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Pursuing Democracy: The First Hispanic Newspapers in the United States

Nicolás Kanellos

Brown Foundation Professor and Director of Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage, University of Houston

In 1807, French intervention in Spain and Napoleon's puppet government in the Iberian Peninsula propelled many Hispanic intellectuals to the young American Republic. There, they translated into Spanish the U.S. Constitution and the ideas of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. These translations were published by early American printers in Philadelphia, and their own ideas about democracy were disseminated to Spanish-language newspapers published in New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia and elsewhere. From the United States, the newspapers were often smuggled back to homelands across the Atlantic and the Caribbean. It was this publishing foundation that enabled the fathers of Spanish-American republics to interpret American liberalism and democracy, in order to envision what their own governments could and should become once independence was achieved.

Because Hispanic intellectuals often went into exile in New Orleans, Philadelphia and New York, early Hispanic newspapers were founded in those cities. The first Spanish-language newspaper published in the United States was El Misisipí, founded in New Orleans in 1808 to advocate the independence of the Spanish colonies in the New World. Likewise, the first newspaper to be issued in what is now the U.S. Southwest was La Gaceta de Texas (1813), which supported the independence of northern New Spain. Largely through such newspapers, patriots, founding fathers and philosophers from as far away as Buenos Aires and Lima participated in political movements from U.S. shores.

The intellectuals used their newspapers to articulate a rationale for political change in their homelands. This dynamic of taking up exile in the United States to enjoy its protected freedom of expression—including access to a free press—has survived to the present. The raison d'etre of the Hispanic exile press has always been political: providing information and opinions about the homeland; changing or solidifying opinion about politics and policy in the patria; assisting in raising funds to overthrow regimes; and providing the ideological base for that overthrow while still maintaining a foreign point of reference.

The longest lasting independence movement in the Western Hemisphere was that of Spain's Caribbean colonies, Cuba and Puerto Rico, and much of their struggle for independence was plotted, funded and written about from American cities. One of Cuba's first and most illustrious exiles was the philosopher-priest Félix Varela, who founded El Habanero in Philadelphia in 1824 and moved it to New York in 1825. Subtitled a "political, scientific and literary paper," El Habanero openly militated for Cuban independence from Spain.

That Varela launched El Habanero—and that other Cubans and Puerto Ricans continued the exile press in New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Key West and Tampa—is remarkable given the scant tradition of newspaper publishing under Spanish government control and censorship. Licenses to publish in the Spanish colonies had to be obtained directly from the Spanish crown, and materials were subject to review and censorship by both state and religious authorities. As the tide of revolutionary fervor rose in Cuba and Puerto Rico, so too did censorship, repression and persecution of the press. The intellectuals of both islands often suffered imprisonment, exile or worse: death by garroting.

For the most part, expatriate journalists and writers founded and wrote for Spanish-language or bilingual periodicals—some politically-oriented newspapers were bilingual because they aspired to influencing Anglo-American public opinion and U.S. government policy regarding Cuba and Puerto Rico. Except as translators, very few of the exiled intellectuals found work in the English-language press.

To this day, exiles and political refugees continue to make up an important segment of Hispanic immigrants to the United States and continue to use the Spanish-language press to disseminate their ideas. With the Cuban Revolution and the United States fighting much of the Cold War through involvement in the civil wars in Central America and Chile, large-scale immigration of political refugees has once again become part of our history.

Beginning in 1959, a new wave of refugees from the Cuban Revolution established a wide-spread exile press, as well as a less formal network of hundreds of newsletters. Chileans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans and other Spanish American expatriates have all issued political newspapers. As the Hispanic population of the United States continues to grow—estimated to be one-third of the total population by 2050—and as the economy of the United States becomes more integrated with those south of the border through such agreements as the North American Free Trade Agreement, U.S. culture will become even more directly linked to the internal politics of the Spanish American republics. Hispanic exile culture—which has its roots in historical newspapers—will continue to be part of overall culture of the United States into the foreseeable future, and the U.S. will continue to be a preferred base from which political refugees will use print and electronic media.

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