Shining the Light On Injustices Others Ignore

February 1, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

I was just 22 when I started my journalism career with Eastern Group Publications and I feel fortunate that EGP gave me the opportunity to become a voice for the community at such a young age.

Former EGP reporter Nancy Martinez, (pictured) was recognized by New America Media for Outstanding Coverage of the Environment.

Over the next several years I would report on a myriad of stories and issues, from city budgets to teacher cuts, innovative school programs, elections and recalls, community and park cleanups, developments in the Montebello Hills, good government reforms in Vernon and the slaying of an often controversial Bell Gardens mayor by his wife.

There were stories about crime, the friendly game of loteria at the Bell Gardens Senior Center, a heavy metal mariachi band, and the anger of residents in East Los Angeles who feared another transportation project would tear apart their community.

But it was reporting on the now-shuttered Exide plant in Vernon that had contaminated nearby communities with toxic chemicals that truly made a difference in how I viewed community news.

EGP had already been reporting on this issue for years before I arrived on the scene. It had already established itself as a voice for the voiceless, highlighting an environmental disaster that had yet to be recognized by state officials.

My coverage of the ongoing issues caused by the acid-lead battery recycling plant is what I am most proud of. The article that has meant the most to me, and made the biggest impact on my career, is one that compared the disparities in the state’s response to the Exide contamination in the mostly blue-collared communities on the eastside and its response to the Aliso Canyon gas leak in the more affluent Porter Ranch.

The article served as a powerful juxtaposition of the two catastrophes, catching the attention of the area’s elected officials who had for the most part done little to respond to the Exide disaster, instead telling residents they didn’t have the power or the governor would not talk to them. Faced with the reality of the terrible double standard when it came to protecting working class Latinos, their constituents, they were at long last compelled to do something to respond to the growing anger over the disparity painfully detailed in black and white.

Eventually, the major media outlets did pick up the story, never crediting EGP, which had been reporting on the issue for more than a decade. But the community knew EGP was there from the beginning, long before the cameras showed up.

After four years of reporting on Exide, I had become somewhat of an expert on the issue, which allowed me to create this narrative. I was at first hesitant to call myself an Exide expert, but my editor, Gloria Alvarez, repeatedly reminded me that my years of coverage had given me a unique perspective and insight into the issue. Unlike major media outlets, I had spoken to countless residents over the years, attended dozens of community meetings and public hearings, and reported the stories that could only be told by someone who was truly in touch with the community.

I am thankful that my editor encouraged me to ask the critical questions that elevated my reporting.

It was this encouragement that led me to ask camera-ready local, state and congressional elected officials— gathered at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights to celebrate the state’s long overdue clean up plan with the community — why they had not come together sooner like they had that day to demand action on behalf of their constituents. The unsatisfactory response: someone else had dropped the ball.

By the time I turned 26, I had interviewed a long list of powerful elected officials who were forced to answer for Exide. I was invited to provide commentary on radio stations, based on my reporting, and served as a panelist alongside one of those officials in question to discuss air quality issues.

I know EGP’s coverage of Exide made a difference in the ongoing battle of this environmental injustice. I realized this when a local activist group recognized me for serving as a voice for the community. A statewide coalition of ethnic media outlets soon followed with their own recognition, awarding EGP first place for outstanding coverage of the environment for our coverage of the Exide environmental disaster.

EGP has always been a voice for east, northeast and southeast Los Angeles County communities. I’m proud to have had my name on the pages of its newspapers.

Nancy Martinez is an Interactive Communications Officer with the City of Torrance, where she is charged with sending time-sensitive information to the public. She reported for EGP between 2012-2017. Her extensive coverage on Exide garnered her community recognition and an award for outstanding coverage of the environment by New America Media. 

The Eastside’s Record Keeper

February 1, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

As someone who grew up in East LA in the 1960s and 70s, and worked as a newspaper boy first at the East LA Tribune and then the LA Herald Examiner, I grew up with an affinity towards the written word.

I was just entering high school when Los Angeles Times reporter and Spanish language TV anchor Ruben Salazar was killed in 1970, during the Chicano Moratorium. His death motivated me to go on to college and to get into writing. So, I actually began my writing career in 1972 with LA Gente newspaper at UCLA. But to make a long story short, after graduating college, my professional column-writing career got its start at Eastern Group Publications.

I remember EGP most for two of its signature publications: the Eastside Sun and the Mexican-American Sun. Because I had begun as a newspaper boy on the eastside, I could relate to this chain of community newspapers.

I started as a reporter at EGP, but with the support of the newspapers’ owners, Dolores and Jonathan Sanchez, I began to write weekly columns on topics ranging from plans to feed the homeless, graffiti, a softball playing grandmother and efforts to dismantle bilingual education. I wrote about the battle led by East LA and Boyle Heights residents determined to stop a prison being built in their neighborhood, a grassroots effort that succeeded.

