In the back room of a rambler in west-central Minnesota, Marian Sanchez sits near a large, white calendar posted to the wall, its boxes scribbled with reminders of meetings, interviews and errands yet to complete.
Asked about her workload, Sanchez exhales with raised eyebrows and recounts a recent day that began at 8 a.m. with e-mail exchanges and ended after 8 p.m. with a phone interview — all conducted from the confines of the makeshift office.
“I’m doing everything I can to make this work,” she said.
Sanchez is the editor and publisher — and, at times, reporter, photographer and advertising sales rep — of an unusual newspaper that owes its existence to a unique confluence of cultures in one region of rural America.
La Gran America — the “great” or “grand” America — is a monthly newspaper that includes stories published in English, Spanish and Somali, languages that represent three different communities living together, however unlikely, in Minnesota lake country.
While English-Spanish newspapers are fairly common in the United States, this rare trilingual paper harks back to an earlier America when papers targeting fresh masses of immigrants were sometimes published in three languages.
At least one remnant of those days still exists: La Gaceta, an English, Spanish and Italian paper that serves the Tampa, Fla., region.
“We thought we were the only one,” editor/publisher Patrick Manteiga told Quill with a laugh, “until you called.”
While La Gran America is in its infancy — it began publishing in summer 2008 — and must still prove its long-term viability, the paper is clearly serving a niche.
“It’s really good to have, and it’s really necessary,” said Jeanette Oehlers, an adviser at Willmar Senior High School who is charged with helping Latino students graduate and pursue higher education.
“It may seem like just a paper, but even I am surprised that I can find things that I didn’t know about, locally and from outside,” said Oehlers, who grew up in Texas before moving to Minnesota with her migrant parents in the mid-1990s.
She has used the paper to circulate prom and graduation notices in Spanish so the parents of Latino students would be informed about those events.
With a circulation of 1,000, La Gran is given away free around Willmar, a town of 18,000 people 100 miles west of Minneapolis, and a handful of nearby towns. Sanchez’s office in Alexandria, 55 miles north of Willmar, serves as the paper’s headquarters, for now.
“I know this is going to work and that we are going to get very good results,” said Sanchez, who grew up in Colombia.
In Minnesota, the population of which was 98 percent white just three decades ago, the arrival of Latino immigrants and a smaller, yet substantial, number of Somali refugees (as well as others) has changed the face of many rural towns.
For decades, Latino migrants came north to Minnesota during the harvest season, only to return home late in the fall. They began staying in rural Minnesota towns in the late 1980s to work at agriculture-centered businesses, including the Jennie-O-Turkey Store in Willmar.
Later, Minnesota became a destination for Somalis who began fleeing their homeland in 1991 when the central government collapsed, giving way to the network of warlords that still dominates the country. Many of them also work in the region’s agricultural industry.
By 2005, state demographers estimated there were 175,000 Latinos and 25,000 Somalis living in Minnesota. Other recent immigrant and refugee groups include the Hmong, Liberians and Ethiopians.
Today, an estimated 3,000 Latinos and 1,000 Somalis live in Willmar, an abrupt demographical change for a region most known for its Scandinavian heritage.
La Gran America has tapped into this change, drawing advertising dollars from businesses and banks that are eager to reach these new groups. One of them, Heritage Bank in Willmar, runs an ad in each issue of the paper, including one in August that pictured five women, four of them Latino, beneath the caption, “Hablamos Espanol” (“Spanish spoken”).
The advertising rates are reasonable for a small-town newspaper; a full-page ad, for instance, starts at $280.
“We’ve been getting a good response from it,” said Lourdez Schwab, a personal banker at Heritage who moved to Minnesota from Texas in 1990. “We’ve opened many new accounts from [the ads]. It’s helping people to make connections.”
Schwab, the bank’s liaison to the Latino community, said the paper is slowly gaining an identity in the immigrant and refugee communities, particularly among older readers who struggle to read English-only papers or find them lacking in relevant local information and — for refugees who long to return home someday — international news.
In August, Latinos and Somalis, along with a handful of whites, gathered at a cultural fair at Willmar’s civic center, where tables and booths offered information on services such as obtaining a bank loan and finding a lawyer. Copies of La Gran America lay on several tables.
Robert Perez milled around, shaking hands and visiting with other Latinos as well as Somalis. Perez, the assistant manager of a Mexican restaurant in Willmar called El Tapatio, said the paper should help the established community, as well as Somalis, broaden their perspective about Latinos, and vice versa.
“People think we’re all Mexican,” he said, shaking his head. “Well, I’m from Texas, and I want to learn more about Mexican culture, myself, and also about Somalia since there are so many Somalis living here. You look at a standard American paper, and it doesn’t have some of those things.”
Eight volunteer editors, designers and reporters help Sanchez put together each issue of La Gran America, including Faysal Mohamud, a Willmar resident who once worked as a journalist in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. He does some original reporting and also translates English copy.
But the driving force is Sanchez, who cut her teeth as a journalist for three years in Venezuela at the newspaper El Carabobeno. Later moving to Minnesota, she worked at Univision’s Minneapolis station before moving to Sauk Centre, a small town in west-central Minnesota (and hometown of novelist Sinclair Lewis) whose newspaper was published, briefly, in Spanish.
Convinced the Willmar region needed a Spanish-English newspaper, she started La Gran America on a shoestring budget, adding Somali after learning about the area’s growing Somali population. She hopes to eventually publish two issues per month.
Sanchez poured her personal savings into getting the paper started and hopes to see a profit in three years or so. Banks were reluctant to give her loans for the venture, and two non-profit organizations also denied her request for funding.
“You need to have a passion for journalism, of course, but without money you won’t be able to move ahead. I know that,’’ she said with a shrug.
La Gran had published 14 issues as of October, most of them about 20 pages, with perhaps 20 ads and inserts. The newspaper’s Web site publishes a limited number of stories. Besides articles about local issues, the paper runs Associated Press copy and photos from EFE, a Spanish news agency.
In August, for instance, the paper ran a front-page feature about Leo Martinez Jr., a local man who had recently opened an insurance agency. The Spanish version ran above the fold on the right hand side; the English version started just below the fold in the same column.
Inside, an AP story about a pending military agreement between Colombia and the United States ran in both English and Spanish.
Somali stories, fewer in number, included a feature on Abdulcadir Abucar Gaal, a Somali native who studied in Italy before ending up in Willmar, where he worked at the Jennie-O Turkey Store. That story was in English; the opinion page featured three commentaries in Somali and a photo of President Obama.
“I try to interact with these communities and find out what they want to know and see,” Sanchez said of her readership. “It can be very difficult for them to connect with the community. This facilitates that.”
Most see the paper as a supplement, rather than a replacement, to the area’s daily newspaper, the West Central Tribune, which has been publishing stories about the region’s changing demographics for decades (including stories by this author, who was a reporter there in the early 1990s).
For many, though, having a newspaper that caters to them specifically holds a lot of appeal. However long La Gran America may last, it is proving, for now, to be a welcome connection between these newcomers’ old lives and their new ones.
Said Schwab, the bank liaison: “As soon as the latest issue comes out, people will start coming into the bank and asking, ‘Do you have the new one?’”
Gregg Aamot is on sabbatical from The Associated Press and teaching mass communications at Ridgewater College. He is the author of “The New Minnesotans: Stories of Immigrants and Refugees.”