There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Poor Jairo is creeping out the door of La Naciónhe has to meet a client. He figures that with all the commotion at noon on press day, maybe he can sneak out and make the appointment on time. But publisher José Sueirothe author of this Thursday’s excitementis not an easy man to elude.
As publisher and chief propagandist at the bomb-throwing Latino weekly, Sueiro is no stranger to stirring the potwhether in print or in personand he’s always on his toes. He intercepts Jairo and grabs him by the arm.
“Hombre, miiiiira,” says the portly Sueiro, waving some nondescript sheets of paper. “Did you check your ads for errors? Come onnnn, Jairo. Por favor! You’ve got to be checking the ads!”
And then just as quickly Jairo is released, Sueiro tossing aside his hat as advertising manager to grab the editor’s eye shade. He descends on graphic designer Geovani Flores’ desk to pick and point and make sure the word “cruel” is excised from a weekly column on local radio. And then he whirls and shouts, “Hijo de la gran puta!” now as production chief, ribbing another designer who is taking too much time churning out Page 10. Moments later, Sueiro the publisher is back on the casediscussing his plans to bring a new editor on board.
Sueiro says he’s hoping to lose one of his many sombreros, but whoever puts it on should expect it to come accompanied by Sueiro’s sizable bootprint on his or her backside. Even as Sueiro claims he’d rather have a background role at La Naciónlet someone else manage the daily grindhe interrupts himself to shout, “Zulma, did you forget the guy on line 2?”
Sitting back and letting others run the show is not exactly how Sueiro got to the top of the many-ring newspaper circus that is Latino Washington. He’s done it by scraping and scrimping and battlingand, he says, by charging forward with a populist agenda.
“I represent a communitya downtrodden, oppressed minority that needs somebody to speak up for it,” he declares. “I’m not a Republican or a Democrat or anything. I’m an advocate for Hispanics, and my Hispanic readers. I want to be able in the newspaper to defend and protect the interests of the common man, the common Hispanic.”
Many people think it’s a different characteristic that makes Sueiro stick outsheer volume. He has cultivated a high profile among local Latinos by breathing that fire through La Naciónand by keeping a firm, partisan grasp on Latino matters.
“José knows the business,” says former La Nación editor Miguel Vivanco. “He knows the Hispanic community. He knows the local American community. He knows the politics of this countrythe rules of the gameand he knows the politics of Latin America.”
But if Sueiro’s spirit, energy, and knowledge make him a prize bull among local Latinos, he also carries a reputation for using that status to charge through everybody in his way. For many local Latinos, his name is synonymous with controversy, his temper legendary, and his impulsiveness forbidding. Sueiro himself angrily recounts incidents in which competing editors or radio announcers have called him “an alcoholic, a drug addict, Mafioso…a thief, a moral degenerate,” and a host of other epithets.
For someone who attracts conflict, however, Sueiro is now outdoing himself. The reason he’s in the hunt for an editor in the first place is because his last one, Alfonso Aguilar, quit in a gigantic huff last October. Aguilar has gone public with a story about his hot-blooded former boss running a paper rife with professional and ethical lapsesthe same kind of behavior for which Sueiro is fond of calling others on the carpet. And when Aguilar says La Nación is a banana republicwith a dictator who is not particularly benevolenthe is not alone.
“The obscene language, the abusive treatment, the delay of payments, and the workplace abuseregarding José Sueiro, yes that is true,” says Vivanco, Aguilar’s predecessor. “José, if he can take advantage of you, he takes advantage of you.”
Even the people who have fled his antics, however, say it doesn’t have to be this way. They recognize that Sueiro has gotten where he is today on sweat rather than luck. Aguilar himself believes that Sueiro has the tools to be a prominent voice for Washington Hispanicsbut lacks the disposition.
“I’m not the only person who believes that if José was a little sensible, no question he would be one of the most rich and powerful Latinos in Washington,” Aguilar says.
The internal conflict at La Nación has not just made it tough to put out a paper, however. It has also landed Sueiro back in a most familiar placesmack in the bullring.
