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Publication finds niche among area's immigrants and English-speaking readers

Marian Sanchez, left, is pictured June 24 during an interview by KSAX-TV about La Gran América. The trilingual newspaper is generating a lot of interest among the region's immigrants. The paper publishes for the local Somali, Spanish and English speaking communities. Photo by Sebastian Bohorquez/La Gran América

For the Somali community here, a lack of news in Somali and limited knowledge of English means many can feel cut off and isolated, said Faysal Mohamud, a quality assurance technician at Jennie-O Turkey Store.

"There's no radio in Somali," he said, speaking of the stifling lack of information. "You hardly ever see a Somali pictured in the newspaper."

Four months ago, Mohamud took the matter into his own hands. He began writing for La Gran América in his spare time, relaying information in Somali about pirates off the coast of East Africa, laws passed in Washington, or the actions of a Somali women's organization in Willmar. The effect, he said, has been the creation of a small but essential lifeline for community members separated by thousands of miles from their home in East Africa.

"At least now, we have this paper," he said.

Marian Sanchez started La Gran América nearly a year ago, dubbing it the "Bilingual Newspaper of Willmar." Since the addition of Mohamud, it's now trilingual -- a bridge, she says, between Willmar's Somali, Spanish and English speaking communities.

"It's hard to reach them all, but it has brought a lot of positive reaction," she said.

Covering the area for El Heraldo, the now defunct Spanish language version of the Sauk Centre Herald, Sanchez noted an absence of reliable information in Spanish for Willmar's sizable Hispanic community.

While Spanish speakers could get national and international news from cable channels like Univision, when it came to local information, people were relying a lot on word of mouth, she said. Unsubstantiated rumors and gossip were commonplace.

After El Heraldo folded, she used money from savings and help from friends to establish La Gran América, and has put it out once a month since then. The local stories, focusing on issues ranging from a free meal program at Willmar public schools to the high school prom, are written by Sanchez and a small pool of volunteers. The writing is upheld to rigorous journalistic standards, said Sanchez.

"We highly investigate what we write," she said.

Today, the paper can be found at businesses and public locations throughout the area.

Since its inception, the positive reaction from the community has been overwhelming, said Sanchez.

"Sometimes when we drop the paper off, people are waiting there for it," she said.

Roberto Valdez, director of the Willmar Area Multicultural Market, has seen this interest firsthand. He has witnessed people from a wide variety of backgrounds pick up the newspaper.

He said that previous attempts to start Spanish language newspapers in the area had failed due to lack of interest. But this time, he said, due to the paper's clear layout and stories in Spanish, English and Somali, the paper has generated interest among a wide swath of people in the area.

"I am very impressed with the quality of work," he said.

Local advertisers are beginning to take notice as well.

Before La Gran América came along, advertising directly to the local Hispanic and Somali populations was a game of hit or miss, said Susana Martinez, marketing assistant at the Meridian Disc Institute.

Fliers were handed out, banners were posted, but there didn't seem to be a clear way to reach the population that makes up about half of the chiropractic clinic's clientele, she said.

Now, with a newspaper that has a large circulation among those same people, Martinez said a clear avenue for marketing is finally there.

"It's pretty much the only way to reach the Somali and Hispanic community here," she said.

Despite interest from advertisers, Sanchez said that the newspaper has yet to turn a profit. As she begins to publish it more often, though -- her plan is eventually to get it to every other week -- more money could start to come in, she said.

"Maybe later it will be profitable," she said, "but the focus is not so much on money, but on the community."