illustration of Juan Gonzales

Illustration by Adam Villacin

His Mission: Giving a Voice to the Mission District

From an early age, Juan Gonzales (B.A., ’70) was always starting small businesses in and around his Stockton neighborhood. First, there were the Kool-Aid stands, then he picked fruit from his neighbors’ trees and sold them up and down his street. In middle school, he developed a passion for writing and later journalism. As a young adult, he combined entrepreneurship and journalism into one dream: starting a newspaper. It was a goal he didn’t think he’d achieve until he at least reached his 40s.

But in 1970, six months after graduating from SF State’s Journalism program, the 23-year-old Gonzales achieved his dream early: He launched El Tecolote, a bilingual newspaper serving residents of San Francisco’s Mission District. Now in its 54th year, the paper is the state’s longest-running bilingual newspaper.

When Gonzales transferred to SF State in the late 1960s, he was confronted with a world vastly different from the conservative farming town where he grew up. SF State was ground zero for nearly every social movement of the 1960s. There were civil rights activists, students tuning in, turning on and dropping out, anti-war protests and ethnic identity demonstrations. It was fertile ground for a journalism student.

“This was all a part of the SF State experience,” Gonzales says. “A lot of the things discussed on campus, the forums, were relatively new to me. Going to State was a wake-up call for me to think more seriously about what I wanted to do.”

A Place for Students, a Place for the People

In 1968, the student strike erupted on campus, with students of color demanding an education that reflected their lived experience and histories. Gonzales was on the front lines, not with a picket sign but with a pen. While he was covering the strike for SF State’s student newspaper, The Phoenix, a demonstrator asked if he’d ever consider writing about his own community.

“[The striker told me,] ‘You know who could use your skills? Your community. There’s a community in the Mission District and it’s highly populated by Latinos and they could use your storytelling and use your skills to write about their culture, give them a voice,’” Gonzales recalls. This question stayed with him throughout college.

After graduation, a professor asked him to teach a journalism class in SF State’s newly formed School of Ethnic Studies. Right away he realized there was a problem: There was no place to publish his students’ work. So he set out to create one. With the help of SF State students and Mission residents, he launched El Tecolote. Gonzales promised he’d commit to the paper for at least five years. He ended up staying on after that, splitting his time between the paper and SF State. (He later left SF State to join the faculty at City College of San Francisco, where he has served as department chair of Journalism since 1985.)

El Tecolote became the paper of record for the Mission District, documenting everything from gentrification and the housing shortage to conflicts between the police and the community. Gonzales credits the paper’s longevity to his and others’ dedication and “to the army of volunteers.”

“The community is relying on [the] publication, and I think if you establish yourself as really providing good information and being relevant then the readership will stay with you,” he says.