The way Sueiro tells it, he clawed his way to the top, got knocked off, and clawed his way back again. He willed La Nación into existence out of the ashes of another paperand isn’t going to back down to just any José who comes along.
“I owned my old newspaper for nine years and I made a serious mistake, which I will never make again,” Sueiro says. “I got myself a partner who managed to control the paper.”
He is not referring to La Nación, but rather to El Latinothe free newspaper he built into the pre-eminent Hispanic weekly in D.C. in the 1980s. His partner, Fernando Leonzo, would later make headlines as the owner of the Latin Investment Corp., an unlicensed makeshift bank used by thousands of Salvadoran familieswho lost all their savings after the operation’s 1990 collapse.
Sueiro’s ouster from El Latino came several months before the bank failed; the paper struggled along until February 1991, when it ceased publication. When its new management tried to organize a sale that would have saved the paper, Sueiro blocked ithe still controlled 49 percent of the shares. Sueiro is coy on whether his decision to block the sale had anything to do with the launch of La Naciónwhich occurred within a month. But he’s frank about why he started his new venture.
“I wanted to get back in the business because I didn’t want to have to leave,” he says. “I was forced outand I didn’t like that.”
Not to mention that without the previously dominant El Latino around, things looked pretty rosy. The only worthy competition was El Pregonero, which Sueiro eternally dismisses as “the church paper” because the publisher is a subsidiary of the Roman Catholic Church. Sueiro was so sure he could recorner the market that the first few issues of La Nación broached the possibility of charging for copies, and of going daily by decade’s end.
Within a few weeks, however, the remnants of El Latino regrouped behind the healthy capital investment of millionaire businessman Armando Chapelli Jr. to form a new newspaper called El Tiempo Latino. Immediately, the Spanish-language weekly market became a three-way race, and La Nación’s era of dominance was…put on hold.
Since then, dozens of competitors have gone diving into the marketat least six of which remain afloatbut the real battle still pits El Tiempo Latino, El Pregonero, and La Nación against each other.
El Tiempo Latino and El Pregonero have staked their claims, and their cash, on looking professional and minding their manners. El Tiempo Latino is snazzy throughout, framed by a stylish front-page banner. It features modern graphics, glitzy photos, a sharp layout, and big regional advertising accounts like Hecht’s and The Hub. Tabloid-style El Pregonero bulks up instead on staff”four of the best reporters in town,” says Sueiroand on a clean, consistent format.
And then there is La Nacióna scrappy alley cat of a paper, skinny and almost ugly, but chock-full of the kind of heart and invective that makes Latino journalism such a refreshing break from the vanilla mainstream. Besides, it’s not as if Sueiro can throw money at tarting up his paper, as he bitterly reminds anyone who cares to listen. He started with a measly $34,000 investment, and has fought to stay alive. “What I do is maintain a newspaper on its own merits, its own income,” he shoots, aiming at “the church paper,” which he insists receives operational subsidies from its holy sponsor. “There’s not [hundreds of thousands] pumped into this paper,” he fires, now at the “huge capital investment” he claims is propping up El Tiempo Latino.
La Nación operates each week with that budget-consciousness in minda pair of 10-page broadsheet sections with a nuts-and-bolts look. La Nación does not put on airs; it sells ad space right on the cover, next to the title banner. It relies on local small-timers for adstravel agencies, lawyers, nightclubs, and auto dealers. Its style and layout are prone to change any weekwithout prior notice.
The staff follows suit: a patchwork of four almost-full-time workers and eight extra-part-time ones, with most of the writing by free-lancers. The office is a dim, spartan space on Champlain Street in Adams Morgan for which the outdoor signa flier taped to the windowprovides a fitting motif. Inside, four paper-cluttered rooms ride green concrete floor or gray artificial-turf carpet, amid exposed electrical outlets, piping, vents, and concrete walls. Unmatching desks, chairs, posters, and computer monitors are the primary adornments.
But while La Nación lacks both wealth and beauty, it plays the role of second fiddle to its advantage by taking a relentless interest in local Latino matters.
