Living in a Bilingual World

By: Yadira Y. Caro

Vanessa Vazquez’s career in journalism is based on navigating two cultures. Her career started twenty years ago in her native Puerto Rico as a reporter in The San Juan Star, a newspaper targeted to English speaking audiences (in Spanish speaking island). Then she migrated to the United States and helped the Orlando Sentinel launch its Spanish language newspaper El Sentinel for a growing Hispanic audience. A few years later, she did the same for The Tampa Tribune with Centro Tampa, a Spanish language newspaper and website. I asked about her views on journalism from both sides.

You started in Puerto Rico in an English language newspaper to work here in Spanish language media. What was you experience in The San Juan Star?

The San Juan Star was a generational newspaper for me. My mom worked there and my brother worked there. I grew up around it. The reason I liked The San Juan Star was that at the time it was the only newspaper in English language. The target audience at the time was for people who were transplanted or, like my mother, who grew up with two languages and felt more comfortable with the English language. The San Juan Star was for me home. I grew up there.

You say it was for transplants for people coming from the US. Was it for people who grew up in the states and came back to the island?

We had a lot of military bases (in Puerto Rico). When we started in 1958, there were a lot of Americans living in Puerto Rico that did not knew Spanish; there were (also) a lot of Puerto Ricans from the Island that were going back and forth. It was a perfect fit in 1958 and it kept growing. It was a pretty big newspaper back then…They had 80 thousand subscriptions. That was the necessity of having it bilingual because we were a bilingual culture.

Back in the 50s, 60s and 70s, it was forced (to speak English in Puerto Rico) so a lot people got comfortable with that language. The transplants, meaning the people who came from military bases, stayed there. In PR we had active bases until 2000s. We had like 6 military bases. Those people did not knew Spanish but they wanted to be part of the community. When I came in to Orlando we did the same thing: we wanted to cover what was going on in the area but in Spanish because (immigrants) felt comfortable. So it was a reversal for me: from a newspaper in English to a newspaper in Spanish. We wanted to cover everything that happened in the Island in English but in Orlando we wanted to cover what happened in the area in Spanish.

Was there a difference in content or the way the news were written or in the coverage from The San Juan Star?

We were different because 80 per cent of the editors came from the US newspapers so they came with the idea from journalism in the US, meaning that we did not like the idea of becoming friends (with sources); we were very hardcore. That is why we won the Pulitzer Prize because we were different.

You mean they covered more hard news?

We did hard news. We went and did reporting, old school reporting. If we had to piss somebody off we did and that is why we got the respect from a lot of people even from the government. They said if The San Juan Star covers it, it was because something was wrong and it was respected.

(…) When I came to The Orlando Sentinel, my editor Maria Padilla, came from a newspaper in English. We worked together in The San Juan Star, she came from that mentality of ‘no, we are not friends of anybody, we are going to find the two sides of the story and we are going to do it in Spanish.’ That is why El Sentinel was so successful from day one.

What do you think was the intent for The Orlando Sentinel with the newspaper El Sentinel? Was it marketing or the need to publish news in Spanish?

It’s funny you ask that because we at The Orlando Sentinel we had one page for the Latino market. In 1998, the Orlando Sentinel did a story about how the Puerto Rican government was bringing criminals here without alerting the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. These were criminals who were witnesses of massacres, who were drug dealers. They were brought here with new identity. The Orlando police was stopping them and they were realizing ‘this guy has new Social Security’ number… things were not adding up. The Orlando Sentinel sent two reporters and that is how I met them; we all worked together. They needed to find somebody who spoke Spanish and who new the library. I knew the library. That was a good ride.

They wrote the story, but the copy editor in Orlando was not so cultural and wrote a headline that say ‘Puerto Rican government is dumping criminals’ (see related story here). That caused the whole Orlando Puerto Rican community to go against the Orlando Sentinel; (they would say) ‘lets go and kill reporters,’ literally, because the Orlando Sentinel did not understand the new dynamics of the Puerto Rican community coming to Orlando. They said it was racist. So pretty much the editor said ‘we need to do something about this.’

The Orlando Sentinel was also owner of a Spanish language newspaper in Chicago which was very successful. They already had Maria Padilla working at the Orlando Sentinel, they also had Pedro Ruz. They knew me so they hired me immediately… They needed someone who spoke Spanish. So you have three people in the newsroom trying to culturize and explain (to staff) ‘we are Americans, most of (Hispanics) speak English, but they are afraid (to speak it) and what you guys did was racist.’

(The Orlando Sentinel) created one page, only one page of content of Hispanic media in English and Spanish. That was in 2000. It was very successful… At the moment they decided to do it bilingual because we had a very interesting Puerto Rican community. It was divided: Puerto Ricans from New York who do not want to deal with Puerto Ricans from the Island. (That is why) we decided to do El Sentinel, but bilingual. It was so successful that La Prensa, (a Spanish language newspaper) which was there before us, changed their whole format. They realized they needed to start covering the news instead of being a shopper.

How was you experience in Tampa with a similar project launching a Hispanic language newspaper and website? Did you see the same integration?

No, when we went to Tampa we had a hard time, because the person running the project had a hard time understanding journalism. (Tampa residents) did not wanted to be compared to Miami. They did not wanted to be compared to Orlando. They wanted to maintain their identity. They did not trust the newspaper. The difference is that the Orlando Sentinel was the only one newspaper in town. The Tampa Tribune had a competition with The St Petersburg Times and for history’s sake, The Tampa Tribune was always known to be racist. It was a tough sell.

When we started, I remember me shaking my head asking why do we need to be separate from the English newspaper. I came from Orlando, separation did not work.

Vanessa has also been a fervent proponent of online presence for newspapers for many years, and was very vocal about letting editors and publishers know the web was the future (I know this first hand since I worked with her many years). As a self-taught techie, Vanessa expanded her media experience to work in email marketing with companies as New York Life and Marine Max. She also owns VVY HUB a company dedicated to help small businesses establish their online marketing presence.

You worked a lot with the online side (of newspapers). Can you talk about the evolution of that side?

I started in online journalism in 2000 at the Orlando Sentinel. I decided to go into that route because back then AOL and other companies were involved in giving the news, and people were going to (these sites) to see information because it was faster. People did not wanted to wait for the 6 o clock news or the paper the next day. I saw there was this desire for news now.

Back then (the concept) was to have a teaser (online) and then do the big story in print. Now sadly, print its being thrown to the garbage, what (media companies) are doing is digital first, then they print a crappy story. It’s very sad to see how they (integrate).

You have worked a lot with Hispanic media. In your current job you are targeting Hispanic market as well. What are some big misconceptions about big corporations on the Hispanic market?

That’s is atopic which will take 3 days but I can try to convey in on two seconds (laughs). Mass media wants to lump everybody into one category. Hispanics are different, we come from different cultures, we have different dialects. In different areas we are totally different; we adapt to our surroundings but we are very attached to our homelands.

Follow Vanessa on Twitter at @lilprgidget. 

Follow the author on Twitter at @yadicarocaro.

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