By Melanie Bencosme
Voices of NY
Straight out of college in the late 1990s, Erica Gonzalez was a fledgling journalist burning with ambition to get her stories into noteworthy publications.
Gonzalez managed to freelance two stories for El Diario-La Prensa, then went on to do other things. She never dreamed that one day she would be at the helm of New York City’s oldest Spanish-language daily, which this month marks its 100 year anniversary.
Yet everything that Gonzalez, 40, has done from a young age appears to have prepared her for her current position. Born in Brooklyn to parents from Puerto Rico, they instilled in her a love of learning. Writing and leadership skills came naturally to her in school and that evolved into a commitment to inspire change.
“All of these things converged in my seeing journalism as a means for having a social impact,” said Gonzalez.
By high school, Gonzalez had decided she wanted to become a columnist like her hero, Juan Gonzalez of the Daily News. After graduating from Syracuse University in 1995 with a dual bachelor’s degree in political science and journalism, she took a series of jobs in journalism that helped her to report on and get to know the Latino community. Along the way, she earned a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University in 2004.
Two years later, Gonzalez landed the position of opinion page editor at El Diario, writing hard-hitting editorials and supervising staff and guest columnists. In 2011, she advanced to executive editor of the paper, which is headquartered at MetroTech Center in downtown Brooklyn with sweeping views of the city.
“The core of my being and my training and what I think is really important is more about hard news, investigative analysis and responsive journalism,” she said.
Today Gonzalez uses her hard-earned knowledge and connections to ensure that El Diario offers fair and relatable coverage to a loyal readership.
“El Diario-La Prensa is a perfect platform for Erica because it historically combines a deep commitment to Latino communities with tough but fair-minded reporting — much like Erica herself,” said Alberto Vourvoulias, 54, El Diario’s former editor in chief.
El Diario has an average daily circulation of 37,400 on weekdays and 23,898 on Sundays as of September 2012, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. The paper is distributed in the New York metropolitan area, adjacent counties and Boston, Philadelphia and Connecticut and has an online version, a mobile app and a Twitter account. With over 100,000 likes on Facebook, El Diario beats some of the local broadcast channels, according to Gonzalez.
The Spanish-language publication covers race, identity and migration, making it distinct, according to Gonzalez. El Diario’s strength comes in its respect towards readers’ intelligence that other media don’t have because they are more focused on entertainment, according to the editor.
Gonzalez’s boss, El Diario publisher and CEO Rossana Rosado, says Gonzalez “has a real commitment to social justice and she takes very seriously the role that she plays as executive editor of El Diario to make sure the voice of this community is heard.”
Rosado, who has known Gonzalez about 13 years, says that “the biggest selling point about her is that she knows her way around New York politics and New York issues, as well as El Diario’s newsroom and the Latino community.”
Encouraged by teachers who were impressed by her writing, Gonzalez decided at a young age that she wanted to be a writer. When she told her father, now-retired police Lt. Luis Gonzalez, he asked if she wanted to go into communications and become a television reporter. “No, Daddy. I don’t need that kind of exposure, I just love to write,” she responded, according to her dad.
Gonzalez lived with her parents and sister in East Flatbush, Brooklyn near Avenue D. Her mother, Carmen Ada Martinez, worked a number of odd jobs, including as a hair stylist and as a caregiver at a day care center. Then, when Gonzalez was eight, her mother had a stroke. This kept her and her sister focused on education, which was important to their mother.
Gonzalez discovered her leadership skills in high school. Working as a troubleshooter with Aspira, a youth leadership development organization, she would visit different high schools to make sure the program was running properly.
After college, Gonzalez pitched stories to anyone she could and went to events to network.
She soon obtained a position as a reporter with the New York Post and then moved up to her first position as an editor at SoloElla.com, a now-defunct bilingual web publication offering women’s news stories and lifestyle features.
From 1999 to 2001 at SoloElla.com, Gonzalez honed her craft and made connections in the Latino world. According to Gonzalez, she followed the publication’s motto, “leave no stone unturned until you find a Latino source.”
That helped Gonzalez, she says, to “learn about the expertise in our community.”
She also had a separate education from the community of Latino journalists.
“There was a lot of mentorship between the older Latinas in journalism and the younger ones,” Gonzalez said. “I think that the prior generation were the ones who had to kick the door open so they’re very conscious about making sure that other up-and-coming professionals make it.”
Following her work at SoloElla, Gonzalez worked as director of communications at the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. There she would track media coverage on different issues but always found El Diario’s editorials strong and compelling, making points that were not found elsewhere, she said.
The coverage that Gonzalez is most proud of on her watch as executive editor is the package she supervised on the occasion of the 10-year anniversary of September 11. Dubbed 9/11 – The Latino Experience, it included online material and a series of print stories. Shortly after taking over as executive editor, Gonzalez spearheaded the project, which explored the impact of 9/11 on Latinos, including victims and first-responders, the 2001 mayoral elections and the repercussion it had on U.S. immigration policy.
Immigration issues are a long-standing focus of interest, and sometimes receive novel treatment in El Diario. Recently, Gonzalez approached different ethnic publications and together they published in August a joint editorial titled, A message to Washington: There is no room for failure, which urged passage of the immigration bill.
“I think that there’s a great potential that we are not leveraging,” said Gonzalez. “I love that kind of coalition building.”
Indeed, collaboration is Gonzalez’s hallmark.
“If Erica’s working on a project what you’re going to expect is that people are going to step up because she has that, she inspires that,” said Michelle Garcia, a freelance journalist for El Diario and Al-Jazeera America.
This year, Gonzalez is pulling out all stops supervising activities to mark the 100-year anniversary of El Diario-La Prensa – in the newspaper’s pages, through social media and in a special online publication.
On October 12, the Empire State Building was lit in blue and red, El Diario’s signature colors. On October 25, the paper will host a celebration featuring Latino theater companies and music in Grand Central Terminal, another New York institution that marked its centennial this year.
Rosado, El Diario’s publisher and CEO, says that overseeing such activities is par for the course for Gonzalez: “She’s not just a journalist, she’s a New York Latina, she reflects it in every aspect of her life – she reflects who we’re serving and why we’re doing what we’re doing.”