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Home > Publications > Quill > A community divided

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Friday, February 2, 2007
A community divided

How one bilingual sports series splintered an Indiana city

By Maria Burns

We tend to forget the far-reaching impact our work can have. We write a story. It goes to print. We get up and do it again the next day.

Then, often in the least likely of places, we discover how much an effect our writing can have. My realization came a few months ago.

My mother was at a conference for bilingual education in Washington, D.C., and she sat at a lunch table with people from around the country. A woman sitting across from her happened to be from Indianapolis.

Someone asked what it was like being Hispanic in a place like Indiana.

For the most part, people are respectful of other cultures, the woman said, but at times, it becomes evident that there are still pockets of prejudice.

She launched into a story about a sports writer in Fort Wayne, a city about two hours north of the woman’s hometown.

This sports writer was writing World Cup articles in Spanish for her paper. The backlash was terrible.

“People were saying such ignorant things; it made me almost embarrassed to be from Indiana,” the woman said.

But the reporter stood up to them and stuck with it, the woman concluded.

“Can you believe that?” my mom asked me after recounting the anecdote.

I couldn’t. Not because it didn’t happen. I know it did. I couldn’t believe it because the reporter was me.

When I accepted the assignment, it seemed like it would be fun, the kind of project sports writers look for to keep them busy over the summer lull: watch a World Cup game a day and offer tongue-in-cheek commentary on what I saw.

We’d strip it along the bottom and run it throughout the monthlong tournament. That was the initial idea.

About a week before the project launched, Linda Austin, executive editor of The News-Sentinel, approached me with another initiative: maybe I could write something in Spanish to go along with the daily column.

“I think the idea was how many Hispanics, and specifically Spanish-speakers, there are in Fort Wayne,” she said when asked about the concept six months later. The 2004 census puts the number of Allen County residents identifying themselves as Hispanic or Latino at 17,544, or 5.1 percent of the population. “The thinking was to try and do something that would attract readers to try the paper.”

A translation wouldn’t work. It’s one thing to have a lighthearted take on soccer for an American audience that doesn’t have much interest in the sport, at least according to the numbers in our market.

With a Spanish-speaking audience that likely grew up with soccer ingrained as part of its culture, the columns needed to be a little more analytical. My written Spanish was a little rusty, but I’d interned at a Spanish-language paper in college and spent several months working at an English-language paper in Costa Rica, so I knew it would come back pretty quickly.

“Sure,” I said. “I can do that. No problem.”

Soon after that discussion, the problems began. We had some trouble finding a competent editor, but we managed to solve those issues relatively quickly — in large part, because I said we wouldn’t be running a Spanish column until we had someone qualified to read the copy.

With an editor in place, I thought the hard part was over. It hadn’t even started.

The first columns ran June 7, two days before the tournament began. The feedback I received the first week was minimal, and then something happened. I’m not exactly sure what it was, but almost overnight, the protest started.

The first e-mail began: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

The writer went on to berate me for writing in Spanish.

It bothered me a little, but I brushed it off. The next morning, I got another angry response. And another one. And another.

I brought it to the attention of my editors, and they decided to run an editor’s note with the Spanish version explaining why we were doing it. In part, the note read, “We hope the content will introduce (Spanish-speaking) readers to the newspaper and encourage them to flex their English skills with other parts of the paper, even after the World Cup.”

This did little to assuage the negative feedback. In just a few days, I received nearly a dozen unfavorable responses. I was accused of everything from “pandering to illegals” to “ruining America.”

Fed up, I wrote a column addressing the issue. It ran June 20.

“This column is supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek look at the World Cup,” I wrote. “For the most part, it has been just that, but I’m going to step away for the moment and address something else.”

I went on to write:

“When I agreed to do a column on the World Cup in English and Spanish, I didn’t expect the response I’ve gotten. A few people e-mailed me to say they like the idea, but more have said they are dropping their subscription to The News-Sentinel.

“Some say, ‘This is America. We speak English.’ Says who? I’m an American, and I speak Spanish and English. I’m not going to apologize for that. Supposedly, the wonderful thing about this country is that we are a nation of blended cultures.

“If some people reading my column are offended by the fact that The News-Sentinel is appealing to another culture within the Fort Wayne community, I’m not the least bit sorry.”

The floodgates opened.

Project in danger

The negative comments turned from disapproving to furious. People were going off on hateful, close-minded and blatantly racist rants. They became hostile, attacking me personally, even calling for my deportation (never mind that I was born in Southern California).