“El Tiempo Latino is a better newspaperbut it’s talking about Europe, America Latina’s presidentsnot about [local] issues,” says Aguilar. “El Pregonero, El Tiempo Latinoeven Washington Hispanicthey don’t want to get involved in conflicts. They don’t want to investigate. And José, he wants to.”
In a good week, just three local news stories of substance will appear in either El Tiempo Latino or El Pregonero. But La Nación has built a reputation for going heavy on dispatches from Latino Washingtonsquabbles in community organizations, crimes against Hispanics, immigration-service raids, and funding cuts harming Latino agencies. The paper pummels Latino figures or organizations committing abuses, like the Maryland nonprofit agency chief convicted of embezzlement this year who inspired an editorial that said, “[T]he executive director of one of our agencies…facing the possibility of going to prison is truly deplorable.” Other editorials start or stoke fires: One alleged earlier this year that racism was a factor in closing the Carlos Rosario Adult Education Center in the District. And La Nación’s upshot on police failures to solve crimes against Latinos? “Our lives are relatively worthless as compared to others.”
If you are a typical Latino struggling in a city that is at best apathetic and at worst openly hostile, it’s easy to see why a copy of La Nación might strike a chord.
“People want to read it,” says Luis Daniel Uncal, a longtime La Nación sports columnist and Sueiro confidant. “People see it as the truth. They don’t only want to read the good news. They want the tantarantán. If you take El Tiempo Latino, it’s only pages, pages, pagesand nothing. They don’t say anythingit’s without personality.”
El Tiempo Latino Editor Carlos Caban counters that Latinos in Washington don’t need all that rolling in the mud.
“We keep in mind that the Washington market has the highest average income for Hispanics in the nation,” Caban says, though the average is certainly boosted by hundreds of foreign diplomats and a few rich men like the owner of his paper. Caban believes, nonetheless, that his paper should aim higher than the average.
“If you conduct yourselves in a professional manner, it carries over,” he says. “That’s the way we strive to conduct ourselves. At other papers, there’s more personalism involvedwhether it’s Sueiro or whoever. Some of their stories are littered…. They’re more subjective. We try to do it the right wayan objective pursuit of the truth.”
Sueiro, journalistically speaking, thinks Caban needs to loosen upand get off the high horse. Latino readers, Sueiro says, expect spicy fare in their daily news diet.
“In the Ibero-Latin American press, obviously with the story you have to be fair and give the facts,” he argues. “But there’s much less pretense about being objective.”
The statistics seem to suggest that the marketplace agrees. A recent monthly survey of the local Hispanic market by Avisos Communications, an Arlington media consulting firm, shows that 68 percent of respondents reported reading La Nación, with El Tiempo Latino trailing by a few points and El Pregonero being the only other newspaper to crack 50 percent. All three distribute more or less the same number of free issues around the metro area, with El Tiempo leading the way with 27,500 and La Nación trailing with 22,000and still topping the survey.
“I’m not surprised that La Nación is ahead,” says Avisos president Ricardo Villanueva. “When you go to the places where the papers are left, you’ll see it is the first one that is taken.”
Being at the top of the Spanish-language weekly market is not small news, either, considering that Washington Latinos tend to rely heavily on the local press.
“I think the bulk of the community really does depend on the Latino press for information,” says Yvonne Martinez-Vega, longtime director of Ayuda, an Adams Morgan legal services clinic serving everyday Latinos. “It’s not only the language barrier, but also because the Washington Post, the mainstream press, doesn’t really cover the issues that [Latinos] are interested in.”
Prominence in the Latino newspaper market also spills over into credibility in the mainstream, where observers in the know see the Spanish-language press as an important bellwetherand opinion shaperfor local Hispanics.
Sueiro has parlayed his share of that prominence over the years into ties with the city’s power brokers. He worked with Marion Barry as far back as the 1970’s, has brushed shouldersand butted headswith city politicos like Dave Clarke, and has served as point man for opinions on Latino affairs for both the Post and Washington City Paper. It has never hurt that Sueiro is fully bilingualEnglish may even be his stronger idiom.
Having a standing outside the Latino community only magnifies his presence withinalready boosted by his handcrafted newspapering success.
