In 2004, Hurricane Ivan changed the course of Grace Resendez McCaffery’s life. The granddaughter of Mexican-American immigrants had worked as the director of public relations for the Pensacola chapter of the Red Cross. This became a crucial professional experience when the hurricane ravaged the Florida coast, and Spanish-speaking workers poured in to help.
Almost overnight “we started receiving all of these immigrant laborers,” she says. “I think we are more dependent on particularly undocumented immigrants than we want to admit. They rebuilt this place.”
Suddenly, McCaffery’s organizational and communication skills were in demand. In two weeks, with a little help from local media, she recruited nearly 100 volunteers to help assist her with translation and match worker’s needs with existing Gulf Coast resources.
“I facilitated communications with clients they had in hospitals, stores, or whatever it was that they needed,” she said. “That’s when I realized the true value of mass communications: It was inevitable to start a Spanish language newspaper,” McCaffery recalled.
McCaffery saw the endeavor as a way to build and strengthen her community—and to give something back to those workers who helped the Gulf Coast rebound so quickly. Until she founded the bilingual broadsheet, Periódico La Costa Latina (The Latino Coast Newspaper), there was no Spanish-language media source in the area. Spanish-speakers relied on word-of-mouth recommendations. Now, the paper serves North West Florida and Southern Alabama, and is distributed in cities from Mobile, Alabama to Destin, Florida.
People were grateful to see the immigrant workers repair their houses and get businesses back in order
The bilingual format not only helps native Gulf Coast residents appreciate the local contributions of immigrants, but it creates transparency for those who might be skeptical of newcomers.
“It has been able to really bridge the gap, so that we wouldn’t have people thinking that we were publishing secrets,” she says. “I remember what it was like for me to be ‘a foreigner’ here.”
After her move from Texas, McCaffery fielded questions from various Floridians about her “exotic” tan complexion and ebony hair.
Because the newspaper is small, with a circulation of around 8,000, McCaffrey maintains a day job. She serves as the Assistant Director of Communications for University of West Florida’s Division of Research and Strategic Innovation. In her role there, she works with a team of journalists that write about the university’s research and economic development programs.
Reforming dysfunctional immigration policies matters to McCaffery because of the situation she witnessed in Florida in 2004. She frequently speaks to local political groups by request about contributions undocumented immigrants make in Northwest Florida, immigration policies and immigrants rights.
“People were grateful to see the immigrant workers repair their houses and get businesses back in order,” she says. “Yet we don’t think to provide some type of protection for them, or even acknowledge that they have rights. That needs to change.”