Three team members were University of Arizona graduates and had studied journalism there: José Galvez, Virginia Escalante and I. Two decades after the Pulitzer, that connection helped in reuniting the team at the UA in Tucson. Olga Briseño, founder of the Media, Democracy and Policy Initiative, organized seminars and a dinner on the theme “20 Years After the Pulitzer.” With Briseño’s assistance, the University of Arizona Library Special Collections also mounted an exhibit on the Latino series and the Pulitzer.
Ten team members attended the events in October, 2004: Almeida, Escalante, Galvez, Montemayor, Moran, Ramos, Rivera Brooks, Sahagun, Valle and I. Del Olmo, who had planned to attend, died the previous February. Dr. Félix Gutiérrez, our close friend, then a USC journalism professor, also took part. The setting provided an opportunity to talk, laugh and reflect. The seminars afforded the setting to reflect on our series and Latinos’ status in the news media.
John Carroll, editor of The Times in 2004, took part in the seminars and was featured speaker at the concluding dinner. Drawing from nearly a decade of service on the Pulitzer board, Carroll commented on why he thought the Latino series had won the 1984 Pulitzer.
Effect on people’s perceptions
“The Public Service award typically recognizes investigative work that causes a provable result,” Carroll explained. With the Latino series, he said, the Pulitzer board might not have been able to “put a finger on a particular result. I am guessing the Pulitzer board members were trusting their instincts that this [series] affected the way people think, which in many ways was most important in the long haul.… The series was done so well and so convincingly that the Pulitzer board [chose it for the prize]. And I think that was one of the best decisions made by the board in many a year.
“Most Pulitzers are—let’s face it, they’re forgotten,” Carroll continued. “But some of them are remembered, and I’ll bet you that everyone in journalism in the ’80s remembers this one.”
Carroll said the series and its Pulitzer victory had sent a series of messages—to Times management, to the Southern California public and to aspiring Latino journalists—of the importance of recognizing the full breadth of the Latino community. He called the series “part of the process to make this a more democratic nation, a more just nation.”
In 2006, a University of Arizona film student, Roberto Gudiño, was inspired by the Latino series team’s story and produced a 20-minute documentary film, “Below the Fold: The Pulitzer That Defined Latino Journalism.” Gudiño’s compelling film was supported by Briseño, then of the UA’s Media, Democracy and Policy Initiative.
The film premiered in August of 2007 before a full house at the Loft Cinema in Tucson. A number of team members attended a screening of “Below the Fold” later that year at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival. We were overwhelmed by the audience’s positive response and numerous questions. One teacher told us: “This film is inspirational. It should be shown to every student in Los Angeles.”
Digging through old files, reading transcripts of team members’ interviews, connecting with them once again brought back cherished memories of our time together.
“We had something going on there that, in retrospect, was precious and something that I can’t forget, I will never forget,” Robert Montemayor told Gudiño in 2006.
As I did research for this story, I was blown away by a phrase used by Pulitzer jurors and board members about our series—“a landmark piece of journalism.” Those are powerful words.
“I think [the Latino series] opened the eyes of the general public that had held all these misconceptions, these stereotypical ideas” about Mexican Americans and other Latinos, George Ramos told Gudiño. “We’re Americans. We just have Mexican blood through our veins. You know, we pledge allegiance to the flag, we do all the things that I think good Americans are all about.”
Other team members expressed similar sentiments, saying our collective portrait of Latinos showed a common humanity with other Americans. “The stories showed that Latinos care about the same issues and values as the rest of the country,” Julio Moran said.
Public Service juror David Hawpe of Louisville offered this assessment. “I thought the series anticipated a powerful movement in the composition of the American political landscape. I thought it introduced a range of issues that all of America would be dealing with one day soon, and, of course, that proved to be true.”
“More of a look ahead”
“You [can] read the Latino series,” said Dr. Félix Gutiérrez, “and it’s as much of a look back as it is ahead. In many ways, it’s more of a look ahead.”
Terry Schwadron, the series’ executive news editor and later a New York Times editor, said: “What makes this project relevant today is the continuing myopia in our society. That Donald Trump could be elected president in 2016 while espousing vitriolic misstatements about Latinos in our society, mischaracterizing the effects of immigration issues and expressing it all in a tone of disrespect shows that the job of explaining, showing, reflecting journalistically is not done.”
The Latino series’ journalists “made American journalism better, deeper and smarter,” said Marcos Bretón, a Sacramento Bee columnist. “The series opened the eyes of news editors who may have consciously or unconsciously discounted job applicants with Spanish surnames. That opened the door wider for me and for many other Latino journalists to take our places in a noble profession.”
In the late ’60s and in 1970, many of my Latino journalism peers and I gained inspiration from the groundbreaking work of correspondent/columnist Ruben Salazar. In much the same way, many younger Latino journalists have told me, they were inspired by our work on the Latino series.
Bretón said it this way: “More than 30 years later, many of us owe those journalists a debt of gratitude that we can never fully repay.”
To me, the series underscored the value of in-depth news coverage of underreported communities. Until publication of our series, such coverage had often been undervalued and derided as “the taco beat.” Our series signaled to the journalism world the rich value of explanatory journalism about all the people in our communities.
The power of coverage
“I certainly had the impression, anecdotally, that other editors of my acquaintance got the message,” Hawpe said. “A number of us loved the fact that it demonstrated what having a staff that reflects the community can do for the quality and power of coverage.”
In 1983, our series emerged in a special set of circumstances when our team, made up entirely of Mexican American journalists, conceived of the series stories and produced them. But fair, accurate, inclusive coverage is the responsibly not of a single group but of all newsroom journalists. That task has become even more important today, when we are confronted by a polarized nation.
As I look back, 34 years after we produced the Latino series, I salute my fellow team members who made it happen. That our purpose was fulfilled is rewarding. That our long-shot entry—an entry that almost didn’t make it to the starting line—won the top prize in the print journalism world is marvelous.