Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Lucinda Mosquera and her husband, Jesus Grillo, found their voices when they left the violence and economic disparities in Colombia and are giving a voice to thousands of Latinx who call Battle Creek and the Southwest Michigan area home.
The couple are the founders and publishers of the Spanish language newspaper New/Nueva Opinion
which comes out every two weeks and contains news and information specifically for the Latinx community. They began the newspaper in 2002 but had to overcome numerous obstacles and continue to face financial challenges.
Funding and advertisements from area foundations, organizations and a few businesses cover the base expenses for the newspaper. However, Grillo says 60 percent of the revenue generated goes to cover the cost of printing, which is done by J-Ad Graphics, publisher of the “Battle Creek Shopper”.
“It’s more about the passion we have,” Mosquera says. “It’s about the self-satisfaction, more than the money.”
Her husband says, “We survive, but it’s hard.”
The difficulties they have now pale in comparison to what they faced before fleeing Colombia 24 years ago. The country was then home to notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, drug cartels, communist rebels, and paramilitary troops who created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.
It was, for all intents and purposes, a “war zone,” says Grillo who was living with his wife in Bogota. Like so many of their neighbors, they continued on with their lives through ongoing political unrest and violence. Although they both had degrees in journalism, Mosquera worked as a bank manager and Grillo worked for Exxon Mobil.
“It was hard to find good jobs in journalism,” he says. “I always wrote, even though I never got paid.”
During this time many businesses were closing and workers were being laid off because of uncertain economic times. A number of these businesses were receiving money from the drug cartels.
The turning point for the couple, who were both in their mid-20s at the time, came during a bus ride home from work. The bus had just turned a corner after going past a building housing the Department of Security. The building was destroyed by a bomb moments after the bus went by.
It was a terrifying scene, Mosquera says.
“That’s when we started thinking about our situation here and we knew we had to find a way to get here,” Grillo says of the United States.
Larger cities such as Miami and New York were considered, but the couple decided against settling there because “it would be the same people with the same issues,” Grillo says.
He contacted his sister-in-law whose uncle owned Mexicali restaurant on Columbia Avenue.
“He’s known me since I was little and we had a connection and I called and said ‘this is the situation, can I come to Battle Creek?’ He said, ‘this is a small town. I don’t know if you’d like it. I said, ‘this is what I’m looking for’,” Grillo says. “I wanted to go somewhere where I could learn the culture and the language and enrich myself and have that lifestyle.”
Lucinda Mosquera and Jesus Grillo earned their journalism degrees in Columbia but were not able to use them till them moved to the United States.
The day after he arrived in Battle Creek, Grillo says he remembers people smiling and saying “hi” to him as they passed. “That was a very nice impression for me,” he says. “In my mind, I was thinking that this is a very American town.”
The early jobs he took included pushing shopping carts at Horrock’s, washing dishes at area restaurants, and working in local factories. Mosquera joined him nine months later.
“We were young and this was an adventure for us,” Mosquera says.
It did not take them long to become involved with the Mexican community in Battle Creek and Kalamazoo and to discover there were many stereotypes people had about Spanish-speaking individuals. Among these, that they all knew about and ate tacos and burritos.
Grillo and Mosquera had never eaten a taco or burrito before they came to Battle Creek. For them, the cuisine was “exotic.” In Bogota, the capital city of their native Colombia, which had a population of 6-million people, there were just two Mexican restaurants.
When he started working with the local Mexican community, Grillo says he noticed that the Latinx community was not always visible and people thought the only jobs they had were pushing shopping carts or washing dishes.
This is when he and his wife began talking about starting a newspaper. They received verbal and financial support, through advertisements, from city and county leadership, in addition to local foundations and hospitals who were interested in increasing awareness of the importance of the Latinx community.
In 1999 they partnered with the Seventh-Day Adventist Church which was starting Spanish-speaking services and outreach, but they couldn’t put in any ads from businesses that mentioned being open on Saturdays and offering services or any ads for liquor stores. These restrictions made it difficult to turn a profit. In 2002 they were contacted by a couple from Colombia who also had relocated to Battle Creek about starting a newspaper. That partnership lasted about seven months.
In October 2002, they forged ahead with their latest venture which has been well-received by the Latinx communities in Battle Creek and Kalamazoo. The newspaper is printed every other week. It originally contained text that was 90 percent Spanish and 10 percent English. Now it is 100 percent Spanish.
“We have an editorial calendar and every edition focuses on a specific topic like education and we try to get articles in about these topics and translate press releases into Spanish,” Grillo says. “Some sections are always the same because it’s important for our readers to know about sports and lifestyle, our community, nutrition and cooking, immigration issues, entertainment and politics.”
New/Nueva Opinion also contains tips for women and a reflection, which gives readers something to think about. There also is a full page with comics and cartoons supplied by Grosso, a Colombian artist in Miami, and a page for seniors printed in larger type.
“When we put out an issue, it feels like we’re having a baby,” Grillo says. “Many look to us for advice on things like taxes and we are a resource for them, not only to address their situations but also to help.”
The paper, which is free, is available at Battle Creek locations including Mexican stores and restaurants, Willard Library branches, the Kool Family Center, and Grace Health. It also is distributed in Kalamazoo, Benton Harbor, Lawrence, and Paw Paw.
Although there are contributing writers, Grillo and Mosquera do most of the work themselves. This includes selling ads, production and delivery of the 2,000 copies printed.
While the majority of people today prefer to get their news online, Grillo says many in the Latinx community prefer to read a physical newspaper on newsprint. The younger Latinx generation, Mosquera says, is more comfortable with technology such as computers and cellphones.
“The Latinx community in Battle Creek is different because most of the people here are newcomers and their kids here grow up with computers and their parents don’t because they came here from farms and living in Mexico,” Grillo says. “They decided to stay here and make a life here and have their kids here and have a more American lifestyle. The kids can manage, but the parents can’t and we are most focused on parents.”
“Through the paper, we inform the people and educate and the people really take ownership of it,” Mosquera says. “I think our community deserves to be recognized. They deserve the same equality as other communities and minorities. We are a minority of a minority.”
“I feel like if we don’t do it, no one will,” Grillo says.
When Grillo attended leadership classes at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation he was asked to talk about the most important thing he’s done in his life.
“I told them that the paper has changed how people see Latinx people in Battle Creek and Kalamazoo and how the Latinx people see them,” he says. “We came from a country where the community is not that important. Here community service is very important.”
In addition to the newspaper, the couple has organized resources and events that include the Battle Creek Latin-American Heritage Initiative that celebrates the Latinx community and what it has contributed to the area’s culture. Held Sept. 15 through Oct. 15, the Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration features a fiesta and event opportunities at area locations such as the Art Center of Battle Creek.
They recently partnered with the United Way of the Battle Creek & Kalamazoo Region
on an effort to increase awareness about the 2020 Census in the Latinx community.
Though Grillo has been recognized with awards and honors for his efforts with New/Nueva Opinion, including the Red Rose Award from Battle Creek’s Rotary Club and the Civic leadership Award from the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan -- WGVU and Fifth Third Bank, money continues be to an issue for the newspaper and Grillo started working at a local factory to make ends meet for his wife and two grown sons, one who graduated from Michigan State University and the other who is a freshman at Grand Valley State University.
Education, Mosquera says, is the doorway that leads to greater success in life for future Latinx generations.
“This is a country of possibilities,” she says. “If you have a goal, you can do it.”
Photos by John Grap. See more of his work here.