As founder and editor of La Prensa, Iowa’s largest Spanish-language newspaper, Lorena Lopez has interviewed everyone from former President Barack Obama to former Governor Jeb Bush and become a sought-after expert on Iowa’s increasingly influential Latino voters. Lopez has plenty of experience: She worked for 11 years as a respected reporter and anchorwoman for a national TV network in Nicaragua before fleeing the country’s political turmoil in the early 1990s. But it hasn’t been an easy journey: Lopez struggled for years in the United States as an undocumented immigrant, working a string of low-paying jobs, before securing legal status and rekindling her journalism career.
We need to have papers for all the people who are in the shadows, so they can work with dignity, and empower themselves, and give more back to this country.
Lopez first came to the United States on a visa intended for temporary business visitors; later, as tensions in her home country flared, she re-entered the United States on the same visa, along with her two young sons, and never went back. “I stayed until the visa expired, and then I became undocumented,” she says. “It was a big change of direction. It’s really difficult to come here as a single mother, with no family, no economic support. But I had to do it for my boys.”
Living in California and not speaking much English, Lopez worked for several years as a gas-station cashier while her sons, then 9 and 3, remained alone in their apartment. Fearing deportation, she left the boys a list of phone numbers of people in Nicaragua to call in case one day she didn’t come home. “I’d call every two hours to check on them,” she says. “It was very hard.”
Lopez’s situation improved when she fell in love with an Iowan who stopped to fill his tank at the gas station where she worked. With no common language, the pair initially communicated by pointing at words in an English-Spanish dictionary; despite the language barrier, they married and moved to northwestern Iowa. There, Lopez — now a legal resident — worked as a dishwasher in a hospital while learning English and training to be a nurse; she eventually qualified, and worked for seven years as an RN in a mental-health unit.
It was an ordinary trip to the grocery store that led Lopez back to journalism. While shopping for beans and tortillas, she picked up a Spanish-language newspaper and was horrified to find it riddled with grammatical mistakes. “I knew I could do a better job,” Lopez says.
With help from her business-savvy son, then a student at the University of Northern Iowa, Lopez invested a few hundred dollars in desktop-publishing software and began designing a newspaper of her own. In 2006, she published the first edition of La Prensa, initially covering just two local communities but gradually expanding into nine towns across northwestern Iowa.
Starting the newspaper was tough, even with her son helping out, Lopez says. “We used to work until 3 in the morning,” she recalls. “Then at 6 a.m., I’d be up to go to work.” The effort paid off: La Prensa now publishes 6,000 copies every other Wednesday, with Lopez, who works on the newspaper full time, overseeing everything from reporting and writing stories to selling ads and handling distribution. With Iowa now home to more than 170,000 Hispanic residents — a number expected to rise to more than 440,000 by midcentury — there’s plenty to write about, and also plenty of interest from local businesses, many of which use La Prensa to reach Latino consumers. These days, about three-quarters of La Prensa’s ad revenues come from non-Latino businesses, Lopez says. “Most of my advertisers are Anglo,” Lopez says. “Businesses understand that the Latino community, the immigrant community, is growing.”
Lopez says the success of La Prensa shows that immigrants can be a boon to small-town communities when they’re given a chance. She knows her own success was only possible because she was able to secure a green card, an opportunity denied to many other immigrants. That’s the reason reform is so important, Lopez says. “We need to have papers for all the people who are in the shadows, so they can work with dignity, and empower themselves, and give more back to this country.”