mexicans and Central Americans. El Diario/La Prensa has been responsive to different waves of immigration and growth.”
Despite the changing faces of Latino immigration, González said the paper’s mission has remained the same. “Throughout our archives, you see a consistent thread — the advocacy for Latinos,” she said. “In all of the decades, the commitment to that mission is evident. For example, during the Prohibition era La Prensa railed against city inspectors for coming down on a Puerto Rican mother selling moonshine to support her children. So this interest in defending our community has been a defining characteristic of El Diario/La Prensa.”
During the Vietnam War, the large number of Latino servicemen from New York prompted El Diario to publish stories and profiles of soldiers on the frontlines that families could read back home. The paper even began offering special gift subscriptions that families could purchase for Latino troops serving in Vietnam. The coupon read: “A special service for the men who defend democracy.”
“The idea that this newspaper was a lifeline to hundreds of soldiers and that it provided comfort to young sons facing uncertainty and death is deeply moving,” Rosado said.
Indeed, in the 1960s the bond between El Diario and the Latino community was so strong — and trust of the police so weak — that criminal suspects were apt to turn themselves in at the newspaper offices instead of at the local police precinct.
In February 1961, for example, the paper reported that Julio Soto Maduro walked into La Prensa’s offices after stabbing his neighbor for making too much noise in his Brooklyn building. “She collapsed and I ran away without bothering to take out the knife, got on the subway and headed toward La Prensa,” Maduro told the police editor.
The news dominated the front page the next day, but Carlos Rodríguez Martorell, a freelance writer who researched 100 years of El Diario’s archives, said people turning themselves in became so common that it stopped being front-page news and was moved inside the paper. The phenomenon died out in the 1970s.
In addition to its advocacy, El Diario/La Prensa won acclaim for investigative journalism, which highlighted abuse toward Latinos. In 1961, the paper published a series of investigative stories that exposed the harsh conditions for Puerto Rican migrant workers in rural areas. The headlines read: “Esclavizan a Boricuas en NY” or “Enslaved Puerto Ricans in NY” and “Por $13 Venden a Boricuas” or “Puerto Ricans Sold for $13.”
In recent years, El Diario/La Prensa, like many other newspapers, has faced declining print circulation and began devoting more resources to improving its website, digital content, and mobile applications.
According to 2010 census figures, the U.S. Latino population grew to more than 50 million, with most of the growth attributed to U.S. births, rather than the arrival of new immigrants. Latinos are also increasingly bilingual, which could signal trouble for the future of Spanish-language media. But a recent report by the Pew Research Center found that it is faring better than its mainstream English-language counterparts and remains “important to a changing, more acculturated, and more U.S.-born Hispanic population in the United States.”
While dozens of major English-language newspapers have been forced to shut down, the Pew report found the total number of Spanish-language newspapers has remained stable.
Meléndez, of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter, said the print edition of El Diario still serves a purpose for the newly arrived immigrant without access to the Internet.
“The reality is that not everyone has access to those resources. Even if they have the access, El Diario is an easy way to keep in touch with what’s happening,” Meléndez said. “It is still a newspaper that is catering to that niche, the recent immigrant.”
While the Internet has fueled the rise of hundreds of Latino websites and blogs, González said El Diario’s unique brand of ethnic and advocacy journalism is still needed.
“El Diario champions workers, tenants and others in ways that many other media don’t,” González said. “We bring perspectives and experiences to the table that others don’t or that others catch onto after the fact. We give voice to issues that are marginalized or invisible elsewhere.”