Ronald Virto is publisher of the El Comercio newspaper, and he’ll tell you what sets his product apart from his 10-odd Spanish-language competitors in the Washington region. “We are with the community,” says Virto.
Yes, but El Comercio is also with the community’s T&A. Whereas other papers, big and small, are low on sex appeal, Manassas-based El Comercio doesn’t shy away from appealing to the male libido. At the top of each weekly edition of El Comercio, readers are assured of finding an attractive woman alongside a universally understood tag line: “Mamacitas.”
The front-page box draws folks to a half-page spread deep in the paper’s auto section. In this week’s edition, that space goes to a Latina hottie in a white bikini bottom with only a green fishnet cloth doing a poor job of covering her breasts. The accompanying caption IDs the woman as a “tropical beauty” found on Ipanema Beach in Brazil who opened up for the camera to “show all her attributes under the sun…hot…hot.”
The paper’s mamacitas aren’t actresses of distinction who agree to dress provocatively for a photo shoot. They’re not soccer stars who agree to show a bit more than their uniforms allow. They’re not newsmakers of any sort. They’re just hot chicks. “In my country, mamacitas is pretty girls,” says Virto, a native of Peru who immigrated to the United States in 1997.
Those pretty girls, says Virto, are introducing readers to his 21-month-old free weekly. “People like it,” he says. “When I go to deliver the paper, they say, ‘Oh, there’s the mamacitas.’” The feature, he adds, has a certain multilingual appeal as well. “They may not speak Spanish, but they can see the pictures,” says Virto.
El Comercio is banking on suggestively attired women to crack the ranks of the region’s elite Hispanic newspapers, a list consisting of the Washington Hispanic, the Washington Archdiocese’s El Pregonero, and the Washington Post Co.’s El Tiempo Latino. The top three have audited circulations ranging from 28,000 to 45,000, according to Tom Oliver, executive director and CEO of the National Hispanic Press Foundation. And they’re all chasing approximately 500,000 Hispanic residents in the Washington region.
Northern Virginia chicken shacks and groceries provide the best showcase for the industry’s offerings. The Americana Grocery on Columbia Pike, for instance, puts about 10 titles on display, from Tiempos del Mundo, a publication owned by the parent company of the Washington Times, to Pare de Sufrir (Stop Suffering), a “newspaper carrying hope to the Latino community.”
“In Virginia, everyone’s a publisher,” says Jose Sueiro, a former Spanish-language-newspaper publisher and a current aide to D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams.
Nor is it hard to identify the publications that pose little threat to the region’s ruling triumvirate. El Imparcial, for instance, is partial to filler. Its April 15 issue bursts with a wonky opinion piece here—“The Truth About Education Policy”—and a sop to advertisers there—“Merchants Support Soccer.” And Tiempos del Mundo carries the wing-nut worldview to its niche audience. “Fidel, a Man Saved by Luck, the Devil, and His Allies,” screams the headline of a piece in Tiempos del Mundo’s April 28 issue.
The Fidel-bashing and opinion-mongering attest to a reality of community newspapering en español: Your one reporter and one photographer can supply only so much content each week to space out the tax-preparer and immigration-lawyer advertisements. Instead of resorting to boring, text-heavy options, El Comercio goes for the lookers, even to illustrate otherwise routine stories. In late April, the paper ran an advice piece on handling credit cards, illustrated by a lovely on a shopping expedition. A March 4 piece on the dangers of anorexia featured a photo of a full-bodied woman standing in a bathroom and looking fine in her underwear.
And El Comercio’s approach to illustrating sports pieces is revolutionary. Why run the same old shot of two men vying for a soccer ball when you can highlight gorgeous fans with their nipples spilling out of their bikini tops?
“We respect the people,” says Virto when asked about his paper’s policy on hotties. “We use models [in the mamacitas section], but we try to be respectful.”
The publishing world has seen worse business models. Virto has 18 full-time employees and claims that his paper is “even” with the region’s dominant Latino papers, printing 35,000 weekly copies and moving to 45,000 in the near future, after less than two years on the street. But those numbers are not audited. “If they have 35, then I have a million copies,” says Johnny Yataco, president of the impressive 104-page weekly Washington Hispanic.
If Yataco sounds skeptical, it’s because he’s watched plenty of Latino titles pop up and vanish in the Washington region. “I’ve seen, like, 11 or 12 publications pass by,” he says. Among the defunct or hard-to-find regional newspapers are the Latin American, El Peruano, El Venezolano, Impacto, and La Nación USA, says Yataco.
A key to staying ahead of that pack is keeping advertisers happy. And in that category, the mamacitas must rate a success. Pohanka Chevrolet sponsors the modeling space and wants to stay. “We have decided to continue advertising. We’re happy with it,” says Ken Richards, marketing manager for Pohanka Automotive Group, who adds that the company has “nothing to do with the pictures of the women.”
El Comercio’s promotional tactics don’t impress the region’s establishment Latino news moguls. “Even if the mamacitas sell, I don’t want to be associated with a paper that denigrates women on their front page,” says Yataco.
Alberto Avendano, editor in chief of El Tiempo Latino, says, “The use of women in that way is what I think is very sad.”
But it’s not as if the industry leaders don’t do skin. In its April 29 issue, the Washington Hispanic has a revealing front-page shot of saucy Mexican singer Thalía—a decision that Yataco pegs to the Billboard Latin Music Awards that the bella was attending. And on Page A2 of its April 29 edition, El Tiempo Latino shows top model Naomi Campbell wearing very little clothing. “We published a picture of Naomi Campbell modeling underwear. There’s a justification for that picture, and that’s that she was modeling Spanish underwear,” says Avendano.—Erik Wemple