“He is the one who built El Latino and comes all the way to the present with La Nación,” says D.C. Council aide Deyanira Barrios, who works for Ward 1’s Frank Smith. “He is the newspaper man for me and for a lot of [Latino] residents of the Washington metro area.”
Not all of Sueiro’s public plays involve publishing. He has plunged headfirst into preparations for the annual Latino Festival and into community meetings, eschewing the church/state divisions that normally keep editors above the fray. He has served on an advisory neighborhood commission (ANC) and forged strategic friendships with popular figures like Father Eugenio Hoyos and local players like Beatriz Otero and Sonia Gutiérrez. He schmoozes with the Colombians and the Salvadorans and the Puerto Ricans with equal ease.
In other words, Sueiro has become a pivot point right in the middle of Latino Washingtona funny place to find a Spaniard born 45 years ago in New York City.
So exactly how did a son of the Conquistadors develop roots as a Latin American populist?
From across the cluttered table in his office, Sueiro fires the first reasonhe wasn’t weaned on a pristine Iberian upbringing.
“I’m from an immigrant family that fledthat fled, I mean literally fled,” Sueiro says, thrusting a finger to the air for effect. He serves up a digression on the sides in the Spanish Civil War, before getting back to his point thatat the Church’s biddingFranco’s supporters chased his grandfather out of Spain for having run a non-Catholic school. “Then, as now, hounded by the Church!” he carpsa dig at the competition from El Pregonero. “So my grandfather’s a pedagogue. His brother’s an editoran actual newspaper editor. There was another who was a doctor. What I’m trying to say is that I was brought up in a very Spanish liberal-radical tradition.”
His breeding was liberal, even radical, but more than anything, Sueiro was brought up mobile. He spent only a few years in New Yorkafter his parents’ divorce, his mother moved to Spain and his father, a diplomat, worked on union organizing in Latin America. Shifting between them, Sueiro grew up over long stretches in Spain and Mexico, and shorter ones in Panama and Peru, before finally settling for good in Washington in the early 1970s. He completed a homespun 10-year bachelor’s degree that included studies at George Washington and American Universities. And in the meanwhile he became an old hand in the Washington Latino community.
Bounding from one position to the next through the ’70s, Sueiro moved from starting a Hispanic theater program at AUwhich later developed into today’s Gala Hispanic Theatreto being a city counselor and soccer coach to linking a scholarship program with Barry’s PRIDE Inc. to serving as the director of the then-young Latin American Youth Center to starting an “Escuela de Rumba” to working for the federal Vista program. In the process, Sueiro got to know the ins and outs of things Hispanic, so in 1978 he was the right guy to start up a column about society, music, and night life in a tiny free monthly rag called El Latino.
It was his first taste of journalism, but when the paper’s owner decided to return to Peru in 1981, it became Sueiro’s career. The owner ceded the paper to Sueiro over time: “Sort of like sweat equity,” Sueiro says. “I didn’t have any formal training.”
Nevertheless, at age 32 Sueiro became a publisher, met his future wife, Teresaa graphic designer at the paperand entered a market that had little but El Pregonero and one other regular newsrag. No competitor would ever truly challenge El Latino over Sueiro’s nine-year tenure, as he made the paper a weekly and built an influential local institution.
But his business skills hold no real fascination for Sueiro. His chest gets biggest when he talks about his paper’s ability to husband success for other Latinos and train a new cadre of reporters who speak the language of both journalism and the community.
“What we’ve done, what I’ve done, what my newspapers have always done is give people opportunities to develop,” he says. “There are businesspeople who with a little push and a little help from El Latino made it. And I’m real proud of that.” He names nearly a dozen editors, reporters, and ad sellers working today at other media outlets who got started or furthered their careers at his newspapers.
“He feels strongly about the community,” says Barrios, who served with Sueiro in his ANC days. “He has managed to stay in Washington, to maintain the paper in our communityhe has not gone out to Maryland or Virginia to look for cheaper rent. That means a lot to the community.”
