By the People, for the People

A NEIGHBORHOOD’S KEEPERS: For 50 years, ‘El Tecolote’—the brainchild of Juan Gonzales, MA ’77—has told the stories of Latino residents in eastern San Francisco. Photo: Courtesy Lou Dematteis

Coraje, SangreRevolución. Those were the kinds of names Juan Gonzales was hearing for new independent papers—“really militant sounding,” he says, “and the papers reflected that.” In the summer of 1970, he met with a group of volunteer journalists to come up with a name for the bilingual newspaper he planned to start in San Francisco’s Mission District. “I stayed clear of any radical-sounding name so that people could pick up the paper and accept it on its own merits,” he recalls. After hours of brainstorming, someone finally said, “El Tecolote,” one of several words for “owl” in Mexico, though unlike búho—traditionally used in Spanish—tecolote derives from Nahuatl, an Indigenous language. Gonzales, MA ’77, liked the evocation of a wise protector as well as the word’s familiarity: All-night pharmacies and redeye flights were sometimes called tecolotes, for the owl’s nocturnal behavior. Given the all-nighters soon to be pulled for the paper’s sake, the name fit.

Half a century later, the small biweekly paper is still keeping watch. With a staff of five paid employees, an ever-rotating cast of volunteers and college interns, and a print distribution of 10,000, El Tecolote continues to serve Latino residents in the Mission and throughout the Bay Area, providing journalism that at times advocates for their needs, at others connects them with news from other Latino communities, and occasionally launches investigations that have exposed injustice. In August 2020, the paper celebrated its 50th anniversary, having survived repeated economic upheaval, San Francisco’s transformation into a tech hub and the Mission District’s gentrification: no small achievement in a time of flagging local journalism, with more than 2,000 American newspapers—one in five—having closed in the past 15 years.

El Tecolote’s origin story begins in Stockton, the first inland seaport in California, a bustling, diverse and segregated city in which Gonzales recalls distinct neighborhoods for well-off whites, poor whites, Filipinos, Blacks and Chicanos. His father, Socorro, a World War II veteran who fought in Normandy, worked in a lumber mill, and his mother, Sarah, sold tickets at a movie theater and took shifts in the canneries. Though on occasion Gonzales had been called racial epithets, he’d tolerated the insults and moved on, but the cost of discrimination became clear in 1965, late in his senior year of high school, when his white classmates began talking about college acceptance letters. “They were telling me, ‘I heard from Stanford.’ ‘I just heard from UC Berkeley.’” Like them, he’d excelled at school, scoring into advanced classes. After learning that the college-track counselor had told the other students to apply, Gonzales met with him. Surprised by his interest, the counselor said the deadlines had passed and suggested community college. “That was,” Gonzales recalls, “a wake-up call.” The degree to which racial bias could derail his ambitions was suddenly apparent. Later, when he heard that the counselor had helped students find summer jobs, he returned to the man’s office, only to be told that jobs in local stores were all taken and he should consider working in the fields. Each day that summer, he walked to a row of buses at 2 a.m. and rode out to pick peaches and apricots, thin beets or harvest onions.

‘I stayed clear of any radical-sounding name so that people could pick up the paper and accept it on its own merits.’

In community college, having previously written for the high school paper, Gonzales gravitated to journalism. He served as the editor of the college paper for two semesters before transferring to San Francisco State in 1967. The next year, the students there went on strike, demanding that the university create ethnic studies departments and hire faculty of color. “The Central Valley was very conservative,” he says, “but at State, a light bulb was lit. I was exposed to a lot of different ideas, different movements, different concerns and a very diverse population. I guess you could say I grew up.” By then, Gonzales was the university paper’s photo editor, and as he photographed strikers, a Latino student asked what he planned to do with journalism. “What do you mean?” Gonzales said. “I’m going to work for the New York Times or for Life—amazing stuff like that.” The student replied that the community could use his skills. “That got me thinking that serving the community is important,” Gonzales recalls.

The staff of El Tecolote posing for a photo.TEST OF TIME: Gonzales, left, and other staff members pictured in the 1980s. For years, the paper has been created by a rotating cast of volunteers and interns, with a few paid staff members providing stability and mentorship. (Photo: Courtesy El Tecolote Archives) 

 

As the idea for a newspaper created for and by his community took hold, Gonzales was gaining prominence in the journalism department. When the university established its College of Ethnic Studies, its professors asked him to write the curriculum for a course on the ways the media represented Latinos while failing to document their experiences. Then they invited him to teach it. With the ink barely dry on his diploma, Gonzales accepted, and over the course of the semester he and his students discussed the possibility of launching a paper for Latino voices.

To reach the Mission’s diverse readership, Gonzales made El Tecolote bilingual, with every article published in both Spanish and English. He established it as a nonprofit, available for students to publish in but separate from the university to protect it from the vagaries of budget cuts. Its impromptu newsroom—then made up entirely of volunteers—was peripatetic, moving between kitchens and living rooms, financed through fund-raisers, donations, grants and advertising, though no money was accepted from corporations whose activities the staff considered harmful to Latin America.

‘Many of us were the first in our family to go to college. One thing that I think influenced all of us at that time was the tenet of serving the people.’ 

