La Raza’s Art Project

One of the decade’s notable artistic developments has been the crossover of Latin American culture into the English-speaking mainstream, and Elbio Rodriguez Barilari, editor of the Spanish-language weekly La Raza, wants that to include something more sophisticated than salsa dancing and Mexican soap operas. In April, Barilari unveiled Arena Cultural, a four-color literary supplement to be distributed with La Raza the first Friday of every month. A challenging mix of poetry, short stories, and arts features, the 12-page magazine debuted with a previously unpublished short story by Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti. Its nine issues to date have included an interview with novelist Ana Castillo, a column by Mexican novelist Angeles Mastretta, fiction by Cuban saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, and features on Ernest Hemingway, Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso, and Argentinean tango singer Carlos Gardel. Only a few stories are in English, but Barilari hopes to make the magazine half English and half Spanish.

Barilari was already an accomplished musician, novelist, and journalist when he came to Chicago two years ago at the invitation of La Raza publisher Luis Rossi. Born in Uruguay, Barilari studied history and music in Montevideo; in his early 20s he began writing for the weekly El Pais, and by 1987 he had his own column (which he continues to write as a U.S. correspondent). He met Rossi in 1993 while covering the Chicago Latino Film Festival, and according to Barilari they had numerous discussions about the paper afterward. When Rossi finally asked him to join a three-person editorial board, Barilari leaped at the chance. By the beginning of 1999, Rossi had dismantled the triumvirate and named Barilari editor in chief.

The 45-year-old Uruguayan has put his stamp on the 29-year-old paper by focusing on culture. He’s increased his pool of staff and freelance arts writers from two to eight, and observers say the coverage has improved. “They used to just reprint press releases, and they were rarely critical, but that has changed,” says Alejandro Riera, an arts and entertainment reporter for Exito!, the Tribune Company’s Spanish free weekly. La Raza has become the official sponsor of all Latino acts at House of Blues, and this year the paper published four-page inserts previewing the Ravinia Festival and programs at the Old Town School of Folk Music; Barilari expects to publish quarterly Old Town School inserts throughout 2000. Some observers think La Raza’s hard-news coverage has suffered because of the new editor’s interest in the arts, but the shift seems to have increased readership: in a little more than two years paid circulation has increased by 35 percent, from 130,000 to 175,000. Exito! has an audited circulation of 87,000.

Now running 16 pages, Arena Cultural has gotten mixed reviews within the Latino community. “I think it is a long-overdue addition,” says Carlos Tortolero, executive director of the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, “but it still needs to improve.” He thinks the supplement may be a “little too highbrow.” According to Riera, the early 90s brought a wave of similar magazines, all of which eventually folded from lack of advertising and financial support. “The people who put out these publications were intellectuals, not journalists,” says Riera. Arena Cultural has the advantage of La Raza’s healthy circulation, but Rossi and Barilari both concede that the magazine will need considerable advertising support to survive, and that’s been slow in coming. Few issues have carried more than a page’s worth of ads (though the Museum of Science and Industry sprang for a full-page ad in June and the Rosemont Theatre bought a page in November to advertise its Radio City Christmas Spectacular).

By all accounts Barilari has tried to connect the Latino community with cultural institutions like the Art Institute, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He’s planning a special section for the January issue on CSO music director Daniel Barenboim, who was launching his career as a concert pianist in Buenos Aires when Barilari was studying music in Montevideo. Other mainstream institutions with relatively large advertising budgets say they like what Barilari is doing for the arts at La Raza but can’t afford to supply Arena Cultural with a steady stream of advertising. “If we have an exhibition that we feel is of special interest to the Latino community, of course we will run ads in the Latino newspapers,” explains Eileen Harakal, director of public affairs for the Art Institute. “But we feel we already reach a large part of that community when we are in the Tribune or Sun-Times.”

“So much of the advertising aimed at the Latino community is now going on radio and television,” notes Riera. But Barilari thinks that readership of Spanish-language newspapers is growing among the educated, middle-class Latinos who are Arena Cultural’s target audience, and the strong economy is bringing more advertisers to La Raza. For the moment, anyway, Rossi is turning enough of a profit to plow some money back into Arena Cultural: “We are committed to this supplement for all of the year 2000.”

First Aid for Aida

Now that Aida has opened at the Cadillac Palace Theatre to mostly negative reviews, Walt Disney Theatrical Productions wants to lower the show’s camp quotient. According to a source close to the production, Disney wants to revise some of the dialogue before New York previews begin in late February, and a fashion runway sequence that took a drubbing from critics may disappear. Director Robert Falls insisted on the display of outrageous couture early in the first act and fought for the idea when Disney questioned its suitability. As of last week Falls hadn’t met with his bosses to discuss revisions, but the source predicted that Falls will have to make a convincing argument to save the runway sequence.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.