The word “community” as Sueiro or Barrios might apply it, however, is not a cut-and-dry reference. The “community” Barrios cites, for example, is the one that regards Adams Morgan as the heart of Latino activity.
There are others, however, who say it’s nonsense to draw a circle around Hispanics, who are actually dispersed over all the jurisdictions of metropolitan Washington and number anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000. No one quite agrees, in fact, on the actual populationexcept they all discount the 1990 U.S. Census count of 220,000 as grossly out of date, thanks to a steady flow of new immigrants. Regardless of who you talk to in the community, they will tell you that Washington’s Latino population is one of the nation’s most diverseand as a result, one of its least cohesive.
“The problem is, in our community we are 22 different countries with the same language and the same aspirations, and each one tries to gain supremacy,” says Uncal.
The broad mix has been the source of rivalries and tension over the years, says Martinez-Vega.
“Before, it was much more vocal,” she observes. “But it’s prevalent. You know it’s there. They get involved in the personality conflicts and that gets in the way of the discussion of the issues. It creates a deadlock in communication.” The conflicts typically come to a head in political organizations, in community affairs such as the Latino Festival, and of course, in the local press, pitting Peruvians against Salvadorans, or Colombians against Bolivians, or everybody against the Puerto Ricans.
The result of having a variegated, spread-out Latino population in a free-for-all setting is, not surprisingly, a lack of high-profile leadershipor, as Sueiro sees it, leaders deserving of the name.
“Let me put it to you this way: I think there’s a dearth of leadership in the Hispanic community,” he says. “There’s a dearth of good leadership.”
Martinez-Vega and other longtimers in Washington bristle at the suggestion that any single figure canor shouldbe the person for Latinos to depend upon on political matters. But having no one in particular serving in that roleand not having enough votes to influence local electionsusually leaves Hispanics on the losing end of local skirmishes. In 1996, the District closed the renowned Carlos Rosario Center, a Latino crown jewel, after a long, emotional fight. The previous year saw the process for choosing a new chief of the District’s Office of Latino Affairs (OLA)usually the top Hispanic in governmentshamelessly trampled upon by Marion Barry as he stuffed in his personal pick as the “interim” director. The interim director remains in office, two years later.
La Nación loudly protested against both incidents in an unsuccessful attempt to rally local Latinos into action. But Sueiro says he envisions a role for himself beyond the confines of La Nación, where he can build coalitions and speak out for area Hispanicsbringing the discussion of his work on behalf of the community full circle.
“I would love to get out of La Naciónto get someone to run the day-to-day,” he says. “I’d love to get into local politics.” He attempted as much, he admits, when he angled for the director’s slot at OLA in 1995. His interest was manifested in an interview with the mayor’s staff, who Sueiro says called him late that yearafter a particularly scathing editorial about the interim directorto ask what he might do with the position himself.
Sueiro’s OLA candidacy, however, provides a fitting example of how his intentionshowever goodoften crumble under the weight of his charging-bull mentality. In his zeal to get city hall’s attention, Sueiro demanded that a photograph of himself with the mayor accompany a biographical article about Barryright on the front page of La Nación. Aguilar, editor at the time, was incredulous.
“I said, ‘Porque?’” Aguilar recalls. “‘The article doesn’t talk about you. The article doesn’t even talk about the Latino community. It talks about Barry in the ’60s. I was embarrassed.’”
“Maybe I should get a slap on the wrist for doing that,” says Sueiro, in a rising voice suggesting that he understands that such blatant self-promotion is a misuse of his printing press. But as he usually does when confronted, Sueiro lowers his horns, ups the volume, and starts charging. “What am I admitting to herea mistake? Yes, I make mistakes. Did I do anything fraudulent and illegal? No!”
Sueiro’s willingness to forgive himself while holding everyone else to account is something even loyal friends like Uncal cannot ignore.
“It’s necessary that you adapt to the middle, not the middle adapt to you,” says Uncal. “José is not a bad personhe’s just not adaptable to the middle. He wants to do what he wants to do. This is cabeza dura. He doesn’t take the advice of other people.”
But Sueiro has invited people to choose his way or the highway ever since he gained prominence.
