Who Is Cesar Chavez?
Tony Castro writes 4/1/04:
We chat about Frank del Olmo and his journalistic legacy.
Tony: "None of his disciples have produced anything. I don't know if that's telling or what."
Luke: "I'd never heard of him before his obituary came out."
Frank: "Maybe Frank will be remembered not for things he did as a journalist, but as a Latino journalist."
Luke: "It seemed strange to me that all the specific compliments given to Frank on his passing were for Latino activism."
Tony: "The last 20 years, he didn't do a great deal of reporting. When I came here in 1978, he was writing a weekly opinion piece. Even the time he spent in El Salvador, was not where you could point to this story or that story as being on the news pages.
"You wouldn't have noticed him for his reporting and his op/ed pieces were dry and uncontroversial and not very moving until he started writing about little boy [with autism].
"When Frank was a young reporter, there may not have been more than one or two Spanish-surnamed reporters on the staff. And those that were there, were probably doing features, like Al Martinez.
"Frank ended up bringing in George Ramos and some of the other Spanish reporters on the staff."
Luke: "So what did he do the last 20 years except write his column?"
Tony: "He advised the paper. He was in editorial board meetings. He wrote editorials in the early '80s under Janet Clayton. For a long time, he had an odd title, assistant to the publisher. That changed to associate editor.
"At the Times, even some of its premiere reporters don't do a lot. You have people who have the luxury of spending weeks on a story."
Luke: "What was the quality of your friendship with him?"
Tony: "It's not like I have a lot of quality friends around me. I have sportswriter friends but in the news media, only a handful of friends. Frank and I would talk regularly. A lot of his work the past 20 years was ceremonial. You would see Frank at numerous activities but you may not see anything come out of that. I don't want to say that he was [figurehead for] community representation for the Times, but he was. He became highly visible at various media, community, functions. You wouldn't see copy coming out of that.
"Frank and his wife along with other Latino power couples put together the Latino Fund, which I did not know existed until a few months ago. He was involved with a group called Hispanics for the Opera and the Dorthy Chandler Pavillion."
I have to go off to another interview but I call Tony back in an hour.
Tony: "Luke, of all things, we were just sitting here with another reporter talking about the Chicano News Media Association."
Luke: "You've never been a member?"
Tony: "They probably wouldn't have me."
Luke: "Have you ever joined an ethnic-based news organization?"
Luke: "Why not?"
Tony: "I don't know. I didn't grow up in an environment that fostered that kind of thing. I wasn't a fraternity man. The only thing I've been a member of is the Roman Catholic church, and that may not have been by choice."
Luke: "What is your precise ethnic heritage?"
Tony: "My family is from Mexico. My dad's side of the family is from Mexico and my mom's side from Spain."
Luke: "Have you felt as a Latino that you have had to battle prejudice and bigotry every where you go?"
Tony pauses for almost ten seconds: "No. For me it wasn't quite like that. Maybe I was sheltered? I'm 57 years old. I was born in 1946. I grew up in Waco, Texas. In the 1950s, that was right in the heart of the Bible belt. There weren't a lot of Latinos or African Americans in Waco. I grew up around poor white kids and a smattering of poor African-American kids and one or two other Latino kids. I was aware of being Hispanic or Latin, but I didn't run into the kind of open discrimination that many other Hispanics have run into. I did the whole middle class number -- Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Little League, Teenage League, everything else that was going on that you could possibly do. My dad's frame of reference for his priorities in life was God, family, the Dallas Cowboys, and baseball, and unfortunately, in the reverse order. There was a great deal of sports growing up. My dad worked at the big VA hospital. He was one of those proud Latino WWII veterans.
"The thing that I grew up most aware of was anti-Semitism. One of my best friends was Jewish and she was always talking to me about this."
Luke: "In your professional life, have you had to constantly battle bigotry against Latinos?"
Tony: "I've seen it. I've probably made a career, to some degree, on it, unwittingly. When I graduated from Baylor college in January of 1970 with a degree in journalism, I had dozens of job offers from newspapers in Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma. I thought it was just because I was such a great college journalist. I had no idea that they wanted to hire me because I happened to have the right surname and speak Spanish. I was naive.
"The grape boycott and the grape strike had gone on... I had read about them but it was not something that had reached me."
