As the sun rises over the nation’s capital, Charlie Ericksen takes the elevator down from his seventh floor apartment to his office on the first floor. In that office on N Street, Ericksen is touching the lives of aspiring journalists and changing the way mainstream media covers the Latino community.
Ericksen, 80, is the managing editor and founder of Hispanic Link, a syndicated bilingual news column published by dozens of news outlets nationwide. He founded the Link in 1980 because he felt the Latino community was not getting adequate coverage and opportunities from other news outlets.
In 1979, there were three Puerto Rican reporters nationwide, according to Ericksen. Many issues, he said, were seen from the perspective of “black and white,” and mainstream media rarely covered stories that affected Latino residents.
“There was not a single national syndicated column focusing on Hispanics,” Ericksen said. “But I didn’t want to be the writer of (a column on Hispanic issues) with a name like Charlie Ericksen – that would never sell. So I became editor and called on Hispanic experts and Hispanic people with interesting things to say.”
Ericksen spoke recently to a group of students and news professionals at the University of Texas at El Paso. He said when he started the Link it was his name that sometimes convinced white editors to pick up his column because they believed an Anglo man would be objective about the Hispanic community.
Ericksen, however, refers to himself as “an undercover Mexican.” He fell in love with the culture and the community in his 20’s after going to college in Mexico on a GI Bill after serving in the Korean War. It was in Oaxaca, Mexico that he found his true love, a petite woman named Sebastiana Mendoza.
“I knew a little more than how to order a beer when I went to Mexico. It wasn’t until I went to my wife’s village that I had to really learn to speak Spanish. If I wanted them to laugh at my jokes, I needed to learn the language.”
Ericksen married “Tana” and they moved to East Los Angeles, a mainly poor immigrant community that was vastly different from more affluent West Los Angeles area where he grew up.
“All the things that I took for granted as a person growing up in West Los Angeles – the nice priest men, the good schools and the paved roads – were not available to my kids living in East Los Angeles,” he said.
This prompted him to fight for the Mexican community. After working as a journalist for The Los Angeles Mirror for three years, he worked for the Civil Rights Commission on and off from 1970 to 1979. After he relocated with his family to Washington, D.C. in 1979 because of his job with the Commission, he wanted a real change. Ericksen knew nobody was going to give the Hispanic community a voice except for a few Spanish media outlets like Univision. It was then that he started the syndicated column.
Since founding the Link, Ericksen has single handedly worked with over 1,000 established and aspiring journalists to report on the issues affecting the Hispanic community.
“Over the last 30 years we’ve had 1,700 writers, 99 percent of them Hispanic,” Ericksen said. “We are approaching 300 students who have done at least a semester working out of our office; and we have between 400 to 500 papers who pick up the column, of which 100 are Spanish publications.”
As of Feb. 15, the Link has produced 4,864 columns and news articles. Ericksen says that number will continue to grow.
“I want to continue [highlighting] all of the contributions the Hispanic community makes to the U.S society. There are still many positive stories to be written,” he said. “Oftentimes editors like to focus on issues like immigration, drop out rates and gangs, when there is so much more about this community. We are here to write about that.”
It is the positive aspects of the community that inspire Ericksen and remind him of his love and respect for the Latino community, but an important motivator continues to be his wife who died of cancer in 1996.
“The inspiration for everything has been my wife,” he said. “She didn’t go to school, growing up in a fishing village. But she is the brightest, most courageous, nicest and most beautiful person I have ever known.”
Ericksen says the atmosphere at the Link among editors, staff writers and interns has always been family oriented. His sons, Hector and Carlos have been an integral part of the Link team.
“Carlos has been with us for 15 years and he’s the all purpose guy that keeps everything functioning,” Ericksen said. “Hector is in charge of the web distribution, and was with us full time a few years ago. If it hadn’t been for them, Hispanic Link would not have survived.”
Although he has guided the Link for 30 years, Ericksen has had a few setbacks. In 2005 he suffered a stroke that initially caused him to lose the ability to read.
“Eventually, I got my vision back but there is no question that it slowed me down,” he said.
“I just can’t run around like I used to, but I will keep going so long as I stay healthy. I’d go crazy if I didn’t have [the Link]. It’s been such a huge part of my life.”
Editor’s note: Borderzine reporter Josie Calanche also contributed to this report.