“I don’t think that he bites the bullet when he has something to sayhe says it,” observes Vega, who saw the same Sueiro working the social agency scene 15 years ago. “He’s very outspoken, period. And if you can’t deal with it, that’s your problem. That’s his attitude. But that’s always been his attitude.”
Sueiro acknowledges that his pattern in life is engagement, a tendency he brings to all endeavors. He recounts struggles, brawls, and hot rhetoric steaming all around his attempts to lead the annual Latino Festivalwhich was, for years, the only place local Hispanics could “practice” their political skillsas well as around his embattled two-year stint on the Adams Morgan ANC. Sueiro says that through it all he was guilty of nothing more than candor.
“I try to behave with sort of like the golden rule; you know, do unto others, and I also try as much as possible to be upfront and direct and open,” Sueiro says. “Being upfront and direct and open gets you into big-time problems.”
Like many willful entrepreneurs, most of Sueiro’s serious wounds are self-inflicted. His fight with Aguilar is one of the more vivid examples.
Aguilar had been editor at La Nación for just under two years last September, when he says he reached the breaking point with Sueiro. The publisher says the feeling was mutual, contending that Aguilar did not follow through on the managerial and oversight aspects of his job. But Sueiro says he still respected Aguilar’s nose for news, which is why the paper went full blast on a series about local real estate fraud. In several articles, one Hispanic loan officer’s practices came under serious scrutiny.
Just as the four-part series ended, however, the same loan officer waltzed into La Nación and brazenly plunked down $1,000 for a full-page ad. Aguilar was outragedseeing acceptance of the ad as tantamount to clearing the subject’s nameand threatened to quit if the ad were published.
The way Sueiro saw it, however, was completely different. The loan officer’s ad was not misleading, he had met all necessary advertiser requirements, and he was paying upfront. It was a business decisionpure and simple as the cash behind it.
Knowing full well he was flirting with controversy and risking the loss of his editor with no notice, Sueiro nevertheless blazed ahead. He used what is perhaps his favorite strategy, true to his blunt naturepre-emptive attack.
When the loan officer’s ad appeared, Sueiro published an editorial in the same issue defending his decision, which began: “The full page advertisement in this issue for the loan officer Cristian Toledo has created quite a stir within our newspaper andwe anticipateamong the weekly readers and advertisers of our publication.”
Quite a stir, indeed. Aguilar quit, and Sueiro’s critics salivated. Aguilar had predicted that the timing of the series’ end and the ad’s appearance would be viewed as the ultimate compromiseand Sueiro’s former editor Miguel Vivanco, now chief at a rival paper, Crónica, gladly picks up the rock Sueiro handed to his critics.
“Like that, the investigation is done,” says Vivanco. “The reporting is done, the ethics is done, you bought an ad from me for $700, $1,000it’s done. That is the principal weakness of José Sueiroa lack of professional ethics.”
Sueiro fumes at Vivanco’s comments, saying that Aguilar’s quitting the same week prevented further reporting had there even been an opportunity. “It is a nonissue,” he says. “It’s bull crap. We’ve already reported twice since then about how to avoid that type of real estate fraud.”
It’s not the first time Sueiro’s ethical relativism has gotten him in a jam. The most glaring example is Sueiro’s demand in early 1995 for Barry to repay a La Nación endorsement in the previous year’s mayoral race by helping the paper buyor having the city donatea permanent home. That back-room demand could have made tasty fodder for the rumor milluntil a La Nación editorial blurted it out in an “open letter” to Barry: “For the past year we have sought about 15 minutes of your time. Alone. With you. To talk about how, as the oldest, most important Spanish language newspaper in the city, we could find a permanent home for our publication.”
Sueiro’s chief antagonists happen to know his vulnerabilities intimatelythey used to live with them every day. Vivanco is a prime example, having made a mini-cottage industry out of publishing thinly disguised attacks on Sueiro in Crónica. Vivanco says he will continue to criticize his old bossclaiming Sueiro owes him $500.
Sueiro takes every personal attack personally.
