Activists Challenge Santa Barbara Newspaper’s Use of the I-Word

By Aura Bogado Feb 02, 2015

Ana López* was out running errands on January 4 when she saw a newspaper with a headline that read "Illegals line up for driver’s licenses" and a photo of about a dozen people at a California Department of Motor Vehicles office in Santa Barbara. Her husband was one of the people the paper, the Santa Barbara News-Press, had photographed standing in line.

A friend had phoned her the previous day to tell López that her husband was on the front page of the paper, but she didn’t tell her about the headline that accompanied it. López says that as soon as she saw the article, her heart sank.

"It made me sad that they used that headline, because we’re human beings and ‘illegals’ is a dehumanizing word," says López, who asked that her first and last name–as well as those of her family members–be changed for this story. That’s because although Ana López is a U.S. citizen, her husband, who we’ll call José, is not. Like others pictured in the News-Press’ front-page story, José López had gone to his local DMV on January 2 to take advantage of AB60, a new California law that allows undocumented residents to obtain drivers’ licenses. López was among the first to take the written exam, and, after more than 25 years of living and working in the United States, he now has a learners’ permit.

But José López didn’t bargain for having his image on a newspaper’s front page. In fact, because of his immigration status, he doesn’t want attention.

José is a supervisor at one of Santa Barbara’s most upscale restaurants. Ana says that soon after the story was published, José came home from work telling her how several patrons had asked him if he had been on the front page of the News-Press. He flatly denied it. He told others who knew it was him without asking that he was there, but as a U.S. citizen helping an undocumented friend. Luckily José’s bosses never asked him if he was in the photo.

It has been a month since the paper came out and José has said he wants nothing to do with it: He declined an interview with Colorlines and Ana says he didn’t want her to speak either. She did so, on condition of anonymity, because she thinks what the News-Press did was deeply unjust.

"He doesn’t know I’m granting you this interview [because] he’s terrified that if this gets out any more than it already has, he’s going to get fired," says Ana. "This has affected us in a big way."

By "us," López is referring not only to her and her husband, but also to their 11-year-old son, "Diego," a U.S.-born citizen who has Asperger’s syndrome. Ana says that she and José had to go out of their way to keep him from seeing the paper. "It would be really hard for him to understand what’s happened," she says, explaining that if Diego saw an image of his father next to the word "illegal" it would bewilder him.

Although the News-Press ran the headline and photo on January 3 when local students and many others were still away on winter vacation, some students, activists and media-makers took note of it–including Filiberto Nolasco Gomez, who runs a Latino lifestyle site called

One of the site’s contributors sent Gomez an image of the headline and he posted it on Chipsterlife’s Facebook page. Users began sharing the post and, says Gomez, "the next step was to try to capture some of that energy and anger." He started a petition demanding that the paper retract and apologize for its headline. The petition, which gathered 6,000 signatures, also demanded that the News-Press adhere to the Associated Press’ (A.P) policy against the use of "illegal immigrant" as well as other disparaging terms like "aliens" and "illegals." (The A.P. changed its policy in 2013 while Colorlines’ publisher, then called The Applied Research Center, staged its multi-year "Drop the I-word" campaign to compel the media to stop calling immigrants "illegal.")

The News-Press didn’t respond to the petition so local activists from a group called People Organizing for the Defense and Equal Rights of Santa Barbara Youth (PODER) held a January 8 march in downtown Santa Barbara that attracted hundreds. "We decided that a protest in front of the News-Press office, which is right outside out city hall, was the best way to bring attention to this issue," says PODER member Nyara Pacheco.

Santa Barbara, which is best known for its resorts, spas and its University of California campus, is also 40 percent Latino. "Because Santa Barbara is a tourist, picturesque town, it requires a strong labor force to support the construction, landscaping and service work–and it’s mostly Latinos that do that work," says Pacheco, a native of the area and a former UC Santa Barbara student. For the News-Press to reduce those workers to an offensive term is unacceptable, she says.

Santa Barbara News-Press co-publishers Wendy McCaw and Arthur von Wiesenberger, did not respond to Colorlines’ repeated requests for comment via e-mail and telephone. Von Wiesenberger did write a letter to the Minutemen Project thanking the anti-immigrant group for supporting the paper. In a January 10 commentary published on the group’s website, Minute Men president Jim Gilchrist had issued a call to "anyone who is in favor of free speech" to "converge on the Santa Barbara News-Press to provide 24/7 watch over its property and personnel to defend them from physical attack by fascist Left Wing fanatics." The Minutemen also described demonstrators as "thugs" and accused them of defacing the News-Press office with graffiti–a claim PODER members and other activists vehemently deny. 

On January 16 the News-Press ran a front-page story with the headline, "Driving legal opens door to illegals’ past." Activists coordinated another demonstration on January 19–Martin Luther King, Jr., Day–that was met with a counter-protest by members of the Minutemen Project, the local tea party and of We the People, another anti-immigrant group based in Claremont, Calif.

PODER is now encouraging readers to cancel their News-Press subscriptions and they’re calling on local companies to stop advertising in the paper. "We think that’s when [the News-Press] will start listening," says PODER’s Pacheco, "when they see the entire community is in solidarity and in support of each other."  

This is not the first time the Santa Barbara News-Press–which is one of California’s oldest papers and once earned a Pulitzer Prize–has run into controversy. In 2006, about six years after McCaw, the millionaire ex-wife of telecom magnate, bought the paper from The New York Times Company, it lost nearly half of its staffers who were either fired or quit in a span of about six months. They, too, encouraged a boycott. Nearly a decade later, the News-Press lives on, with a daily print circulation of about 20,000. 

*"Ana López" is a pseudonym.