Zócalo, a US publication that defies stereotypes about Latinos

Interview with creators of a website that redefines what it means to be Hispanic in America

Pablo Ximénez de Sandoval
Gregory Rodríguez, Dulce Vázquez and Andrés Martínez, at Zócalo.
Gregory Rodríguez, Dulce Vázquez and Andrés Martínez, at Zócalo.P. X. S.

The city that is home to the largest Mexican population in the world after the Mexican capital itself has its own online Zócalo square. The conversation is in English, and the problems of undocumented immigrants are not the main concern here.

Zócalo Public Square is a web publication that defies stereotypes about what it means to be a Hispanic media outlet by highlighting the interests of an American Latino generation that no longer accepts being treated as something exotic.

“Zócalo is an example of maturity and integration of Latinos and of how they have become an American mainstream cultural force,” says founder and publisher Gregory Rodríguez.

If you are Californian and Latino, you are living in a double ghetto. That was my experience with the American media” Gregory Rodríguez, Zócalo founder

A dozen people work together in an apartment in Santa Monica to make a website that has become a cultural reference for the educated debate in Los Angeles. Zócalo has even managed to bring together the mayor of L.A. and the directors of the movie Airplane! for a debate about the airport.

The editorial team includes Andrés Martínez, from Mexico City, Dulce Vásquez from Tamaulipas, and Gregory Rodríguez, an L.A. native. All of them speak Spanish, although they hardly use it when talking among themselves.

“We have had Latino media for more than 150 years; it’s nothing new,” Rodríguez says. “What you didn’t see before were prestigious cultural media outlets managed by Latinos. That is new. In other words, the Latino population is now producing a large number of university graduates who speak English and who are completely integrated Americans.”

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That is why Zócalo is an English-language publication, which is increasingly common among new Latino media outlets. “It’s very important,” he notes.

“Linguistic assimilation is complete. Many Latinos speak Spanish but their active language is English. To be an integrated, influential member of American society you have to speak fluent English. The difference now is that Latinos are not forced to forget Spanish like they had to in the 1950s.”

According to the Pew Research Center, more than 33 million people, or 68 percent of those who identify themselves as Hispanic, speak perfect English – 10 percent more than before the turn of the century. Meanwhile, 73 percent speak Spanish at home, though that number is slightly lower than in the 1990s.

Zócalo believes this trend is unstoppable and that the Spanish-speaking public for news will inevitably shrink over the years, just as the German-speaking media of the great 19th-century migration disappeared.

The Zócalo website.
The Zócalo website.

Before founding Zócalo, Rodríguez worked for 20 years for other media companies such as Los Angeles Times, writing about Latinos. “If you are Californian and Latino, you are living in a double ghetto. That was my experience with the American media.” He says the Spanish-speaking media also helped limit Hispanics to Latino issues, and even more so if they are located outside Washington, D.C..

“If you are a Latino, a Washington editor will make you write about Latinos,” he says. “But the fact is that Washington is not the center of the country’s debate; California is. The part of the country that does not look like the future is the one telling us the stories.”

Martínez worked at 44 newspapers before creating Zócalo and he had a similar experience. A Mexican is expected to want to talk about Mexican issues. “If your surname is Martínez and you come from Mexico, you’ll be assigned to that beat. [In Zócalo,] we are not in a trench like Latino activists. We simply have a [Hispanic] filter that everyone can find interesting.”

“The big media companies put you in a corner. You speak Spanish? Then go over there, in the Spanish corner. We do the opposite. We are in the center of the room and we speak for all. That is maturity. That is power,” Rodríguez says.

Hispanics can now use English to write their own story as Americans, he continues. “We are at the center of the American culture. We are telling the American story. Every group of Americans has fought to tell its American story its own way. That is the great thing about this country. The Jews, the Italians, the Irish, everyone came and said: ‘America is this.’ And now it’s our turn, but not for Latinos. For everyone. There is a critical mass of Latinos with enough education and self-confidence to say to Americans: ‘Do not ask me what it means to be Latino. I’m telling you what it means to be American.”

What it means to be an American

The Smithsonian Institution has partnered with Zócalo to publish a series of essays titled What it Means to Be American.

Rodríguez does not hide his frustration with traditional Latino media that act as self-proclaimed representatives of the Latino community. “They are not, or only for a part of it. There is a lack of precision when we talk about Latinos. The notion that there is a Latino America is wrong. There is not even a white America. There isn’t just one profile.”

Zócalo was born a decade ago to launch social gatherings. Its first creations were not articles but events. “The events were an immediate success,” Martínez says. He considers them as valid a journalistic genre as any other. “Events are content. Now, many publications are going in the opposite direction and doing events.”

Today, Zócalo organizes more than 70 educational events a year and they have extended to venues beyond Los Angeles, including one conference held in Berlin in October.

Zócalo Public Square is a not-for-profit organization and most of its donors are universities.

Translation by Dyane Jean François

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