As Gonzales was launching El Tecolote, Stanford recruited him as a student for its master’s in journalism. The program’s emphasis on the social sciences made a deep impression on him. “I learned the impact of media on people’s behavior,” he says. “That helped me in my teaching over the years.” At the suggestion of Félix Gutiérrez, MA ’72, PhD ’76, Gonzales and Mario Evangelista, Gr. ’72, began investigating Pacific Telephone and Telegraph’s lack of bilingual services for emergency calls. “We learned that ambulance service people, the fire department and the police said they needed to be on the scene within five minutes, and our studies showed it took more than five minutes [for monolingual Spanish speakers] just to let them know the problem.” Published in El Tecolote, the story was picked up by larger papers and led to bilingual 911 services.

A man reading El Tecolote outside a storefront window.PAPER OF INFLUENCE: Famed labor leader César Chávez reads ‘El Tecolote’ in June 1986. (Photo: Courtesy El Tecolote Archives)

 

More stories followed in the community’s defense: the absence of interpreters at San Francisco General Hospital resulting in a pregnant Latina woman not getting care and losing her child (the exposé prompted the hospital to hire interpreters); police harassment of lowrider drivers (the paper explained that they weren’t criminals but hardworking people whose hobby was designing beautiful cars, which they showed to the public on weekend nights in the Mission); and the arrest of conga drummers in parks (the paper argued that conga was part of the district’s cultural heritage; among the youths defended were Raul Rekow, later the longtime conguero of Carlos Santana, and John Santos, now a seven-time Grammy-nominated percussionist). El Tecolote also published Latino poets and fiction writers while welcoming fledgling journalists. Among those who cut their teeth there were Roberto Lovato, whose 2005 investigation for Salon on migrant worker exploitation featured in a congressional investigation; Héctor Tobar, a Los Angeles Times correspondent and now an internationally acclaimed author; and Juan Felipe Herrera, MA ’80, the 21st United States Poet Laureate.

Eva Martinez, an early volunteer and now the paper’s archivist, met Gonzales at San Francisco State in 1972, in “the heady days of the student strike,” she says. “Many of us were the first in our family to go to college. One thing that I think influenced all of us at that time was the tenet of serving the people.” Yet even as the paper did so, it connected readers to the larger Latino community. “The pages are filled with news from Latino communities across the nation, Puerto Rico, Latin America and the Caribbean,” Martinez says. Most notable was its attitude toward gay rights. “There was a lot of homophobia in the Latino community,” she recalls, “and it became one of the first local papers to cover gay Latino issues.”

If El Tecolote has thrived when so many small papers have failed, it’s not only because of its mission to serve the people but also because of Gonzales himself—“a volunteer recruiter extraordinaire,” Martinez calls him. His aptitude for building community as well as the trench coat and dark glasses he wore earned him the nickname the Godfather. Simultaneously, he has been a skilled delegator. “One thing I’ve always noticed about Juan is his willingness to hand over his creation to people,” Martinez says. “I’ve never seen an ounce of ‘founder’s mentality’ in him. He truly stands behind his goal of creating a pipeline to the journalism profession and understands that the best way is by letting people take charge.” Though Gonzales has had many roles at the paper—editor, reporter, photographer, page designer, ad salesperson, newspaper distributor and spokesperson—he has delegated the position of editor-in-chief to others for the past 20 years.

‘I’ve seen how other publications will parachute into a community to do a story and then leave and write up a piece that isn’t accessible to that same community.’

Dawn Garcia, MLA ’08, director of Stanford’s John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, began volunteering and mentoring at El Tecolote in the 1980s, when she was already established as a journalist at the San Francisco Chronicle. “For those of us who had been in newsrooms where there was a lot of hierarchy,” she recalls, “El Tecolote was very collaborative. Juan was always seeking everyone’s opinions. Being in that newsroom felt very empowering.” Until then, she had been hesitant to approach editors with stories about Latinos for fear of being pigeonholed. “I realized I could be an advocate for coverage of communities not receiving as much coverage as they should.”

Increasingly, El Tecolote contends with the Mission’s gentrification. In 2015, a study found that 8,000 Latinos had left the Mission over the previous 10 years. During this time, El Tecolote has documented the neighborhood’s change, telling the story of a demolished mural or landmark to preserve a record for future scholarship. Alexis Terrazas, who took over as editor-in-chief in 2014, has used social media to keep displaced residents engaged. Recently, he has focused on encouraging participation in the census, especially given the hesitancy of undocumented members of the community. “I’ve met with journalists and editors of other publications who’ve said that we can’t tell people to fill out the census, but our roots are advocacy journalism,” Terrazas says. “I’ve seen how other publications will parachute into a community to do a story and then leave and write up a piece that isn’t accessible to that same community.” El Tecolote’s recent educational campaign describes how the census helps determine the resources allocated to communities, from schools to urban gardens.

A cake that says "happy birthday Tecolote" and a bottle of champagne on a table.BIRTHDAY BASH: Over the years, the paper has celebrated its anniversaries with parties and music. (Photo: Courtesy El Tecolote Archives)

 

Since 2000, El Tecolote has had a permanent home in the Mission, in the offices of Acción Latina, an umbrella nonprofit created in 1987. Gonzales, now 73, is on its board and still recruits volunteers. Alongside the paper’s 50th anniversary, he celebrated as many years of teaching, currently at City College of San Francisco, and is now developing a co-op to sustain independent media. “I still write,” Gonzales says, “and I mentor anyone who needs mentoring.” In many ways, he has spent his life doing for others what his high school counselor didn’t do for him.

As for El Tecolote, it continues building on a legacy that, in its own way, has translated the courage, blood and revolution of the 1960s into a sustainable vision for community and change. 


Deni Ellis Béchard is the senior writer at Stanford. Email him at dbechard@stanford.edu.