New paper tests the Latino market

Betting on growth, weekly El Hispano starts Baltimore edition

August 14, 1999|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

A new weekly newspaper will hit the streets of Baltimore today -- but many city residents won't be able to read it.

El Hispano will mostly be in Spanish.

Geared toward the city's relatively new and fast-growing Latino community, the free paper will focus on issues such as immigration, education and soccer -- all of particular concern to Spanish-speakers. Newcomers from Central America concentrated in and around Fells Point will be the target audience.

If demand for the first 5,000 copies is brisk, the 32-page Baltimore edition of El Hispano will be a permanent fixture in the city, said editor and publisher Johnny Simancas. The 10-year-old paper circulates about 25,000 papers each week in Washington.

"The Latin community in Baltimore is between two of the most important cities in the United States -- Washington and New York -- but Baltimore is, how do you call it when a child has no parents? Baltimore is an orphan," said Erick Oribio, the lead reporter for the paper's Baltimore coverage. "We want to put the city on the map for Latinos."

Oribio, Simancas and other staff members hope the paper will make its first mark on Baltimore today and tomorrow at the city's Showcase of Nations Hispanic Festival downtown. The 22nd annual festival will include music, dance and food from nations throughout Central and South America, and will be kicked off by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Simancas and his staff may be on to something -- but they won't be without competition.

In addition to two Spanish-language monthly newsletters published in the city's metro area, El Coloquio and the Cuban-focused El Mensajero, there is El Heraldo, a 6-year-old weekly that covers the Baltimore area from a Latino perspective.

In recent years, two other weeklies were launched in the city but were short-lived, according to Manuel Alban, editor and publisher of the 20,000-circulation El Heraldo.

"It's very hard, the newspaper business," Alban said. Of El Hispano, he said, "we'll welcome the competition and wish them luck."

Growing community

Simancas is hoping that the dramatic growth in the city's Spanish-speaking community will bring that luck.

By conservative estimates, the city's Latino community has more than doubled since the 1990 census found 7,600 residents -- an estimate that nearly everyone agrees is gross underestimation. Some, such as Dr. Sonia Fierro-Luperini of the mayor's Office on Hispanic Affairs, say the Latino population is 40,000 to 50,000.

And that doesn't take into account dramatic growth in surrounding counties. Between 1980 and 1990, for example, Latinos in Howard County increased by 149 percent to 3,700 and Baltimore County by 50 percent to 8,100, according to census figures.

"It's a new market, even though it's only an hour away [from Washington]," Simancas said. "It's a good opportunity."

Many believe the paper's success will depend on how well its articles can encompass the interests of Baltimore's diverse Latino community. Most newcomers who have arrived in the past 10 years are from Mexico and El Salvador, but a smaller, long-standing community is from Cuba and Puerto Rico.

Language issue

With El Heraldo's articles largely in Spanish, many longtime Latino residents insist Baltimore doesn't need another Spanish-language newspaper because it prevents many non-Spanish-speakers from accessing information and getting to know the community. (El Hispano will be 95 percent Spanish with a few English editorials, Simancas said.)

"If they're banking solely on Hispanics, it could be a problem," said Haydee Rodriguez, a community activist and consultant for Centro de la Comunidad, a Latino outreach organization.

Said Jose Ruiz, director of Education-Based Latino Outreach, "They need to go more bilingual because people running social programs and things like that are not bilingual."

Ruiz also hopes the information will spur more activism in the Latino community, which remains a relatively quiet presence in the city.

"We want a newspaper that really reports the news and not just the surface issues," he said.

Referring to the concentration of Latino businesses and churches on or near the main artery in Fells Point, Ruiz added, "We need to go beyond Broadway." For example, he said, issues of homelessness, alcoholism and education need to be covered. "Hopefully," he said, "some people will respond to these issues if they're aware of them."

Oribio, a Venezuelan-born media consultant and journalist, agreed. Though the first issue is expected to focus on attractions such as Camden Yards, the Inner Harbor and local businesses, it will also report on recent downtown protests over alleged abuse of Latinos by a city police officer.

His regular coverage, he said, will include social issues, education, youth and civil rights issues, among others:

"I want to inform people -- let them know what's going on in the city so they can be better citizens."

Pub Date: 8/14/99

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