Roberto Dr Cintli Rodríguez es profesor en la Universidad de Arizona y autor de Justice: A Question of Race, un libro que narra sus dos juicios de brutalidad policial; Our Sagrada Maíz is Our Mother(Nin Toanantzin Non Centeotl); y coprodujo Amoxtli San Ce Tojuan: un documental sobre orígenes y migraciones.

At that time, I was also assigned to write profiles of everyday people making a difference, new eastside professional organizations and their members, Latinos in public office and in government agencies.

After leaving EGP, I would go on to writing columns for La Opinion for many years, even after I moved to Washington DC, then co-writing a nationally syndicated column with Patria Gonzales for a dozen years for Chronicle Features and later Universal Press Syndicate.

I mention all this because I owe my successful column-writing career to EGP. By the way, nowadays, I still write, though primarily for Truthout’s Public Intellectual Page.

Truthfully, more than to EGP, I owe thanks to the family. Dolores and Jon brought me on board at a low point in my life. I was almost killed in 1979, an experience that led to two trials, the first in 1979 and the second in 1986 — causing seven and a half years of turmoil.

In the first trial, I had to defend myself against charges of trying to kill four Sheriff’s deputies with a camera. I had actually witnessed the brutal beating of a young man and photographed it, and as a result, I ended up in the hospital. After winning that case, I filed a lawsuit and in 1986 won a judgment against the same four deputies. Incidentally, it was civil rights attorney Antonio Rodriguez who  represented me in both cases. I was working at EGP during the second trial and remember well the full support I received from Dolores and Jon.

A small irony is that my lawsuit was actually against the Sheriff’s Department and one of the first assignments I received after it concluded was to interview the Sheriff at the time. He had a lot of bodyguards in his office during the interview; neither he nor I brought up my trials. Yeah, there was a big elephant in the room during that interview.

As we all know, EGP wasn’t just 9, then 11 and now 6 community newspapers. They were a Raza-owned bilingual chain of newspapers covering the eastside of LA; essentially the newspapers of record when it came to things on the eastside. That was their role because in those days the major Southern California media outlets didn’t deem the eastside worthy of a bureau. In other words, we weren’t worthy of coverage and, in effect, did not exist.

I can honestly say I have only good memories of my time at EGP. The same holds true for my memories of the Sanchez family.

Now, as a university professor and researcher, I believe the existence of EGP is worthy of study. I wish I could do more than study or comment about EGP. I wish I could buy EGP and keep the papers going because it has always served our communities well, and personally, I will always have ink in my veins.

At the moment, I can’t really do that and I’m hoping someone with the right resources will step in to keep it going.

I want to end by sharing an EGP-related story. It was kind of funny, but it wasn’t.

In between my two trials, I got very close to a group from Guatemala, here in Los Angeles. Most of them were political refugees and some of them had actually been tortured and eventually received political asylum. Those were dangerous times, there were even rumors of death squad activity in Southern California.

I don’t remember what the issue was at the time, but the group asked me if I would go to Guatemala and meet with community leaders, etc, since they could not return to their home country. They figured it would be easy since I was a journalist, and didn’t understand when I told them that I couldn’t go.

You see, my business card said EGP, the same initials of one of the primary rebel groups called… actually I forget what they were called. I explained that if I were to be stopped and asked to produce ID to prove I was a journalist, my business card with the EGP initials probably would have sealed my doom. So, in a way, it was funny and that’s why I never went to Guatemala. It’s interesting what will pop into your mind, like this, one of my [tangential] EGP stories.

I do want to thank the Sanchez family. I recognize EGP itself as a family, part of a much larger family and I’m very proud to have been brought into it and to continue to be part of it.

Roberto Dr Cintli Rodríguez is a professor at the University of Arizona and author of Justice: A Question of Race, a book that chronicles his two police brutality trials; Our Sacred Maíz is Our Mother (Nin Toanantzin Non Centeotl); and co-produced: Amoxtli San Ce Tojuan: a documentary on origins and migrations.

Losing the Voice of the Southeast

February 1, 2018 by · 2 Comments 

Gregory Arroyo serves as editorial director for Bobit Business Media, a business-to-business media company founded in 1961.© Eric Tillotson www.erictillotson.com

It was nearly 20 years ago that we had our last meaningful conversation. I was offered an opportunity I had worked so hard for over the nearly two years I served as a reporter for Eastern Group Publications, and my former boss, EGP Publisher Dolores Sanchez, had a little reality to deliver to this starry-eyed reporter.

See, I was part of the team of reporters who launched the Los Angeles Times’ Montebello edition of its Our Times community news section in September 1998. Dolores, however, warned that such ventures usually have two years to succeed. I left the Montebello Our Times in August 2000, about a month before it was shuttered by the Tribune Co.

Yes, Dolores, I was listening. In fact, I always listened, especially since EGP had done for me what it had done for so many young journalists since the newspaper chain launched in 1979, and that’s give me a chance to be the voice of the Eastside. And I took the role to heart. In fact, if the phones weren’t ringing when the newspaper landed in driveways Thursday morning, I hadn’t done my job.