I wasn’t the only person the complaints were directed toward, either. My editor, Elbert Starks III, received a number of objections to the project, as did our executive editor and publisher. People called and sent letters. Readers threatened to cancel their subscriptions; final count was that six people did.

Two-hundred words a day were having more of an impact on people who couldn’t even read them than I could have imagined.

My editor considered stopping the project — not because he agreed with the dissenters, but because he felt I didn’t need to be subjected to that kind of abuse.

Under no circumstances did I agree that was the solution. I refused to give in and let them have their way. I was going to finish out the tournament in English and Spanish. There would be no negotiation.

From there, it was a matter of deciding what we would do. My editor, our executive editor and the paper’s senior editor, Kerry Hubartt, held a meeting to discuss our response.

We decided the sports editor would write a column expounding on the editor’s note.

By running the stories, he wrote, The News-Sentinel acknowledged that “some people in our community are more accomplished in their ability to speak Spanish than English” and “unless some of our coverage was in Spanish, some of those local fans of soccer might have little to no opportunity to get daily print coverage of an event about which they care passionately.”

Addressing the people critical of the pieces, he added, “Traditionally, newspapers have provided opportunities for those who do not speak English fluently to grow more comfortable with the language. Newspapers also have been a reflection of the people who live in their communities. The United States is not a place where everyone uses English first or fluently.”

The piece reiterated that there is a growing Hispanic community within Fort Wayne. It is, in fact, the fastest-growing demographic in the area, having increased almost 150 percent between 1990 and 2000.

We opened up the Web site as a forum for readers to discuss their views on the topic, in an attempt to take some of the heat off me and encourage a dialogue. I’m not sure if that curtailed the attacks I received, but it was nice to see people openly coming to my defense.

I still didn’t feel that was enough. The whole thing continued to gnaw at me. I couldn’t just leave it be. I had to write something.

I was slightly hesitant at first. I’m a sports writer, and sports writers generally stay away from hot-button topics that fall outside the realm of sports. Still, I knew I needed to say something. I had never felt more compelled to write anything. I was debating what to do when it hit me.

Long before I was a sports writer, I was a Latina. That would become the title of my response.

I went home and started writing. I made a few phone calls, and a column just came together. But I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with the piece. It was bigger than my sports column, and this wasn’t about sports. This was about being unapologetic for being Hispanic (my mother is Venezuelan).

So, the next afternoon, I approached our senior editor. I told him I had written a column and asked if it could be run as an editorial.

“Sure,” he said. “Just pass it along.”

It ran the next day. I explained that I am a sports writer. That sports are often an escape from the harder news of the world. That I understand sports writers are supposed to be apolitical.

“But I also learned that sometimes, even if you don’t want to, you have to take a stand,” I wrote.

Then, I began to address some of the more ignorant e-mails I had received. One said that in Los Angeles, my hometown, lives are lost every year because firefighters can’t read the street signs in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods. I informed readers that all the street signs in Los Angeles are in English and — as a spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department said when I called to get his response to such a statement — “the numbers are, too.”

I explained that undocumented immigrants did not reintroduce smallpox to America, because according to the Centers for Disease Control, smallpox has been “eliminated from the world.”

Furthermore, I let my readers know that I wouldn’t refer to the language I was writing the non-English articles in as “Mexican.”

I wrote, “In fact, there are 21 countries with Spanish as their official language, and only one of them is Mexico.”

I told my readers about the spiteful e-mails. Then, I told them about the few kind ones. The ones thanking me for writing in Spanish. The ones encouraging me not to stop. The ones apologizing for the ignorance of others.

“I would have continued writing in Spanish even if I’d gotten no positive feedback,” I wrote. “The e-mails keep me going. The negative ones perhaps push me even harder, and the positive letters give me hope.”

Having said my piece, I thought that would be the end of it. It was — from the standpoint of what I would write on the subject. But it was only the beginning in regard to the response the editorial would draw.

I received more than 40 e-mails and a few handwritten letters about the column from people all over the country. They offered words of encouragement and support. Those notes continued throughout the tournament, while the negative responses all but ceased — I received just two more.

The headline on my final column read “60-game odyssey survived.”

It referred to my watching at least part of 60 out of the tournament’s 64 games for the series, but it also inadvertently captured how I felt about the entire experience. It was challenging at times, but I persevered and became stronger as a result.

