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La Voz Nueva

 

Lorena Lopez and La Prensa Deliver the News
to An Increasingly Diverse Iowa

Story by Mary Gottschalk, photography by David Peterson.

Lorena Lopez sets down a tape recorder and opens a small spiral notebook. Across the desk from her Patty Ritchie shares highlights from her recent trip, a visit to Fort Bliss in Texas to see her brother receive a 2012 Bradley Leadership Award for exceptional performance and leadership.

The two women talk about the experience, the conversation drifting between Spanish and English and moving toward a wider discussion of politics. Latinos must contribute to the political process, stresses Ritchie, an Iraq War veteran and outspoken Latina who’s running for one of two open positions on the Crawford County Board of Supervisors, and not just by voting but also by working on volunteer committees and running for office. “If you don’t participate,” she says, “you can’t complain about the results.”

Lopez’s interview with Denison Fire Chief Cory Snowgren is more instructional. As Snowgren lays out a map and points to neighborhoods newly included in the community’s upgraded tornado warning system, Lopez asks for the basics.

“What should people in these areas do when they hear the siren?”

“Find shelter immediately.”

Lopez takes detailed notes as Snowgren explains a tornado’s formation and movement.

“Sometimes we only have a few seconds’ warning,” he stresses.

A stop at the home of Pedro Rodriguez takes a less serious note. The Denison resident has been collecting Marilyn Monroe memorabilia for nearly four decades, and Lopez darts around his den adjusting the drapes and rearranging the displays as she snaps photos. With some friendly teasing, she succeeds in persuading Rodriguez to model one of the Marilyn t-shirts.

“There’s no such thing as a typical day at La Prensa,” says Lopez, editor of the free Spanish-language newspaper (in English, The Press) that’s been serving north central Iowa for six years.

Her title belies her multifaceted role in bringing news to the Latino communities of Carroll, Denison, Storm Lake, Spencer, Humboldt, Fort Dodge, and Perry. She’s reporter, investigator, photographer, and advertising salesperson. As she loads tied bundles of the biweekly into the trunk of her Ford Taurus, it’s apparent that she’s also the distribution system.

“I could hire a delivery service,” says Lopez, whose accent hints of her Nicaraguan heritage, “but I get a lot of local news just talking to people as I drop off papers.”

This, she explains, is called “hunting.”

“I don’t make appointments,” she says with an impish grin. “I just show up and see what I can find out.”

A swing past the Crawford County Hospital yields an update on a job opening and news of an upcoming blood drive. At the Norelius Community Library Lopez learns about a bilingual summer reading program for kids. Yankey Travel is targeting Latinos planning summer excursions, and Lopez’s stop at the Denison storefront turns into a successful ad pitch. The pace is brisk, the conversations spontaneous, the search nonstop. Lopez, who was a journalist and TV reporter in her native country, has high ambitions for La Prensa.

“I want to provide a voice for the Latino community,” she says of the newspaper she and her oldest son founded six years ago. “Latinos have strong family ties and want news about social and sports events. They want to know when a new Latino business has opened or a Latino student has won an award. La Prensa gives them that news.”

The immigrant community is also very interested in health, employment, and immigration issues, she says. “When you’re not bilingual, it can be hard to know where to go or whom to ask. La Prensa, which offers regular columns on health, immigration law, and general legal questions, is a primary source for information on everyday issues.”

Lopez makes a point of interviewing political candidates whose views may impact the Latino community. In recent months she has interviewed Bob Vander Plaats and Congressman Steve King; in 2008 she interviewed Barack Obama as well as several congressional candidates.

When she arrived in the United States as a refugee in 1993, Lopez spoke little English. She supported her young sons with a variety of jobs — housecleaning, babysitting, dishwashing in a hospital kitchen. Her English gradually improved, and she entered nursing school, graduating and landing a job as a registered nurse at St. Anthony Regional Hospital in Carroll.

When she picked up part-time work as a translator for the Denison Bulletin & Review in 2004, her career path changed direction. Latinos wanted more than just a translation of Anglo news, says Lopez, and with her background she was confident she could deliver.

Carlos Arguello, her partner-son who exhibited an entrepreneurial spirit from a very early age, was by then a junior at the University of Northern Iowa in the College of Business Administration, and he took part in programs offered through the Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center. He spent six months developing a business plan for his mother’s dream, guiding her through the financial and legal hurdles of starting a business. As the 2,000 copies of the first edition of La Prensa hit the streets in May 2006, Arguello was recognized as Student Entrepreneur of the Year by the Center.

Today’s circulation is up to 6,000, and though he now works full-time for John Deere in Kansas City, Arguello continues his role as La Prensa’s general manager, handling finances and customer service for accounts where his accent-free English is an advantage. “There’s no way I’m her boss,” he insists. “My mother IS La Prensa. She’s an institution all by herself.”

Arguello attributes the success of La Prensa as much to his mother’s engagement in the community as to her skill as a reporter, editor, and marketer. She volunteers as a translator for the police departments and local courts in Carroll and Denison on civil and misdemeanor cases, sometimes receiving middle-of-the night phone calls. She’s a fund-raiser for St. Rose of Lima Church in Denison as well as for scholarship programs for the children of immigrants.

She’s become an ambassador of sorts, helping bridge cultures and strengthen community. “Latinos have to adapt to the American culture,” says Lopez, “but I want the rest of the community to understand and appreciate what the Latino culture can contribute.”

Father Paul Kelly, the bilingual pastor of St. Rose, has witnessed her impact. “She’s a role model for the immigrant community. It’s been wonderful to see how many Latino immigrants are now working as bank tellers, police officers, and tradesmen.”

“She’s filled a real need,” says Eric Skoog, owner of Cronk’s Cafe and vice chair of the Crawford County Board of Supervisors. According to Skoog, Lopez has inspired a number of Latinos to open their own businesses. And she’s encouraged Latinos to patronize Anglo businesses (75 percent of La Prensa’s advertising revenue comes from non-Latino business owners).

“She helps out everybody,” says Ramon Patino, the owner of Tienda el Mexicano, the first Latino business in Denison.

Iowa continues to evolve with the arrival of new residents. Community leaders are finding ways to overcome cultural barriers and build dynamic, inclusive futures. Lorena Lopez, says Arguello, is leading the charge in north central Iowa. “She’s totally committed to helping immigrants — regardless of where they come from — adapt to their new culture.”

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