How El Tecolote Flooded the Mission’s Media Desert

Every two weeks 10,000 copies of the city’s largest free, bilingual newspaper hit the streets of San Francisco, providing vital news and insights for a population left out of mainstream coverage.

San Francisco has had its fair share of media closures and launches in the past few decades. The Bay Guardian shuttered in 2014, around the same time that neighborhood news site Hoodline launched. The Bold Italic and SFist both shut down, got bought, and then reopened. But throughout all the ups and downs of the city’s media landscape, one paper has been pumping out issues every two weeks since 1970. El Tecolote is the longest-running English and Spanish newspaper in the state of California, and it’s going strong. It’s not a small operation, either: Twice a month, 10,000 free papers are distributed along its carefully curated route.

Its history is based in revolution. In 1968, S.F. State students went on strike for months, protesting a Eurocentric curriculum and demanding a proper ethnic studies department that honored the histories of people of color. They eventually won, but the energy to lift up the voices and issues that mattered to their communities was still raging long after — and one teacher saw its potential.

“The joke was that the ink on his teaching credential wasn’t even dry yet,” El Tecolote Editor in Chief Alexis Terrazas says of Juan Gonzales, a young S.F. State professor who, with a group of students, helped launch the paper. 

In the 1960s the Mission was a news desert — and what little coverage there was by citywide papers tended to be sensationalized. Reporters parachuted in to cover murders and gang violence, but never stuck around to hear from the community about what issues mattered most to them. El Tecolote — which was bilingual from the get-go — has changed that.

“We have to have representation in newsrooms. There’s not just two sides, there are multiple sides to a story,” Terrazas says. “You’re not going to get all of those angles if you don’t have community media like this, if you don’t have journalists from these communities.”

It’s an honest vision, one that other neighborhood-specific blogs around the city replicate. But while many of those eventually fizzle out, El Tecolote is thriving, possibly because it’s almost entirely community-run. Terrazas is full-time, but all the writers, photographers and translators are volunteers. Today, a steady stream of avid readers offers their support, but it wasn’t always that way.

“When I started here in 2014, the pool was really small,” Terrazas says. “It was not uncommon for me, as the editor-in-chief, to write three to four stories an issue, which was exhausting.”

But a fateful collaboration with Jon Funabiki’s journalism class at S.F. State, where the paper was born, has over time become integral to the paper’s production. Students in the program have an opportunity to work for El Tecolote and learn how a community paper works from the inside out.

In the beginning, “it was rough,” Terrazas laughs. “Definitely a learning experience. But last semester, it was really awesome.”

Johnny Garcia delivers El Tecolote newspapers out to neighboring storefronts on 24th street in the Mission District of San Francisco. (Photo: Julio Marcial)

Despite not having paid reporters, El Tecolote continues to produce an exceptionally high quality of work. It’s swept award ceremonies, and has featured high-quality longform work on everything from white nationalists to fatal police shootings to interviews with young migrants.

“We try to strike a balance between having hard news and arts and culture — but also, we know that it’s on us to be a community resource,” Terrazas says. “Over the last few years, since the 2016 election, politics has been kind of at the forefront, and immigration has a lot to do with that.”

An upcoming issue speaks to this: In a few weeks, he’ll publish stories of migrants who are living in shelters in Tijuana, desperate to cross the border.

The arts and culture portion of El Tecolote has always been present, going hand-in-hand with its news coverage. Early on the paper merged with arts and community organization Acción Latina, which became a nonprofit in 1987, and a legacy business in 2017. El Tecolote started fulfilling their mission before they were incorporated as a nonprofit, and Accíón Latina became the umbrella organization to cover all of cultural arts programming, including the publishing of the paper. 

The headquarters on 24th Street include the Juan R. Fuentes Gallery which faces the street, with El Tecolote and other staff desks in the back. Possibilities for collaboration between the paper and the gallery are endless; currently, an art show celebrating the legacy of Los Siete de la Raza — a group of men falsely charged with murdering a police officer in 1969 — encouraged Terrazas to dig through El Tecolotes archives, which live in several filing cabinets behind his desk. He uncovered an epic piece from 1970 that detailed the trial of the seven men. Instead of rewriting the historical event, he simply republished it

Keeping a finger on the pulse of an evolving neighborhood isn’t always easy — but El Tecolote’s ties to Acción Latina help keep it grounded in what the community wants and needs. A recent gathering of community feedback highlighted some subgroups that didn’t feel represented — particularly Afro-Latinx and queer communities.

“Our communities are changing. Our neighborhoods are changing. It’s on us to document what is here, whether it’s art, resistance, activism,” Terrazas says. “We’re always trying to open ourselves up to being open to constructive criticism. That really guides all our editorial decision-making.”

And that adaptability will no doubt keep El Tecolote printing for decades to come.

“People come back still to look through our archives,” Terrazas says, gesturing at his filing cabinets. “I’m hoping in 20, 30 years from now they can look at what we were doing today, to see what was really happening.”

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