“They wouldn’t do that to the church or to Chapelli!” he roars, saying that his critics act out of little more than jealousy. “One of the biggest problems all of these guys have with me is that I made it out here. I don’t have a million dollars in my pocket and I’m not a financial consultant. Soy un chaval del barrio. I came up from the streets of Washington, and did it, built it on my own.”
He is particularly sensitive to slaps from people like Vivanco, who Sueiro claims crosses the line of professional ethics with every insult Crónica publishes.
“Who the hell are these guys to question my ethics?” he shouts. “Do you really think this guy would sell his [journalistic] reputation over $500?”
But Sueiro can’t just bluster his way through the allegations brought forward by Aguilar. The issues go beyond personal insultand directly question whether he is fit for the task of someday being a leader for local Hispanics. Aguilar claims that all along, Sueiro has been running his newspaper with a blatant disregard for ethics and workers’ rightsenough to be worthy of a La Nación-style exposé.
With his black beret, trench coat, and coffee-and-cigarettes diet, Aguilar could pass for an underground subversive. He is trying to stir up trouble, saying he long followed stories about abuses of Latinos in hotels, restaurants, agencies, and governmentbut foolishly tolerated it at La Nación.
“There was always a mix of problems, no?” Aguilar says. “The way he treats people, and the way he pays people.” It was an atmosphere, Aguilar claims, that led to more than 25 people leaving La Nación’s employ during his 22-month tenure. He got more than a dozen former La Nación employees to sign off on a document detailing his allegations, which begin much as he claims the average day at La Nación didwith a hail of verbal abuse and insults.
“There was a vicious atmosphere every day,” Aguilar says through a Marlboro haze. “Normally he was yelling at everybody and screaming, saying, ‘Fucking this, fucking mother, bullshit!’ I think many new immigrants, you know, learned some English with him.”
Aguilar alleges that Sueiro took economic advantage of his employees, in part by hiring them as contract workers, which meant no fringe benefits or Social Security contributions. Aguilar also claims Sueiro made trickily informal payment arrangements. “He’d say, ‘You write something and I’m going to pay you $50,’” Aguilar explains. “But after a week he would tell you, ‘Can you distribute the newspaper?’ OK. And then, ‘Can you take this picture?’ OK. And then, ‘And can you go to buy supplies?’ But when you say, ‘OK, Sueiro, but you didn’t pay me for distribution,’ he’d say, ‘No, no. This is part of our deal. No, no. I don’t owe you money.’ It was a very confusing situation.”
Aguilar says that while disagreements were typically over small amounts each time, the sums added up because of the jack-of-all-trades nature of the shop. “There were people who were writing, taking pictures, selling ads, distributing newspaperseverything, no? Renaissance journalists.” He admits, however, that such problems seldom if ever affected him directly, but rather occurred with other employeeswho he said would frequently come to him with their concerns and ask him to resolve them with Sueiro.
Aguilar’s most interesting allegation is that the publisher once sent a high-school internbrought to the paper to learn the ins and outs of journalismto clean the company bathroom. “I saw him cleaning the bathroom. He was ordered to do it,” says Aguilar.
Sueiro’s temperature cracks the boiling point every time the “bathroom incident” comes up. His finger pounds the table as he goes into numbing point-by-point detail about the youth. “You wanna know what he does everyday?” Sueiro barks, describing the youth’s duties, his schedule, his pay arrangement.
Sueiro angrily insists the toilet tempest never occurredat least not the way Aguilar describes it. There was a stopped-up toilet, Sueiro says, which he askednot orderedthe youth to help unplug. Another employee eventually fixed the problem. Sueiro points out that the youth, a high-schooler of Salvadoran descent, now actually works at La Nación.
Sueiro challenges the allegations of running a hostile workplace, saying he willingly entered a contract to unionize La Nación back in 1993which the union itself didn’t renew the following year. Those are not the actions of an abusive employee-basher, he says pointedly.
He likewise dismisses the high turnover at La Nación, saying that most employees have left because he could not pay them well or because they got better job offers. The same money problems prevent him from offering the type of benefits, like health plans, that could have kept those workers in-house, he says.
He grows most strident, ironically, when speaking about the alleged verbal batterings he gave employees.
