Trilingual paper reflects changing face of Willmar

Ahmednur Daahir reads La Gran America
Ahmednur Daahir didn't know La Gran America, a year-old newspaper in English, Spanish, and Somali, published articles in his native language. He assumed the newspaper was strictly bilingual. Daahir says he's happy to learn now he can stay abreast of local, national and international news in Somali.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

As the west-central Minnesota city of Willmar becomes increasingly diverse, an entrepreneur is trying to fill a niche for those growing populations. A local journalist is publishing a newspaper in English, Spanish and Somali.

Marian Sanchez is the founder and president of La Gran America. Sanchez said her venture started when she was working for the Spanish-language version of the Sauk Centre Herald, called El Heraldo. The Spanish version went out of business more than a year ago.

As a reporter, Sanchez saw the need to keep people informed about what's happening around them. So a year ago, she decided to start her own monthly newspaper for the Latino and Somali populations.

"I created this newspaper to help people, not just to inform people about the news, but to also educate people about resources," Sanchez said. "This is a medium that's intended to help people, and as long as I can help, I will help, at least that's how I see it."

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The newspaper, mainly focused on the Willmar area, is a small operation with a circulation of 1,000. Sanchez delivers the paper to other rural cities, such as Alexandria, Spicer and Pelican Rapids. About 60 percent of the content is in Spanish, 30 percent in English, and 10 percent in Somali.

Sanchez is the primary writer for the paper, with about half a dozen volunteer writers. Sanchez has also teamed up with one of the local leaders of the Somali community, Faysal Mohamud, who writes articles in Somali and in English. Sanchez said Mohamud recently wrote about a new local organization helping Somali women.

"He's also written a little bit about their culture and he translates it into English," she said. "That's good because then we understand what's happening with them and how they are and we also learn a little about their culture."

La Gran America founder Marian Sanchez
Marian Sanchez is founder and president of La Gran America. The Colombian-American journalist decided to start her own paper when a local Spanish-language newspaper went out of business. She wants the newspaper to serve English-, Spanish-, and Somali-speaking populations in Willmar and surrounding rural cities.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

Sanchez hopes to eventually add more content in Somali, but the newspaper is still trying to make a name for itself among the Somali community.

When asked if they read La Gran America, a group of men socializing outside a Somali grocery store in downtown Willmar say that they don't read in Spanish or English. Once they open the newspaper and see some articles in Somali, they light up and grin from ear to ear.

"This newspaper has a lot of stuff with Somali people," said Abdi Hussein. "Some Somali people don't have information or news to know what's going on here in the United States, or Minnesota; that is why we like the newspaper."

Maria Elvia Rios moved to Willmar from Texas 13 years ago. She said, at the time, there were no Latino-owned businesses, let alone any publications in Spanish. Rios then moved to Fargo, and moved back to Willmar four months ago. Rios said the changes she sees today in Willmar are jaw-dropping.

"Now that I've recently moved back, I'm surprised to see so many new faces," Rios said. "So many new people are moving to Willmar. And that makes me happy."

Maria Elvia Rios
Maria Elvia Rios moved to Willmar 13 years ago. For the past few years, she had been living in Fargo and returned to Willmar four months ago. Rios says the changes she sees in Willmar are jaw-dropping with more Latino- and Somali-owned businesses and a trilingual newspaper.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

Rios was also delighted to find a newspaper called La Gran America, with local news in Spanish.

"I'm interested in reading La Gran America above all because I can read it," she said. "You could say that my only language is Spanish. I speak and understand little English, so when I read something in Spanish, I devour it."

Rios said the newspaper has information that Latinos are strongly interested in, including news about immigration and resources around town. The 2000 census estimated nearly 3,000 Latinos in Willmar. The newspaper is also aimed at the city's fast-growing Somali population, which is estimated to be at least a 1,000 people.

La Gran America
La Gran America is a small newspaper published in English, Spanish, and Somali. It's a small operation with a circulation of 1,000 delivered in Willmar, Alexandria, Spicer, Pelican Rapids, and a few other rural cities.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

La Gran America founder Marian Sanchez said people will often ask her if she knows of a lawyer or a doctor. She has a vast array of clients buying ads so she'll connect her readers directly to an attorney, for example, who's placed an ad on the paper.

Those calls inspired Sanchez to organize a community resource fair next month. Sanchez said both Somali and Latino families will have an opportunity to learn about services offered by local businesses, nonprofit organizations and state institutions.

Sanchez started the newspaper with her savings account, so it has been an expensive venture.

"But for me, it's worth it," Sanchez said. "It's what I feel I should do. It comes from my drive to help the community. So really, if it generates or doesn't generate any money, we'll just have to wait and see where this goes, but in the meantime, that's what's most important, the satisfaction of helping people."

TV program
Marian Sanchez approached the local public access television station about producing a monthly television program in Spanish to inform residents about local resources or important issues in the community. The first episode informed parents about the benefits of participating in the Boys and Girl Scouts.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

In addition to the resource fair, next month Sanchez will host a 15-minute television program on the local public access television station. There she will also inform people in Spanish about local resources.

David Hillenbrand, a video technician at the television station, said this Spanish-language program is the first of its kind at the station.

"We've never had Latino or any other ethnic group come in and produce their own show here in the studio, which is really good because that's really what public access is about," Hillenbrand said. "It's coming here and using the station for their benefit, to get out information like this show is going to do."

Hillenbrand said this is an indication of the changing culture of Willmar. He said it would be great to eventually have a program in Somali as well.

One of the volunteer writers and interpreters for the newspaper is Oscar Bohorquez. He said the paper, upcoming resource fair and a new public access television program in Spanish are an indication of something bigger happening in Willmar.

"I think the most wonderful thing about the newspaper and this experience, really, is the collaboration between Latinos and Somalis with the Anglo community," Bohorquez said. "I think that's the most beautiful message we can send that we can work as a team."

Founder Marian Sanchez said she hopes to publish the newspaper twice a month once the paper starts to generate more revenue.