Luke: "Let's say you were in a meeting with four Mexican-Americans, and your boss came on the speaker phone and said, 'Bring your Mexicans and come in here.' How would you react?'
Tony laughs. He laughs often and easily. "I would probably not be happy."
Tony: "I came to Los Angeles in 1978. This was around 1980. I get a call from Frank del Olmo and George Ramos (once a reporter, he's now chair of Cal Poly Pomona's Journalism department). We have lunch. They tell me this crazy bizarre tale about how they had gotten into trouble at the Times in a meeting with the new publisher, Tom Johnson. He headed up LBJ's radio station in Texas and then became a suit with the LA Times.
"The publisher was invited to a CCNMA (California Chicano News Media Association, ccnma.org) meeting at La Fonda on Wilshire. Johnson thought he was going there for a get-together. He gets there and, according to del Olmo and Ramos, things got out of hand. You had these journalists rabidly critiquing the Times hiring policies, history, and just bitching at the publisher. It became such a confrontational thing, it became embarrassing.
"A couple of days later, Johnson talked about it to his brass and the story got down to the city editor and he calls del Olmo and Ramos. It was not a happy time. Del Olmo and Ramos contacted me [at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner] to do their dirty work. They knew I was always looking for a story. I remember that thing, 'Round up your Mexicans and get in here.'
"Years later, when I recalled that for those guys [Frank and George], they were uptight about it. You have to go back to the history of Latinos in Los Angeles. This doesn't emotionally get to me in the way it does many Latinos because I did not grow up here. I guess the papers in Los Angeles in the '40s and '50s didn't deal with a number of civil rights issues in the best of ways. They were insensitive to Latino rights and not as fair as they could have been. They offended a lot of people, among them del Olmo's mother. He did a piece on how his mom refused to subscribe to the LA Times even after he was in the premiere position he was in. He quotes her saying, 'Mijo, let me know when you've written something and I will buy it at the newsstand.'
"She was part of that whole generation that felt the news media in their coverage of the Zoot Suit riots and the Sleepy Lagoon murders...had unfairly targeted Hispanics."
Luke: "Do you know if del Olmo had any relationship with Alisa Valdes Rodriguez and her famous flameout where she accused the LA Times of committing genocide against Latinos?"
Tony: "No. I will tell you this -- every Latino or Latina who has been hired at the Times has been approved by these guys. There's a reporter at the Washington Post since 1987, Ruben Castaneda, who grew up in El Monte, California, and graduated from USC around 1983, a time when the Times was looking right and left for bilingual Latino journalists with a knowledge of East Los Angeles. Ruben has no real sins against him except maybe he's a bad dresser, could never get hired at the LA Times. Ruben worked at the Herald Examiner for several years, left [six weeks] before its closing. He's wound up as a reporter of some note at the Washington Post. He's probably made a number of applications over the years to work at the LA Times. But he could not get approval from this Mexican Mafia that included Frank."
[Ruben Castaneda writes Luke: "I don't know anything about the internal workings of the LA Times. I don't know anything about alleged "racial mafias." Maybe some current or former LA Times staffers could help you with that question. I did have a couple of (unpaid) internships at the LA Times in the early 1980s, one in Metro downtown, one in the San Gabriel Valley. During both internships I was in college and I also had a paying job; I concentrated on the work."]
Luke: "I really want to tie Alisa's flameout to Frank."
Tony: "I don't know if you can. Those flameouts happen to people, sometimes good people. It's sad. She needs to deal with some issues."
Luke: "This Mexican Mafia. They weren't just looking for Latinos, they were looking for the right kind of Latinos, those Latinos who share their worldview."
Tony; "The excuse they finally used with Reuben was that he did not dress very well."
Luke: "Who were the other key members of the Mexican Mafia?"
Tony: "Anybody who worked there who was there for a length of time. Frank Sotomayor."
Luke: "Is the LA Times an ethnically balkanized place?"
Tony: "I was told that it was. You have an African American faction that at one point was stronger than the Latino faction."
Luke: "You said Frank had a love/hate relationship with the Times. What did he hate about the place?"
