Two important journalists died in the last few weeks. Mike Wallace of the TV program "60 Minutes" re-shaped the one-on-one news interview. In L.A. Jesse Linares re-shaped the way Spanish language news covers the region's significant Central American population. Wallace on a national stage and Linares locally shared a drive to get the story first, get it right, and hold to account those with power and influence.
Linares, the deputy editor of the weekly newspaper Hoy, died April 14 from complications of cancer. He was 49 years old.
Linares worked in Spanish language newspapers in L.A. for about two decades, more if you count his student newspaper days at L.A. City College. He worked as a reporter and editor at La Opinion. In 2004 he joined the new Spanish-language newspaper called Hoy, said editor in chief Reynaldo Mena. "I knew he'd been an editor at La Opinion but I told him the only open job was as police reporter," he said. Linares took it and dutifully did his job.
Not long after an editor position opened, Mena said, and Linares, with his deep knowledge of L.A. and a B.A. in journalism from Cal State Northridge was the perfect candidate.
"We were accused of being too sensational," Mena said, "of focusing too much on la nota roja, killings, drug violence, and the like." The goal, Mena said, was to show the devastation such acts wreaked on Spanish-speaking immigrants.
Linares and Mena talked about creating a newspaper from the Spanish-speaking communities, not about those communities. Reporters would not report from their desks or re-write press releases, it would be old-fashioned shoe leather reporting. Linares stationed a reporter to cover the Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Nicaraguan consulates full time. The stories rained down on Hoy. "La Opinion didn't cover Central Americans much," Mena said, "so that's what we started to do."
The coverage wasn't cozy though. "The problem with community organizations is that they invite us to the crowning of the beauty queen," says current Hoy reporter Francisco Castro, "but when it's reported that the beauty queen is harassed by the president of the organization they don't want to answer the phone calls." Linares hired Castro and mentored him so his boss's death has hit him hard.
"¡A la yugular!" To the jugular, Castro remembers Linares telling him when suggesting a story angle.
Linares was part of an influential group of L.A. Salvadoran news reporters and editors in Spanish language news. They immigrated as teens to L.A. during their country's civil war and got jobs at Mexican-dominated Spanish language-newsrooms. Linares was about ten years older than Castro. Not long after Linares hired Castro, both talked about the bloody civil war in their native El Salvador.
"We started talking about all the things we had seen, all the things we had experienced during those years," Castro said, "we saw a lot of bad stuff and a lot of things we agreed had changed our perspective and our lives forever."
For the last several years I talked to Jesse Linares on the phone a couple of times a month. Cancer took his life in less than two weeks. And that made the call from a mutual friend the day he died unbelievable. For a week I've been grappling with Jesse being and not being. What do I do with his speed-dial number on my cell phone?
Our newsrooms are about 10 blocks away from each other in downtown L.A. but most of our conversations were by phone. I didn't take him up on his numerous requests to have a cervezita. We'd talk about literature, about me getting a story wrong about L.A.'s Central American community, his love/hate relationship with Mexicanos, the right, the left, City Hall politics, reporters' ethical lapses, and our love of the Spanish language. He liked a posting I did on a couple of La Opinion misspelled tweets. A bunch of us got together with him at Guelaguetza a few days before Christmas to talk shop. He loved polemics, and I learned to love that in him.
Between his Facebook pictures of his one-year old son, there are lots that reveal his literate side: a blurry shot of Linares next to Nobel Prize-winning writer Mario Vargas Llosa signing a book, pictures of books covers by crime-writer Michael Connelly, and Salvadoran author Alberto Rivas Bonilla.
"He loved to read, that's why he was such a good writer," said Paula Diaz, a former Hoy reporter mentored by Linares. She said Linares gave her a copy of "The Little Prince."
Like the Little Prince, Jesse Linares will no longer be able to walk around the little planet of journalism and take care of that one beautiful rose and clean out the volcano. It's now up to his colleagues and the reporters he mentored, and befriended to carry on the task.
Poet and KPCC Reporter Adolfo Guzman-Lopez writes his column Movie Miento every week on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. It is a poetic exploration of Los Angeles history, Latino culture and the overall sense of place, darting across LA's physical and psychic borders.