Dolores Sanchez, trailblazing L.A. community newspaper publisher, dies at 87
Dolores Sanchez, a longtime community leader who was the publisher of a chain of bilingual newspapers that provided a critical voice for residents in the predominantly Latino communities on Los Angeles’ Eastside and neighboring cities, has died. She was 87.
Sanchez had been ill in recent months and died Thursday, daughter Gloria Alvarez said.
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa described Sanchez as a towering figure whose contributions extended beyond journalism into political and social activism.
“She was someone who knew the Eastside, cared about the Eastside and advocated for the Eastside,” he said. “She knew she had to give back [to the community].”
For nearly 40 years, Sanchez was the publisher of Eastern Group Publications, which in its heyday operated 11 newspapers that included the Eastside Sun, the Mexican American Sun, the Commerce Comet and Bell Gardens Sun. The chain was a cultural institution that covered neighborhood stories largely ignored by larger news organizations.
“At the time, the L.A. Times and the Herald Examiner didn’t cover the Eastside except when there were murders and crime,” said author and former Los Angeles poet laureate Luis J. Rodríguez, who wrote for the papers in the early 1980s while he was attending East Los Angeles College at night.
“The Eastside Sun covered all kinds of news — parades, festivals, family gatherings, where to go to get your drainage fixed,” he said. “It was a public service. You went to it to pick up knowledge you wouldn’t get anywhere else.”
While each newspaper was edited for the communities of East L.A. and southeast Los Angeles, their stories “helped create a larger community,” said Rodríguez.
Working in neighborhoods that had been fractured by freeways and urban disregard, Sanchez created a critical forum for Latinos in a part of Los Angeles that had long been marginalized and overlooked.
“For my mom, the most important thing was to give her local community a voice,” Alvarez said. “It wasn’t enough to just talk about the community, she also wanted the community to talk about themselves.”
For Sanchez, operating the newspapers was a family enterprise that spanned nearly 40 years. She ran the news side of the business and wrote a column. Her husband, Jonathan Sanchez, was the associate publisher and chief operating officer until his death in 2016. Alvarez was the managing editor, and another son and daughter were the chief financial officer and operations manager, respectively.
“She kept alive a voice to and for our community,” said Félix Gutiérrez, a USC professor emeritus of journalism who was raised in Lincoln Heights, a neighborhood that Eastern Group covered. She “focused on local issues and took a stand.”
Born in Phoenix, Sanchez grew up in Los Angeles and had lived in Highland Park for 40 years.
She owned several grocery stores with her first husband and after their divorce, stayed active in political and civic groups at a time when Los Angeles’ burgeoning Mexican American community was battling for political influence at the local, state and federal levels.
Villaraigosa, who was raised in East L.A.’s City Terrace neighborhood, recalled stocking shelves and working as a cashier for Sanchez and her husband at a discount grocery store they owned when he was 16.
She was a mentor for Eastside youth and stressed the importance of education and hard work, he said.
Alvarez recounted that her mother was among the founders of the Mexican American Political Assn., a pioneering group that sought to boost civic engagement in the early 1960s and increase the number of Mexican American elected officials, as well as the Chicana Service Action Center, a nonprofit that provided job training and other services for Latinas.
She also helped found the Mexican American Grocers Assn., which advocated for business opportunities for Latino entrepreneurs. In 1978, Sanchez was appointed by President Carter to the National Commission on Unemployment Compensation.
Sanchez was among a dozen Mexican American investors who purchased Eastern Group in 1979. At the time, the chain was near financial collapse after the death of its founding publisher, Joseph Kovner, who launched the Eastside Sun in 1945 when the area was home to a thriving Jewish community.
“There was very little mass media available to this community,” Sanchez told The Times in a 2018 interview. “One could almost say it was nonexistent. We felt this was a perfect time to experiment, to say that if they won’t talk about us, we’ll talk about ourselves.”
The decision and commitment was significant, said Diana Martinez, editor of the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol. “They had the talent, finances and connections to do anything else professionally, and they decided to save and build a chain of community newspapers in a community that did not have them.”
For decades, the newspapers covered high school sports rivalries and stories of community success — in English and Spanish — delivered free to tens of thousands of homes every Thursday.
The papers also held government agencies and others accountable, shining a spotlight on problems affecting local residents. Eastern Group published more than 100 stories about toxic emissions and lead contamination from the battery recycler Exide Technologies in Vernon, which is no longer in operation.
“The Eastern Group broke that story,” said Martinez. “Community newspapers break stories all the time, and larger papers swoop in and claim them for their own, which is fine, of course, but community newspapers don’t get the support they need.”
Sanchez was not afraid to provide opportunities to aspiring journalists who had desire but lacked experience. One of them was Rodríguez.
He recalled showing up at the Eastern Group office and telling Sanchez and her husband that he had worked in local factories but wanted to be a writer.
“They had no reason to hire me other than I really wanted to work there,” Rodríguez said. “I have to give them credit for accepting me and helping me get into the world [of writing].”
Like other local newspapers across the country, Eastern Group Publications was buffeted by economic challenges and changes in news consumption spurred by the Internet. Sanchez shuttered the business in 2018, writing in her final column that the family “truly believed there was someone waiting in the wings” to buy the newspapers.
Sanchez is survived by five children and 20 grandchildren.
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