“I’m never abusive with anybody,” he says, punctuating his point by slamming his palm on the nearest surface. “Never! Now, there’s a few caveats here. Oh yeah, I use strong language. Oh yeah. Under the stress of a deadline? You’re damn right I’ll raise my voice. And many times I feel justified with people that are making the same mistakes over and over and aren’t paying attentionaren’t listening. Did I cuss? Oh ho ho yeah!”
Sueiro’s world is full of the frustrations of any marginal operationunderpaid employees whose work can be sloppy or just plain bad. He says that despite such problems, however, he actually let a lot slideto a point.
“I don’t squeeze a lot,” Sueiro says. “People have to be very self-motivated. I let you do whatever the hell you please, and if you keep screwing up, it gets to the point where I’ll suddenly go, ‘Goddamn! What the hell is going on?’”
Sueiro’s supporters likewise believe that if he loses it, it is probably over something justifiable.
“Everyone knows José Sueiro,” says council aide Barrios. “Everyone knows he’s a tough guy to work forbut that he means well. He wants professionalism in his office. I think he has a big turnover of people through the years because he’s trained all those people and now they compete against him.”
And when he blows up, people may take Sueiro’s off-the-cuff style too hard, and too personally, says his writer Uncal. “José is [an] explosive man,” Uncal says. “He’s not a bad person. You cannot understand him sometimes.”
Sueiro acknowledges that people find him difficult. “I’m not going to argue that some of these people might have a hard time dealing with me,” he says.
But he does not go so far as to say that he sees his behavior as unreasonable. Rather, he believes that his paper’s struggle against fat-cat competitorsand his desire to battle on his own termsrequires the bold style that often alienates others.
“That leaves me way the hell out on a limb!” he shouts, with theatrical flair. “You understand what I mean? These guys over herethey don’t want me. These guys over herethey don’t like me. You understand? I’m living in a sort of a continual va y veng. You know what that means? No one truly considers me of their own.”
The battle wears on Sueirosometimes he looks for the pasture instead of the bullring, as with his abrupt decision to put La Nación up for sale last July. He was angling for a cushy publisher’s job in Chicago, and took the paper off the block when he didn’t get it.
His plans to hire an editor to replace Aguilar similarly reflect front-line fatigue. But that’s not to say he has lost his taste for battle entirely.
Lately, Sueiro has used his column to launch an all-out offensive against his critics, including a sharp-horned thrust at a former employee who had made disparaging references about Sueiro in another paper. Sueiro slashed back in his column with a scandalous claim that the ex-employee had problems of a “psycho-sexual” nature and had been traumatized after seeking treatment for a “serious venereal disease.”
Nor is Sueiro shrinking from the broader community presence he has cultivated in D.C. He spent most of his stay at a recent gala dinnersponsored by a Latino charity for children with leukemiaoutside the banquet hall so he could mix with Hispanic big shots gathered in the wings. As he moved from handshake to backslap, no one treated Sueiro like a gouged and dying bull. No one had to like him, but even the rivals who were present could not ignore the publisher of a weekly newspaper that was still at the top of its domain.
But whether Sueiro can move beyond his current plateauand apply his savvy and fire and experience to a broader leadership roleis another matter entirely. Aguilar doubts it, saying the combativeness that has kept Sueiro down before will remain his Achilles’ heel.
“His great chance was years ago when he had El Latino,” Aguilar says. “He had a good chance to make a powerful newspaper and become a powerful and rich person. He lost everything. Because he didn’t want to respect people.”
Uncal thinks otherwise. If Sueiro can give up the path of the bull, Uncal says, maybe he can move forward. “Try to calm down your pressures,” Uncal advises. “Before, money was the problemnow you have the money. Now try to resolve your confrontations. Try to resolve with your people.”
But Uncal’s counsel ignores what has gotten his fiery boss where he is today. Disconnecting Sueiro from his particular madness would be very much like taking the horns away from the bull and expecting it to survive its next fight in the ring. Sueiro is at his worstand, it so happens, at his bestwhen he’s charging headlong toward his next moment. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.