February 27, 2004

Frank del Olmo Leaves Behind a Legacy of Latino Journalists

By Raymond R. Beltrán

This passed Tuesday, February 24, 2004, family and fellow Latino journalists held funeral services in honor and remembrance of Frank del Olmo at All Saints Church in Pasadena. During the previous week, on Thursday, February 19, he collapsed at his Los Angeles Times news office, where he’d been working since 1970, and was reported deceased at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles having suffered a heart attack. He was born on May 18, 1948 and died at age 55.

Del Olmo was best known for being one of the few outspoken voices for the Latino community in Los Angeles. He served as a journalist at the L.A. Times for 34 years, having begun in 1970 as an intern-reporter and up to the time of his death last week had earned a position as Associate Editor. The progress he made was rooted in extreme hard work, from reporting on Latino issues and introducing other writers to the journalism profession to struggling alongside his son, Frankie, who suffers from autism.

After studying journalism and graduating magnum cum laude from California State University, Northridge, del Olmo acquired a position at the Los Angeles Times as an intern, which shortly after became a staff writing position. As a staff writer, he explored topics directly pertaining to Latinos living in America.

In 1972, he co-founded the CCNMA (California Chicano News Media Association) and served as its president for two years.

Frank del Olmo

May 18,1948-February 19, 2004

“He’s been an important figure for Latino journalists for many, many years … He was someone that blazed a path,” says Grace Sevilla, the managing editor for KPBS Channel 11’s television show Full Focus. She met del Olmo as a student at the University of California, Los Angeles in the 1980s. Both Sevilla and del Olmo were serving as board members on the CCNMA at the time. “[He was] one of the early Latinos to make it into a major newspaper … and someone who helped bring [our] community, faces and names, into the paper.”

Del Olmo was awarded an Emmy for his U.S./Mexico Border documentary, “The Unwanted,” which aired on KNBC-TV in 1975. The documentary highlighted border issues pertaining to the Mexican community, the function of the Border Patrol and the historical relevance of the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910.

In 1980, he became the editorial writer for the L.A. Times, a position that lasted for nine years. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize four years later for his praiseworthy public service through a sequence of stories on Latin American issues titled, “Southern California’s Latino Community.”

Many Latino journalists today have attributed their professional success in journalism to del Olmos’s drive in uplifting the careers of fellow Latino writers. He contributed much of his time, while still working as an editorial writer, to co-directing the Maynard Institute’s Summer Program for Minority Journalists in 1986. Shortly after, he became a Nieman fellow at Harvard University.

San Diego’s Associated Press Correspondent Michelle Morgante remembers when she was a student at University of California, Santa Barbara, peeking an interest in becoming a journalist. While her family was skeptical about her desired profession, she says it was organizations like the CCNMA that would “validate the dream.” As a journalism student and editor for the college’s editorial page, Morgante visited del Olmo at his L.A. Times office to discuss reporting, a meeting that she says was not only welcomed but very influential to her career today.

“He didn’t know who I was, but said he’d love to meet with me. He was so kind and open to the idea, and he just wanted to tell me about his passion for journalism,” says Morgante.

Since that meeting, Morgante has adopted the true meaning of “discipline.” Like del Olmo had, Morgante now reads as many newspapers as possible before starting her day as a correspondent. She says that, also like del Olmo had, she has become extremely interested in not only her immediate surroundings, but interested in what goes on around the rest of the world. “My story is not unusual, there’s hundreds of people who’ve got this story,” she said.

In 1989, Del Olmo became Deputy Editor for the L.A. Times’ editorial page, a position he held for six years, and in which he covered a wide range of topics in the op-ed page about Latino politics, sports and entertainment. It was in between these years that he almost broke his relationship with the prominent newspaper when they had endorsed California’s 1994 Proposition 187. The initiative, introduced by former California Governor Pete Wilson, denied social services to undocumented people living in the United States, mainly targeted towards the Mexican community.

Del Olmo referred to the proposition as something that “will stick in our craws for generations.” He threatened to quit the newspaper, but his superiors suggested he take time off to reconsider his decision. The leave prompted del Olmo to write about and publicly oppose Prop. 187, which he wrote was “mean-spirited and unconstitutional.”

At the end of his time as Deputy Editor in 1995, his role in the Latino community would expand as his position at the L.A. Times progressed to that of an Assistant Editor. Although, this is not the only move he made in his activism. With his son, Frankie, living with autism, del Olmo began an annual Christmas series of updates in the L.A. Times op-ed page about his son’s condition, which attracted a community of other parents who are also caring for autistic children.

In an open letter to the public, the Los Angeles-based organization CAN (Cure Autism Now) express their respect and condolences for del Olmo family, whom they consider as a pivotal role in the building of the CAN organization.

“For Frank, community was as essential as air, and when [his son] Frankie was diagnosed, he suddenly found himself in a new community. Within months of starting Cure Autism Now we met the del Olmos’,” read the letter. “Frank was so generous with money, time, influence and expertise … We were lucky to have them in our corner. The written word was Frank’s weapon of choice. He knew the power of words to incite, and inspire, and when Frankie was diagnosed he used his power to bring light and help and hope to all the families affected by autism.”

At the time of his fatal heart attack, del Olmo was still working at the L.A. Times as the Associate Editor, a position he held since 1998. He was also serving as a board member in a New York-based organization, The Committee to Protect Journalists, which advocates for freedom of the press.

Del Olmo’s home was in Los Angeles, although his legacy spreads out to Latino students at SWC (Southwestern College), who’ve recently began their own chapter of the CCNMA. Having met del Olmo twice at National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ conventions, CCNMA Inter Club Council Representative and SWC Sports Writer Jaime Cárdenas attributes much of his success and support to the Association.

“I was lucky enough to hear about the CCNMA,” said Cárdenas, who says that he carries on del Olmo’s legacy even though he didn’t have a close relationship him. “[They] opened up all these doors for me … and when they started the CCNMA, they wanted two things. They wanted more Latinos journalists in the newsroom, and they wanted a better portrayal of the Latino community in the papers. And I think that from when they started it until now, we have seen that. But are we perfect? Are we there yet? No, the [struggle] is still on.”

Frank del Olmo survived by his wife, Magdalena, his daughter, Valentina, his son, Frankie and Latino journalists across the continent.

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