Fourteen years ago Raul Dorantes was on his way to a promising law career in Mexico when he decided to call it quits. “I just hated what I was doing,” he says. “I thought, I’m not going to be doing this all my life. I wanted to move from my hometown and my country.”

He came to Chicago in November 1986. Interested in political activism, he joined an immigrants’-rights group, and in 1989 he went to Cuba for several months to study economics and Latin American history. But upon his return he found he’d lost his passion for the work. He says he was looking for something to devote his energies to, but he didn’t know what.

That same year he met Mexican fiction writer Febronio Zatarain, who’d taught philosophy at the University of Guadalajara and been active in politics there. He encouraged Dorantes to start writing and to read authors such as Milan Kundera and Jose Revueltas. “Febronio said, ‘We’ll start to find the answer not in politics but literature,'” says Dorantes.

Soon Zatarain, Dorantes, and Dorantes’s cousin Francisco Pi–a began meeting every Friday to discuss literature and critique each other’s writing. After a year there were 15 people in their group, and they decided to start publishing their short stories and poems in a Spanish-language literary journal they called Fe de erratas, the Spanish term for an errata note. It was published from 1992 to ’95, then folded for lack of funds.

Around the time Fe de erratas went under, its editors met a Peruvian activist named Marco Escalante, who asked why they hadn’t included articles and essays about social issues. “He came with all of these ideas and books and suggestions,” says Dorantes. Two years later the group launched a new journal, Zorros y erizos (“Foxes and Hedgehogs”). Besides literary and political essays it included articles on images of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Pilsen and the history of Maxwell Street, as well as an exhaustive analysis of homelessness in Chicago. But by November they’d run out of money once again.

Last year they pooled their resources and decided to pick up where Zorros y erizos left off, founding Tropel (the name refers to a stampede of wild horses). The journal now boasts a seven-person editorial board whose members are from Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, and Spain, as well as Chicago. Each member helps write, edit, distribute, and sell ads for the 20-page monthly paper, which has a print run of 5,000 copies and includes a four-page English section.

Dorantes, who works as a freelance editor, says Tropel fills a void left by the city’s mainstream Spanish-language publications–La Raza, its monthly cultural spinoff, Arena Cultural, and Exito. “I have not seen a magazine that is not just dealing with information about something that happened last week, but more general issues about the Latino community.” It has become “a way to do political work that is not political work–to create a means to have a dialogue.”

For example, Dorantes and Zatarain are in the midst of a series of articles about the Mexican immigrant experience in Chicago. In one installment they examined the difference between Mexican and Mexican-American Catholicism. Pi–a, who teaches at Cristo Rey High School in Pilsen, is writing an analysis and history of rock en espa–ol. Tropel has also published articles about the election irregularities in Peru; the protest against the U.S. navy base in Vieques, Puerto Rico; bilingual education; and human rights in Colombia.

Poems and short stories are usually accompanied by analyses, and each issue focuses on a local visual artist. But unlike the big Spanish-language publications around town, the editors say, Tropel doesn’t pull any punches in its reviews. “La Raza and Exito are not critical,” says editorial board member John Barry, who teaches Latin American literature at Roosevelt University. “Anything anyone does is OK, and it gets a review.”

Dorantes agrees. “If you criticize something, not just in the cultural arena, but political institutions and community organizations, they think we are against them.”

Which sometimes has repercussions. In its year of publication the magazine has alienated two of the Spanish-speaking community’s most prominent institutions, the Latino Film Festival and the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum. Both have pulled their advertising at least once. “But they always come back,” says board member Veronica Esteban.

Over the past year the editors have had inquiries from people wanting to buy subscriptions, but the staff isn’t ready to handle those yet. As it is, board members have to dig into their own pockets to pay the printer when they don’t sell enough ads.

The board is working hard to make sure Tropel succeeds, but if not, “in three months we will be talking about creating another journal,” says Dorantes.

Tropel’s first-anniversary party will take place Thursday, July 27, from 5:30 to 7:30 PM at the Aldo Castillo Gallery, 233 W. Huron (773-337-2536). It’s free. –Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Raul Dorantes, Francisco Pi–a, Febronio Zatarain photo by Jim Newberry.