I’m sure columnists at much larger papers are used to that kind of response, but knowing dozens of people would be so moved to write me about what I wrote and tell me how much it meant to them was inspiring.

We must take a stand

I hadn’t set out to do anything more than write about the World Cup for 30 days, but I found myself forced to take a stand and defend myself and my heritage. It saddened me that I would have to deal with such issues in 2006.

Coming into the project, this kind of backlash never crossed my mind. That might have been naive on my part. I don’t know. What I do know is that in the end, it’s not as bleak as it seemed. While the hateful voices might be the loudest initially, there are far more open-minded people out there to drown them out.

Sometimes, you just need to alert people to what’s going on. You’ll be surprised by how quickly they’ll speak up to defend what’s right.

In journalism, there is supposedly no such thing as “right” because we’re all supposed to be unbiased, but racism is wrong. Racism is not just calling someone a politically incorrect term. It’s denigrating a person’s language and culture.

The people writing me to complain might not see or believe that, but I had to put it out there. People who had never been exposed to this kind of prejudice needed to know it existed in our community. Everyone needed to know these attitudes shouldn’t be tolerated.

A lot of people want to blame it on “small towns, small minds,” but I don’t believe it’s just limited to smaller cities. (With a greater-area population of about 350,000, Fort Wayne is probably a mid-sized city anyway.) I don’t buy that mentality, although this kind of thinking is probably more prevalent in nonmetro areas and certain geographic regions.

I look at certain legislation being passed in states across America and by the federal government — from reforms that make it more difficult for undocumented workers and specifically their children to receive education or health care to a 700-mile wall being built along the U.S.-Mexico border — and see these attitudes extending far beyond places such as Fort Wayne, Ind. Still, my experience has shown me that the people who do not share those narrow-minded views outnumber those who do.

As a journalist with a voice and a platform, it’s important for all of us to take a stand when the situation demands such action.

It isn’t always easy, but just think of how proud it will make our mothers.

Watching World Cup games from the comfort of my living room and writing observations on them didn’t seem like it would be too complex a process. Then we threw Spanish into the mix. Here are some of the things we learned:

The importance of a qualified editor.

“One thing we learned from this project is there’s a difference in speaking Spanish and being able to edit Spanish,” said Linda Austin, executive editor of The News-Sentinel. “We stubbed our toe initially with attention to grammar. For someone looking to do something like this, I would say it’s important from the get-go to get an accomplished editor.”

I am capable of writing in Spanish, but admittedly struggle with accent marks. We did not have a Spanish-language version of spell check, so it was essential to have a competent copy editor.

When searching for an editor for the Spanish-language columns, two people in the newsroom said they were capable of editing the stories, having studied Spanish in college. When the first story launched, none of the missed accent marks or misspellings were caught. Instead, new ones found their way into the copy. The headline put on the story had five mistakes in the span of six words. That was a one-time experiment, and rather quickly after that, we acquired the services of someone with proven Spanish-editing capabilities.

Be ready for a backlash.

It is important to be prepared for a negative reaction. Our executive editor expected some complaints. The thought never crossed my mind. However, no one involved with the project anticipated the extent or intensity of the criticism we received.

We had to decide on the fly: Would we keep this project going? Should we scale it back as a result of the objections? Were we willing to risk losing subscribers?

All those decisions had to be made in the middle of the process. We were committed to the project, so it was not a hard conclusion to reach. But had we foreseen these issues, we would have been better prepared to handle them.

That said, I believe we handled them very well.

Give readers a chance to express their opinions openly.

Letters to the editors are just one forum we used, and people sent in a number of letters to the editor. The News-Sentinel also runs a weekly anonymous “Rant” column where readers can sound off, and we ran a number of items relating to the World Cup coverage controversy in that piece.

The Web site has a weekly “Talk Back” question relating to a news story that asks readers to give their opinions on an online message board. We took that concept and posed the question: “What do you think of The News-Sentinel’s decision to provide World Cup coverage in Spanish for soccer fans who might not be as proficient in English as they are in Spanish?”

Throughout the rest of the month, we referred readers to the site to give us their thoughts on the subject. It generated a number of postings, some of which we ran in the daily sports section.

There are always going to be obstacles unique to an individual situation, but the above points will likely apply to any situation.

Maria Burns is now a freelance writer living in Connecticut and covers men’s college soccer for

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