How border journalism learned the value of Spanish and local reporters

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A conversation with father and son journalists in El Paso. Aaron Bracamontes, digital content director for KTSM 9 News, interviews his father, Ramon, former El Paso Times managing editor, about the not-too-distant past when Hispanics and the Spanish language weren’t reflected in the makeup of the city’s largest newsroom.

Transcript

Aaron Bracamontes:  Me and you have kind of talked about it in the past. The El Paso Times I started at and the El Paso Times I left wasn’t the same El Paso Times that you start at. What was newspaper like here in El Paso when you started ,or just journalism in El Paso at the time?

Ramon Bracamontes:  Journalism in El Paso, a long time ago, was an amazing, an amazing competitive career. There were two newspapers in El Paso. The El Paso Herald Post, which published every afternoon, published every day except Sundays. And then the El Paso Times, who I worked for, was the competition.

And it was, we were housed in the same building with only a hallway dividing us. And it was competition to beat them in the stories. It was competition to get the story first, competition to get the investigation first. And it was a badge of honor every day if you could scoop your fellow police reporter. And it was great.

The other big difference now that, from back then to now, is that the El Paso Times was considered a major newspaper in Texas, in the United States. It’s still a major newspaper, but the difference is we used to cover the Olympics, we used to go cover the Super Bowl. We used to go cover national events. If there was an earthquake in Mexico City, we would get eight reporters, put them in an airplane and send them down to Mexico City to cover the earthquake. We did what big newspapers do now.

Because of the El Paso Times I’ve been able to see the world. I went, I was sent to Cuba to interview Fidel Castro, when he was in his prime in the ‘80s. I was sent to Europe to do stories out of Amsterdam and the Netherlands. I’ve been all over the country and all over the world because of my journalism and because the El Paso Times wanted to cover national and worldwide events, not just local, local, local.

Aaron Bracamontes: And it was Gannett back then, right?

Ramon Bracamontes: It was owned by Gannett. Yes

Aaron Bracamontes:  So speaking Spanish was a huge advantage for going down to Cuba and southern countries south of us, right?

Ramon Bracamontes:  Yes. The big advantage back then was Gannett was tied to the starting and the formation of USA Today and USA Today wanted to compete with the national newspapers. But, instead of hiring a staff of 500 people, they would rely on local reporters. And for a while for Gannett and for USA Today I was the unofficial, central South America correspondent for USA Today. It means anything that happened from south of El Paso all the way to Argentina, I would be sent to help with the news.

Aaron Bracamontes:  I think you’ve kind of one time mentioned, I mean, when I was at El Paso Times a year ago, there was Bracamontes, there was Martinez, there was Gonzalez, there was Borunda, there were a lot of, you know, a lot of Hispanic surnames. Was it like that back when you started? Or was it, I guess, did it represent El Paso as much?

Ramon Bracamontes:  When I started at the El Paso Times, it was 1984. The majority of the editors and the majority of the reporters did not speak Spanish. They didn’t think there was much of a need or value in somebody being able to speak Spanish. It has totally changed now. Everybody speaks Spanish.  Even the editors now, who didn’t use to speak Spanish, learned it, appreciated it and are moving now.

But the biggest misconception back then was that the reporters the El Paso Times hired to cover Juarez, were people that learned Spanish and learned about the Mexican culture and about the Hispanics, they learned it in universities away from the border. It was never a reporter who was born and raised in El Paso who knew Juarez like the back of their hand, just like they knew El Paso, like the back of their hand.

And that was the thing that I, and other editors as we moved up and got older. moved to change. We wanted natives from Juarez covering Juarez, we wanted natives from El Paso and Juarez covering both cities. And because of a lot of great editors the Times has had, starting with Paula Moore and Tom Fenton and Don Flores and Bob Moore. The culture there at the Times now is a lot of Spanish speaking and Spanish speaking is very much valued. It wasn’t in 1984.

It’s just amazing how life has changed. Back then speaking Spanish, being Hispanic was considered a negative and you had to work twice as hard to move up. Now if you speak Spanish, if you’re a minority, it’s seen as a positive and it’s, it’s a good thing to be able to speak both languages.

Aaron Bracamontes:  As you saw that change, what was it like? Did it feel like it was always heading in that direction or did it feel like it was a fight to get to that direction? Or did it feel like it was just a slow change?

Ramon Bracamontes:    It was a very slow change too, because it wasn’t just in the newsroom. It was happening throughout El Paso in the leadership. I remember that when I started in 1984, all the superintendents as a school district were Anglo – didn’t speak Spanish. Most of the elected officials except for maybe one in city council, were Anglo, not Hispanic. And most of the elected officials, the county attorney, the district attorney, were all Anglo – didn’t speak Spanish.

