An underestimated champion of journalism, El Tecolote newspaper celebrates 50 years

Courtesy of El Tecolote, 2020

When so many newspapers around the country are struggling or have ceased publication, El Tecolote in San Francisco’s Mission District is still going strong as it celebrates it’s 50th anniversary this year.

Seen here is the El Tecolote staff circa 1980’s more than 10 years since it began. From Right to left are: Juan Gonzales, Carlos Valdez, Ana Montes, Georgiana Hernandez, Hilda Ayala, Tina Avila, Patricia Vattuone, & Rudy Gallardo (kneeling). Photo courtesy of El Tecolote archives.

El Tecolote is the longest running bilingual newspaper that is printed in both English and Spanish in California. Since its inception it has branched out beyond the confines of the Mission District. As the current editor-in-cheif, Alexis Terrazas told the SF Examiner last week, “although El Tecolote began as a Latino newspaper, its coverage highlights widespread movements such as the Black Lives Matter Movement and LGBTQ immigration.”

While many people are to be applauded and honored, much of El Tecolote’s longevity and endurance is because of its founder Juan Gonzales. For more than 30 years he has been teaching at City College of San Francisco and serves as chair of the Journalism Dept. He also oversees its various programs and curriculums.

El Tecolote is as much a part of him as it is a part of the entire community, not only the Mission District but also of City College and San Francisco itself. They are all linked together in various ways, some inexplicably and some obvious ones.

The cultural revolutions that happened during the 1960’s had culminated and catapulted San Francisco into the national spotlight like never before. “The Summer of Love” of 1967 was a prime example as a phenomenon of youth culture. But the short-lived intensity plummeted into a sobering aftermath that unveiled how much that “love” did not have.

Juan Gonzales in his younger days circa 1970s while at student at San Francisco State University. Photo courtesy of Juan Gonzales and El Tecolote archives.

One thing that such movements needed was consistency and while the idealism of “the hippie” began to fade away, the issues of Civil Rights did not.

A newspaper like El Tecolote provided some constancy as social change moved forward. Much of what was happening especially among people of color, was not completely reported, if reported upon at all. Gonzales knew and understood the importance of what was once referred to as the ethnic press, especially a bilingual newspaper.

If mainstream newspapers and media missed it, most likely a grass roots paper like El Tecolote would report it.

Back then more than 50 years ago, to spotlight the diversity of culture was kept at a minimum. In some instances, especially among white people, complexity of diversity was practically unknown. This began to change in the 1960s and ’70s.

“A newspaper to the farmworkers was absolutely critical to the development of the farmworker movement, said LeRoy Chatfield. He worked with the labor rights movement activist César Chávez in the early 1960s. “César started his own bilingual paper in 1965 called, ‘El Malcriado,’ said Chatfield. It was not only for farmworkers themselves but for the grape boycott supporters of the labor rights movement.”

Farmworker Labor movement leader, César Chávez reading an issue of El Tecolote circa 1986. Courtesy of El Tecolote archives.

Reporting at the grass roots and in the language of the people it served was crucial for a newspaper. This is something Gonzales knew instinctively.

This reporter got a chance to reach out to Gonzales and asked the following…

When you stated El Tecolote newspaper back in 1970 did you think it would last this long?
“I wasn’t sure, he said. But I was going to make a five year commitment to see what was possible.”
At what point did you realize that Journalism was your calling?
Gonzales thinking back he said.
“In high school when I joined the school paper, I eventually became its editor. Pausing for a moment he then said, but even as a kid I seemed to have an interest in writing.”
El Tecolote is and has provided a voice and a presence for the Latino/Chicano/Mesoamerican community. Since the advent of the Internet and its impact upon newspapers and media, what has been El Tecolote’s strength and proudest moment during this difficult era for newspapers?
“Our decision to create a non-profit organization to help sustain the newspaper was a good move, said Gonzales. Because it helped to diversify our funding sources. Also, we continued to attract people to help as writers, photographers, translators, and to help us fundraise.”
As someone who was among his many students I said to Gonzales. I remember not too long ago you mentioned to me and the rest of the students in class that print will remain for a while as long as everyone doesn’t have complete access to the internet.
Do you think that might change now that the Coronavirus has hit?
“Well, he said, it has been more challenging. The pandemic has certainly changed the way we report the news and how we deliver content to our readers. But we still print about 3,000 copies to place in certain neighborhood centers and businesses because of the digital divide.”
Then I asked Gonzales, with all the protests and shifts in culture recently, (such as Black Lives Matter, etc.) do you think the ethnic-bilingual press as having more of a vital role, now more so than 50 years ago?
“The continued absence of mainstream coverage on communities of color and the demand for investigative stories on the challenges facing these communities has raised the interest in ethnic newspapers. People want read about thier community and become more aware of at City Hall and the country that will impact their neighborhood, their pocketbook, and their future.”
Westside Observer Publisher Mitch Bull and Ingleside-Excelsior Publisher Alex Mullaney present Juan Gonzales with a certificate signed by San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee honoring his 30 years teaching journalism at City College, where he heads the Journalism Department. The San Francisco Neighborhood Newspaper Association hosted the event on March 20 at Randy’s Place on Ocean Avenue. – Photo: Nathaniel Y. Downes, Courtesy of SF Bayview newspaper and Juan Gonzales
With as much as 54 to over 62 percent of media reaching out to the Spanish-Speaking population, through outlets such as Unavision and Telemundo, no doubt El Tecolote is looking forward. Even as the current setbacks of Coronavirus and the impact of the California wildfires continue, this bilingual media presence survives while others struggle.
A voice for those who are not always seen and heard is important. El Tecolote among other bilingual media continually strives to fulfill that role. To learn more, visit the El Tecolote web site.