Yeah, I had a knack for putting myself and the newspaper in the middle of some controversy, whether it was the countless and wasteful recall elections I covered or that two-hour debate the Commerce City Council had one night over whether to serve hot dogs at a “fireside chat” event. Let’s just say there are plenty of former city, school district, and, yes, even public safety officials who were glad to see my byline fade away.

To the individuals behind the scandal that’s plagued the Montebello Unified School District in recent years, just be glad you never knew me.

In college, I asked a political science professor about whether corruption was prevalent at the highest levels of government. He said “No,” adding that it’s local government where corruption thrives due to the lack of checks and balances. And that’s why this third-generation “Montebelloan” took his role as a reporter so seriously.

But the pendulum did swing the other way. By that, I mean I was just as passionate about the good going on in the communities I served.

There was the night I was on stage inside an Olvera Street restaurant when then-Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante — the first Latino elected to statewide office in California in more than 120 years — handed the speaker’s gavel to then-California Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa, making him the first Speaker of the Assembly from Los Angeles in 25 years.

There was the Theodore Roosevelt High School teacher who created a program designed to help promising students gain acceptance to Ivy League schools. There was graduation day at Montebello High School, when I watched proud parents embracing their sons and daughters. And I’ll never forget consoling that senior high school football player who realized he had just played his last game.

And this is what will be missed when EGP closes its doors this week. Thank you, Dolores and Jonathan [Sanchez], for giving a community a voice and young journalists like I once was a chance to develop theirs.

 

Gregory Arroyo serves as editorial director for Bobit Business Media, a business-to-business media company founded in 1961.

Tackling the Big and Small Stories

February 1, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

I worked at Eastern Group Publications from 2008 until 2012, and I feel lucky that this was my first gig as a full-time reporter. There weren’t many newspapers like it left, ones that were rooted in the communities they cover and that are owned by a civically-minded family for whom this isn’t just a business, but a labor of love.

When I first got there, I was like any other cub reporter — I wanted to chase and tell stories, have a byline and toss around journalism cliches like “cub reporter.” But it was a good place to develop my own sense of what journalism was, and why I wanted to do it. And I was figuring it out under the guidance of editors and publishers who were knowledgeable about the communities we covered, had a good feel for the local political world, and most importantly, had a sense of purpose for what they were doing.

The Sanchez family that founded it tackled big stories, but it was their consistent coverage of communities usually ignored by larger newspapers that stood out to me. You did not need a major scandal, a shooting or a social or environmental injustice as reasons for covering these areas.

Elizabeth Chou went on to report on Los Angeles City Hall government and politics, first with City News Service, and now the Los Angeles Daily News since the end of 2016.

I think it was important to the family to provide this coverage, because in reality there has historically been a vibrant civic life in these communities worth reporting on, in which people fight for and feel entitled to quality education for their children, well-paying and safe jobs and a high quality of life. And the family also wanted to tell the varied, everyday and unique stories that contribute nuance to the one-dimensional picture that is often painted when there is only occasional interest in an area by bigger outlets. This meant working to reflect the wide range of socio-economic statuses, values, experiences and political views that can be found in communities that are often given shorthand labels like “immigrant,” “ethnic,” “working class” or “underserved.”

During my time there, I and one other reporter split coverage of the range of communities under the Eastern Group banner. Gloria Angelina Castillo covered East Los Angeles and northeast Los Angeles, while also translating my stories into Spanish. I was assigned to cover a mix of traditional suburban cities like Monterey Park and Montebello, and other less typical municipalities like City of Commerce and Vernon that were largely industrial but still had a residential population. I also did layout for the print newspaper, and updated the website and social media feeds.

Some of the more memorable stories were about efforts by residents of Commerce to combat pollution from a major railyard, which they said was one of the causes for high rates of cancer in their community, on top of the other harmful toxins and pollution emanating from the industrial businesses nearby.

I also chronicled an unusual investigation into voter-fraud in the city Vernon, which only had about 100 residents. Previous to that, there was a failed attempt to disincorporate the city by state lawmakers who alleged it was being run by crooks.

And I covered the years of political instability and infighting in Montebello, as city council members grappled with budget troubles and scrutiny over whether there was criminal mismanagement of funds.

In covering many of these areas, I often found that despite many thinking that there is a lack of civic engagement, there were always usually people in these communities who did care and were trying in whatever way they knew how to stay informed and on top of what their local government was up to. They do it because cities provide basic services, police and fire, and parks that ultimately determine their quality of life, and other local government bodies can have equally significant effect on their lives. But those efforts can be that much harder without a partner, such as a local newspaper, that worked to help convey important information to their readers, prior to things going horribly wrong. Eastern Group Publications did its part in trying to maintain consistent coverage of these areas, in that sense, filling in gaps where other outlets may not have had the staffing or time to cover.

 

Elizabeth Chou went on to report on Los Angeles City Hall government and politics, first with City News Service, and now the Los Angeles Daily News since the end of 2016.

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