And I don’t know what year it was, but it was before 1990, it changed. All of a sudden, Jose Rodriguez became the county attorney and he spoke Spanish. Jaime Esparza became the district attorney, he spoke Spanish. A gentleman named Trujillo was named the superintendent in Ysleta School District and he spoke Spanish. Stan Paz was named the superintendent in the El Paso School District, and he spoke Spanish. So it took a long time, but in retrospect, it happened over night. All of a sudden you woke up and almost every other elected official was Hispanic. Almost every elected official spoke Spanish regardless of what their heritage was. And then the school districts were led by Hispanic speaking people, Hispanic people who spoke Spanish.

It hasn’t happened anywhere as fast as in El Paso, but in El Paso, it was a twofold. Because, and I don’t remember the years, it must’ve been the late eighties, early nineties, when we at the Times were experimenting about using Spanish words, maybe having a Spanish section, throwing in a Spanish word in the headline, throwing in a quote in Spanish. People were mad in El Paso at the El Paso Times for doing that. And we stopped.

But the reason we stopped and what really surprised me and others was that the people who got the most upset about seeing Spanish in the newspaper were Spanish speakers or Hispanics. And they said “I came here to learn English. I came here to become a part of the United States. I came here to acclimate myself. I want to read in English, I want to speak in English. I don’t need you putting Spanish in my daily newspaper in El Paso.” And I think that was why we pulled the plug on that experiment in the- I don’t know if it was the late eighties, early nineties, but we stopped putting Spanish in the El Paso Times. Instead, we went to a section by itself, delivered to certain neighborhoods.

Aaron Bracamontes:  One of the things that you always kinda told me that I still say today to reporters and editors is the reminder that as journalists, as much as we want to say we rough it sometimes, we still do live in the ivory tower because we have direct access to elected officials. We have direct access to CEOs.

But a big part of that, what you always tried to instill me, was know what the neighborhood says. And El Paso it was always kind of knowing the neighborhoods in El Paso, knowing the regular people who take their kids to games who, you know, go eat at the hole in the wall Mexican joints and knowing what they feel is the pulse of the city is a huge part of covering this town. How important was that? Or was bringing El Paso to El Paso through news. How important was that for you?

Ramon Bracamontes: That was always very important. Always very important. And I’ve been lucky that the editors that I worked for, gave me a seat at the table and they at least heard me when I said crazy things or things that I thought made sense. And one of the things I always pushed for was that we need, the El Paso Times and all the journalists, all the TV stations here, needed more Spanish speakers. More Spanish speakers, more Spanish speakers. And native El Pasoans are the way to go because El Paso is a different city.

I spent some time in Reno, I spent some time in Tucson. I spent time in Washington, D C, and El Paso is just a very different city, that is, I guess a small town in lots of respects. So you need the people that can relax and interview somebody’s grandma and interview somebody who is struggling to open a new store, a new shop, and a new little restaurant. And you need to bring those people forward because they have something to bring them to the table and you can learn from them. Others can learn from them by talking to them.

I am super, super competitive. So when I walked into the newsroom as a young kid out of UTEP and there were great reporters there, like David Landis and Gary Scharrer, or Ramon Renteria and David Crowder, who had been there awhile. My goal, and I would tell them, is that ‘I’m going to be your boss and I’m going to be better than you.’ So I learned from them and I learned how to do good stories. I learned from the editors who were helping me write stories like Ben Keck and John Moore and Dan Elliott. I observed them from all, I observed Nan Kick. I observed Kate Gannon, Bob Moore. And my goal was to take what they had and take my street instincts and my Lower Valley raising and my Spanish influence and mesh those things together. And I think I was able to do that, which is why  I was promoted real fast. I was sent around the world to talk to people. I mean, they, no matter what happened, if they needed somebody to go fast and mobile and get somewhere, it would be me.

It helped me get to where I wanted to get. I mean, there was one story when, a bunch of people from Aguascalientes, Mexico came to El Paso. They crossed the border illegally. They were put in a train in a boxcar and they were going to go to Dallas. The boxcar got stuck outside of Tornillo in 105 degree weather. And within a couple of hours, all 29 people in that boxcar died.

When they were sending them back home, I was going to – when they were putting them in caskets and sending them back home-  I was at the Juarez airport and I was doing the story. All I had was maybe 5 dollars in my pocket and a notebook. And one of the airplanes that was taking the caskets back, and the pilot, and it was the mayor or the governor of Aguascalientes. He had an extra seat in his little plane in his – I don’t know what kind of plane it was, it was small. And I said, is anybody going in there? Can I get in there? And I said it in Spanish and I said it real friendly and he said, “Yes, come on in.”

So I just got in the plane and I went to their hometown, which was in the mountains in Aguascalientes. Didn’t have a hotel room, didn’t have a credit card, didn’t have money. Didn’t have anything. But once when I got there, I befriended a family and said, ‘I have nowhere to stay. I am- I don’t know anybody in this town. I don’t have a hotel there’s no hotels here.” And they said, stay in our house. You can have the sofa, you can stay here. They fed me three times a day and I was able to send stories back every time.

So it was my street smarts, my Hispanic heritage that helped me get that. But then it was the journalism training that I got from Gannett and from my peers that would make me, that made me successful. That was able to mesh both of them.

 

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