By Andy Mannix
By Caleb Hannan
By Olivia LaVecchia
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By Jacob Wheeler
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In the week leading up to the immigration march to the state Capitol on April 9, employees at La Invasora (1400 AM), a Spanish-language radio station, had long discussions on how to treat the upcoming event. Some thought the south Minneapolis station should treat the event as news when merited, while others argued for an advocacy role, with the station actively urging listeners to attend. They talked about devoting some free advertising to the march.
The galvanizing moment, though, came when La Invasora's morning show, El Vaquero Kachuviwuau (meaning something along the lines of "the coolest cowboy"), turned the airwaves over to the listeners. The station was flooded with phone calls, and soon the morning zoo was having serious conversations about the immigration issue. It was a defining moment for a station that has only been on the air since December, and one that likely spurred word-of-mouth turnout: The assembly at the Capitol, by some estimates, rivaled the numbers at a gathering held there just after the September 11 attacks.
"I wanted to make sure we as employees were absolutely united on this," Alberto Monserrate, the CEO of the company that owns the station, says of the decision to advocate for the march. "I had some organizers telling me that there were 40,000 people there, and without us it would have been 5,000."
In a national sense, the scene at La Invasora and in St. Paul was hardly unique—scores of marchers and radio stations experienced the same phenomenon in other cities with much larger Hispanic populations. But it was notable in that the Latino population took a page from the playbook of right-wing talk radio. And the outcome further underscored the power of an increasingly viable and visible Latino media market in the Twin Cities.
"With our own media, we are emerging from the shadows," says Ramón León, executive director of the Latino Economic and Development Center. "It has helped create a more civic-minded community and a business community."
If anyone has a leading role in this, it's Monserrate, the CEO and co-founder of the Latino Communications Network, which runs La Invasora and owns three Latino-oriented newspapers. The entire 30-employee operation exists in a second-floor office space in Plaza Verde, at the corner of Lake Street and Bloomington Avenue.
Monserrate, who is Puerto Rican, came to the Twin Cities as a sociology student at the U of M in 1984. He initially went into investment advising, first for American Express and then Prudential. By 2000, he had founded Vida y Sabor, a Latino lifestyle paper that was initially published as an insert to City Pages. By 2002, with much of Monserrate's own personal savings and money from a host of private investors, LCN had acquired the paper Gente de Minnesota, which had been launched in 1997. And in January of this year, LCN purchased the 16-year-old La Prensa, making LCN a local media empire of sorts. Monserrate declines to say how much each acquisition cost, offering only that "we had to raise a total of $1 million to succeed in our strategy."
All three publications had started out as monthlies, with Gente and La Prensa each carrying a circulation of 2,000, and Vida y Sabor running at 5,000. What Monserrate recognized immediately was that these figures underestimated the Twin Cities Hispanic market. In 2000, the census recorded some 143,000 Latinos living in Minnesota, an increase of 166 percent over the previous decade's figures. But Monserrate thought that number was low, and that the volume of legal and illegal immigrants was growing every day.
"I set out to do my own research," Monserrate says. "I wanted to know not only how many Latinos were living here, but where they were, who they were, and where they were from."
What Monserrate learned seemed to justify his faith in increased circulation and weekly publishing schedules. The gambit paid off: Gente now distributes 17,500 copies a week, Vida y Sabor 15,000, and La Prensa 10,000. More than that, Monserrate figures, each copy is read by as many as three people; he believes LCN's combined print ventures reach 100,000 people a week. In 2005, a fresh census projection indicated that some 193,000 Latinos live in the state. Monserrate thinks the number is more like 300,000, with a collective buying power he estimates at $3.1 billion.
More than that, Monserrate's research led him to conclude that it was anything but monolithic; economic and social circumstances varied widely within the local Latino community. To that end, he tailored each publication for a different demographic. A decade ago, the wave of Hispanic immigrants came largely from rural Mexico and consisted of blue-collar workers who dressed like cowboys and read the sports page. With that in mind, Gente de Minnesota is geared toward the working-class families on Lake Street. (Ad rates have grown too; a half-pager in Gente now costs nearly $2,000.)
La Prensa, on the other hand, is read by a different demographic cluster, Monserrate says—recent immigrants and second-generation Latinos, including a professional class of Hispanics that have moved to the Twin Cities from countries like Ecuador and Peru in just the last three years. In view of these factors, the paper is printed in English and in Spanish and focuses on international news.
Vida y Sabor, he continues, is read by a much younger crowd and by women, mostly in the suburbs. (Monserrate figures that 38 percent of Latinos live in Minneapolis and St. Paul proper, 38 percent live in south metro 'burbs such as Burnsville, and 26 percent live outstate.) A recent issue focused on local Reggaetón acts, and the tabloid's bread and butter is its "Saludos" or "Shout-out" section, personals that Monserrate characterizes as a print version of websites like MySpace.com. "We started seeing all of these 'shout-outs' in English," he says, "and we realized we were getting a whole generation of readers who are U.S.-born, and are 15 to 17 years old."
All told, Monserrate has taken a bunch of marginal community monthlies and a little-noted AM frequency and turned them into a consortium that taps into the diversity within the Latino community—to the tune of $1.5 million in revenue last year, and a projected $2.7 million in 2006. The question is, has LCN expanded too far too fast? "There is a sense," León says, "that they are simply preaching to the choir."
Lupe Gonzalez, owner of Radio Rey (630 AM), another Spanish-language station in the metro, takes a longer view. "Some Latinos are getting rich and some are going broke," says Gonzalez, who has been in local radio for 26 years. "Immigration has been good for business, but there are not enough Spanish speakers to support two stations." (There is actually a third in the market, KBGY 107.5 FM, broadcasting out of Burnsville. As yet, there are no available ratings covering the period in which all three stations have been on the air.)
But others believe the Hispanic market is just beginning to blossom. Patricia Torres Ray, a native Colombian who just secured the DFL endorsement to run for the State Senate District 62 seat, says the newspapers raised her political profile. "The issues in those papers are relevant to an ever-expanding and ever-active community," says Torres Ray.
And Sgt. Giovanni Veliz of the MPD, who is also a prominent member of the local Latino community, points out that it's not just Latinos reading the LCN publications. "The last three years, Latinos have evolved economically, politically, and policy-wise," notes Veliz, who is originally from Ecuador. "Everybody is checking out the Latino newspapers just to gauge what's going on—to see what the Latino community actually looks like."