Tony: "That whole thing about, 'Bring your Mexicans in.' They were not happy campers about that. Remember how Frank threatened to walk off when the Times endorsed Governor Wilson? Frank was not happy when they canned George Ramos's page two or three column in the mid '90s. It was a curious choice of this veteran reporter to write this column. I remember Frank coming to me, 'George is about to lose his job.'
"I remember in the 1970s, Frank and I wondered if we were tokens, stuck in a little room as a Latino journalist. I was reporting a great deal on Latino affairs for the Dallas Morning News and for the Washington Post."
Luke: "Was Frank as obsessed with ethnicity as the tributes portray him? He seemed to be primarily about -- is it good my group."
Tony: "I don't know if it was like that consciously. He had a tremendous interest and involvement in those things. If you look at his columns from the time he started writing columns, that is all he ever wrote about. I don't think you can find a column [that wasn't about Latino concerns]. I think that possibly answers your question about how much of it was ethno-centric."
Luke: "Did he break any big stories?"
Tony: "He might have back in the seventies. He was a columnist and editorial writer when I came to Los Angeles in 1978."
Luke: "A columnist can break stories."
Tony: "Yeah. I thought his best work were the pieces on his son."
Luke: "Did you read the 1984 series on Latinos that won the Pulitzer Prize?"
Luke: "Did it contribute anything?"
Tony: "What was most monumental about that series was that the Times had never devoted that much space concentrated over that period of time to Latinos."
Luke: "Were they breaking stories or were they interminable like the New York Times series on race a few years ago?"
Tony laughs: "It was in that genre."
Luke: "A series to gain a prize, but it was hard to read."
Luke: "How long do you think we will have this ethnic balkanization in major American newspapers? Will we grow out of it in another generation?"
Tony: "A couple of generations. I think it will grow worse. What happened with Jayson Blair has made for some retrenchment of positions...
"I did a column on Frank around 1981 when he was picked as one of the guest [journalists] on Meet the Press. I think the issue was immigration. He happened to be the first Latino journalist to appear on that show. Frank was always living under the shadow of Reuben Salazar but here was something Reuben had never done. I don't know of too many other Latino journalists on Meet the Press. I can't think of one. It's not like you can look at the national political press and say there's one hispanic journalist who stands out. It's not like we've had a Carl Rowan [late black journalist on TV news and syndicated columnist]."
Luke: "Do you think Frank and the Mexican Mafia would've hired a Latino journalist who was a conservative Republican?"
Tony: "Hire is probably the wrong. If you went and asked them, they would say, 'We have no role in that. Except if someone is interviewing a potential hiree and comes to us and asks, 'Do you know so and so?'' But the reality is far beyond that. Would too many editors in this country in a hiring position hire someone who was a conservative Republican?
"When Robert Scheer was a young journalist covering a campaign, they would look upon him with a particular look because he didn't hide his leanings. And yet, after hours, he'd find these guys at the pub drinking, and once they'd had a few drinks in them, they too were pontificating about what was right and wrong. Scheer says this whole thing about objectivity in the media is bogus. You have these political reporters who have feelings that they think they are somehow submerging.
"I don't know too many conservative Republican journalists. Looking back on my career to the early '70s, I can only think of one. Jim Atkinson who was a political reporter at the Dallas Times Herald and helped found D - the magazine of Dallas. He writes for Texas Monthly. I don't know if he was a conservative, but he was a Republican.
"It used to be that almost any article on Latino issues was written by a Latino. But the best reporting I can recall on Caesar Chavez was by Roy Aarons, [a white Jew who now teaches at USC]. In the '70s, he was the West Coast reporter for the Washington Post.
"I published a book in 1974 by Dutton, Chicano Power: The Emergence of Mexican Americans. One of those books I haven't been able to live down. It's painted me into this corner. When I did the research for the book, I found the best stuff was by Roy Aarons.
"He was one of the first journalists, a few years ago, to come out of the closet.
"There was a group of young journalists who learned a great deal from him because he traveled throughout the Southwest. I remember meeting him when he came to Dallas and befriending him. The bottom line is you don't have to be Latino to do the definitive pieces on Latinos, just like you don't have to be black to do the definitive pieces on blacks, though you will get a lot of arguments there. The best quoted tract on American democracy was something written by a Frenchman [Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1830s]."
Tony Castro writes: