War of the Words

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"They're not just reporting, they're physically out there," Esparza says. "At political rallies, they're providing food and water for people. When a family's gone through a disaster, they're organizing relief efforts. They're more than a newspaper."

When Manny Garcia founded Prensa Hispana in October 1990, he was the owner of a string of thriving South Phoenix businesses, including an auto body shop, a Mexican restaurant and a video store. He knew nothing about journalism, and his writing experience amounted to little more than purchase orders and grocery lists.

His wife, Lety Miranda-Garcia, recalls: "People would say, 'He needs to go back to the shop. He doesn't know what he's doing.'"

But Garcia was nothing if not persistent. He siphoned money from his shop, Extra Care Auto, into the paper and became a determined one-man staff: writing stories, taking photos with his beat-up old camera and desperately trying to sell ads to a skeptical business community. He converted a small room in the corner of Extra Care Auto into a makeshift newspaper office.

From the start, Prensa was a bottomless money pit. Garcia not only had to sell his house to maintain the paper, but often had to open the shop on Sundays just to scrape up enough money for food.

As Manny sank more time and income into the fledgling paper, Lety became increasingly irate. With her husband never home, and most of the family's money disappearing into the ether, she became convinced he was having an affair.

"A lot of money was going out," says the 48-year-old Garcia, a stocky, mustachioed man whose jowly visage suggests a Hispanic incarnation of Baltimore Colts legend Johnny Unitas. "My wife was upset. We were fighting every day. I said, 'Look, I'm not seeing anybody else. I'm trying to make a business.'"

Despite his lack of journalistic expertise, Prensa Hispana gradually grew from an eight-page, biweekly publication with a printing run of 3,000 copies into the most powerful Spanish newspaper in the Valley, with an estimated weekly circulation of 65,000. In 1993, Lety Miranda-Garcia even set aside her long-standing objections and volunteered to help her husband run the paper.

All along, Garcia insisted that Prensa wasn't conceived as a money-making operation, but as a tool for getting information to a community that was often alienated by its inability to speak English. Often that information has consisted of such basic, practical items as where children can receive immunizations, or what federal programs are available to struggling families.

Garcia is described by his supporters as someone who doesn't hesitate to organize charity events for people who are down on their luck, who will take money out of his own pocket to help the needy, and who will publicly scold someone if he thinks the individual is discriminating against minorities.

But, for all the goodwill he's earned over the years, questions about Garcia's journalistic credentials have never completely disappeared. Detractors privately snipe -- with some justification -- that Prensa Hispana is poorly written, that it's rife with errors, and that the paper seems to reward favored advertisers with editorial coverage.

Sensing that Garcia's paper might be vulnerable, and anticipating that forthcoming census figures will show an impressive growth in the local Latino population, Ricardo Torres, longtime general manager at Spanish-language radio station KVVA-FM 107.1, and David Kaye, the feisty publisher of TV y Más, joined forces a year ago to create La Voz. Although Kaye has purposely stayed out of the spotlight, his investment in the paper has led some to brand La Voz "an Anglo publication," created purely for mercenary reasons.

Whatever the motivations behind it, La Voz did not emerge in a vacuum. In recent years, the Valley has seen an unprecedented explosion in Latino broadcast media. In the last 15 years, Phoenix radio has expanded from one Spanish-language radio station to 10. Four new Spanish stations have come into the market in the last two years alone. One of them, KHOT-FM 105.9, also known as La Nueva, has rated as high as third among all local stations in some listener surveys. Sixty-second radio ads, which sold for $10 on Spanish-language stations a decade ago, now go for more than $200.

Television is also witnessing a newly prominent Latino presence. Only a month ago, Channel 3 -- in a joint venture with Cox Communications -- launched Más! Arizona, a 24-hour Spanish-language cable station that's the first of its kind in the Southwest.

But the competition for ratings points has been a fairly detached and civil one, for two reasons. First, the Phoenix Hispanic audience has been so underserved on radio and television that the market seems able to absorb even a rapid influx of new Spanish programming. Spanish-language programmers argue convincingly that the local market could support even a couple more Latino-targeted radio stations. Second, most of the radio and TV stations involved are owned by corporate behemoths based in other parts of the country, so the competitors seem faceless and nonthreatening.

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Gilbert Garcia
Contact: Gilbert Garcia