Monday, March 28, 2016

Encounter at the Rio Grande, Joe Olvera and David M. Hancock

More on Joe Olvera

I first met Joe when he began working for the El Paso Times. He was constantly challenging other Hispanic journalists to fight for their rights. For example, he felt strongly that news media companies should pay Hispanic journalists a supplement if they were required to translate for the non-Spanish speaking reporters who needed help with their stories.

Joe, the Chicano activist of our profession, was right. He was a front-line advocate that helped paved the way for many who followed him, especially when newsrooms were still predominantly Anglo.

Encounter at the Rio Grande

Before Joe worked at the El Paso Times, an Associated Press (AP) reporter who was based elsewhere, not at the AP bureau in El Paso, called the newspaper asking for assistance with translation and photography in Juarez, Mexico.

Photographer Joel Salcido and I agreed to help the Associated Press reporter, and AP agreed to pay us $250. Paula Moore, the paper's managing editor at the time, said this agreement was ours alone and gave us permission to assist the AP.

I can't recall what news event had prompted the AP to want to cross the border and interview the "lancheros" along the Rio Grande, but there we were, me, Joel and the female AP reporter who did not speak Spanish. This was in the late 1980s, when I worked for the paper's features section under Josie Weber, the features editor. At the time, I was in charge of the paper's "Quien Sabe" consumer column.

The "lancheros" crossed undocumented immigrants on the river using rubber rafts for 25 to 50 cents per person. On the Mexican side, the river is known as the Rio Bravo, which at the time was full of water and sometimes swift and dangerous currents that led to drownings each year.

The modest ferry enterprise was carried out openly by numerous men and their rafts in front of the Border Patrol and the rest of the world. Those free-wheeling days were part of border life for years before "Operation Blockade" went into effect in 1993.

After crossing the border, the three of us walked up to a couple of the "lancheros" to ask them if we could interview them about their risky work. Actually, the interview and photographs were for the AP reporter. One of the "lancheros," who seemed out of it, became aggressive and picked up a broken bottle and waved it at me and the others.

Joel, who also spoke Spanish, tried to calm him down. The shirtless man did not end his threatening gesture until another "lanchero" approached and told him that we were all right. The second "lanchero" said he recognized me from my picture in the Quien Sabe column. I never would have guessed, not in a million years, that a "lanchero" in Juarez was familiar with that column. And of all things, it saved the day for me.

The gig went on and ended without further adieu. The AP reporter got her interview, and Joel and I headed back to the newsroom in El Paso. The Associated Press never did pay us for our troubles.

Latest threat

More and different threats followed me throughout my profession. A couple of months before ending my work at the El Paso Times, I received a telephone call that was meant to convey a message. The only sound I heard at the other end of the line was that of a firearm being reloaded. It was an anonymous call. I confided to someone that the call probably came from three or four likely sources. Of course, in our line of work, threats are not unusual.

A former El Paso Times reporter, David M. Hancock, used to cover Juarez, Mexico, for the paper. At some point, David upset someone in that city, and this led to someone plastering on a pole a flier with an image of him and his name on it, which also indicated that he was persona non-grata.

Eventually, reporters who report on events in Juarez with persistence tend to use up their usefulness when they become targets for irate politicians, drug dealers, corrupt officials and others. David had reached that point and faced an unknown danger.

A competent reporter, David went on to work at the Miami Herald. I recently found an article he wrote concerning an adventure he had had in Cuba. [The article he authored may be read at] David continues to do great journalism. We were fortunate that he is one of many greats that passed through the El Paso Times.

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