I was introduced to Jose Neil Donis through his work at Al Día en America, the Spanish language paper in Louisville. In that time, he has served as a community advocate for the wider Latinx/Hispanic community by providing a voice to a growing group of immigrants. Jose is an incredibly kind and thoughtful writer and entrepreneur, essentially running the paper as a one man operation for years now. We caught up to him to get his take on immigrating to the US, running a print paper, and the effectiveness of a wall in 2018.
Never Nervous: I know that you immigrated to the U.S. Where are you from originally? What brought you stateside? I understand you have a hell of an immigration story. What can you share with us about your move to the U.S.?
Jose Neil Donis: I am a native of Guatemala. Compared to others I’ve heard, I don’t think my immigration story is quite so crazy. I had an employment offer in Los Angeles with a company which was relocating from Guatemala to L.A. due to NAFTA. Eventually, like many other companies in the textile industry, my company moved south. I was left with the options of either moving to Mexico or remaining in L.A. unemployed. I chose the latter.
NN: One thing that I’ve thought about a lot when I think about the idea of legal and illegal immigration, is how the common anti-illegal immigration narrative seems to skip not only over whatever hardships or reasons that brought you here, but also the fact that most folks likely have to know how Americans might treat them upon arrival. I’m not sure if that comes off as ignorant, but if it does, I’d like to learn more all the same. Can you speak to that at all?
JND: It is my perception that American culture seems to be very focused on itself. In a way, it seems narrow minded, because it seems like the only thing you see here is the U.S. It seems like there is not enough interest or care about understanding neighboring countries or the rest of the world. In addition, the educational system, until recently, did not make an effort to educate with a more globalized perspective, nor does it emphasize the fact that the U.S. is a multicultural country. I have heard the U.S. being called the first universal country on the planet. However, they don’t teach that enough in our nation’s schools. How many cultures have contributed to what the U.S. is today?
“It is my perception that American culture seems to be very focused on itself. In a way, it seems narrow minded, because it seems like the only thing you see here is the U.S. It seems like there is not enough interest or care about understanding neighboring countries or the rest of the world.”
I think a good example of how the U.S. is self-centered is the lack of international travel. Even though U.S. passports allow Americans to travel to many countries, as a whole, very few of them take advantage of it. I know people in Kentucky who have never traveled overseas and have no desire to do it. To me, this seems a little selfish. We have an entire planet to explore, and not everyone has the opportunity to do it. Besides that, traveling makes you understand the world differently, and gives you a better perspective of other cultures than not traveling at all.
NN: How did you end up in Kentucky? What was it like in the Bible Belt for someone that didn’t grow up here? How did the community receive you?
JND: However, it was, it was good. Otherwise I would’ve left Kentucky a long time ago. I was invited to move to Kentucky by friends, and I also had the desire to visit a few places in the U.S. before going back to Guatemala. Life in L.A. was more fun, but it was very challenging. There weren’t many jobs at the time. Kentucky was the opposite. Many companies were struggling to find workers. That changed my plans to go back home, and I decided to stay longer. I started out in Shelbyville when I first came to Kentucky. However, I spent a lot of time in Louisville, and I used to say that I was living in Louisville and sleeping in Shelbyville. I guess Louisville was a lot more welcoming or had more stuff than rural Shelbyville. Regardless, I always found good and bad people no matter where I was.
NN: What drew you to journalism? How did you get started writing?
JND: As a community, we have the need to have a social network, a way to communicate in our own language, to be able to integrate ourselves here. At the time there was no other way to connect with people in Spanish locally. The newspaper was literally the only method people had to find jobs, or to know what was going on in town. To tell you the truth, it surprised me how much of an impact the newspaper had on the community. I wasn’t prepared for that.
I have always been attracted to reading the newspaper. As a kid, I remember having to wait my turn to get my hands on the newspaper after my father read it. I guess that was my first introduction to journalism. It was the way to see the local news, the opinions and editorials. Later when I was in school, I was drawn to arts and language. Living in California in 1994, I realized how the Spanish language media was everywhere, in magazines, newspapers, radio and TV. It made me realize how important it is when you don’t have it.
I guess I’ve always been some sort of entrepreneur. An entrepreneur looks for a problem and tries to offer a solution in the hope of making a business. The newspaper did that for me at the time.
NN: What is your favorite or one of your favorite stories that you’ve written and why?
JND: I don’t have a favorite. It is always satisfying to see how people react when they see or read about themselves in the paper. It is humbling to me when people call and ask me about something they saw in Al Día.
“As an immigrant and an entrepreneur, I always wanted to succeed. I wanted to prove to myself that the decision to leave my home country was the right one. I think that gave me the will and determination to start my own business. Al Día gave me a sense of accomplishment.”
NN: When did Al Día en América come into the equation? How did that paper start and why?
JND: As an immigrant and an entrepreneur, I always wanted to succeed. I wanted to prove to myself that the decision to leave my home country was the right one. I think that gave me the will and determination to start my own business. Al Día gave me a sense of accomplishment.
NN: In my experience working together, it seems like you literally do everything, from editing, to some writing, to publishing, which might be the least glamorous job by and large. Can you tell us a little about your responsibilities there?
JND: Over the years I have gone through a few different phases. When I first started Al Día, my staff consisted of my wife and myself. We published the paper every two weeks from our home. After a few years, I increased my staff to four employees, but I figured that was not the best way to go in order to stay in business. Today I have several freelancers who help me complete the whole operation, including writers, a couple of graphic designers, photographers and an office assistant, in addition to six distributors. I do a lot myself, but I couldn’t make it work without them.
NN: How has the Spanish speaking community received the paper? What kind of feedback have you gotten? How has the paper evolved over time?
JND: At the beginning, the community received the paper with a lot of excitement. People thanked me for having started the paper. Businesses saw the opportunity of a growing market and Al Día was the tool to reach it. Today, it remains a credible and ever-evolving resource for the native Spanish speakers in our community, as well as those who want to know more about Kentuckiana’s Latino population.
NN: How would you like to see the paper grow?
JND: I think times change, and I have to be willing to be flexible. A few years ago, I thought about expanding to other cities in some sort of franchising-type model. However, technology has made things more dynamic. I think I would like to continue to be a dependable source of information for the readers, and be able to remain relevant with the changes going on in the community. Maybe one day we will publish a bilingual edition instead of our currently Spanish-only format. Time will tell. Also, we must be ready to adapt to the changes in demographics.
JND: A soccer team and a soccer stadium are the best things that could have happened to Louisville, after bourbon. The way I see it is more from an international perspective. Soccer will only continue to grow in popularity. As more immigrants come to our city, it only makes sense that the Louisville City team will be increasingly successful.
“A soccer team and a soccer stadium are the best things that could have happened to Louisville, after bourbon.”
NN: Why does anyone think that a goddamned wall is useful in stopping anything in 2018? Has no one in the Trump administration heard of a ladder? A rope? Dynamite? Shovels?
JND: No comment. I am still in disbelief of what we are going through. When I think of all the things that have contributed to our current situation, I can’t help but think we are all at least somewhat responsible for it. If we were all a bit more aware, getting to know and talking more with our own neighbors, and encouraging them to be active participants in civic life, maybe Trump would never have won the presidency.
NN: Give us your hot tip on where to grab something awesome to eat in Louisville.
JND: Try the aguachile in a few of the local Mexican restaurants. Aguachile is a type of ceviche, which is a spicy fish or shrimp cooked with lots of lime. Not many restaurants prepare it, and very few know how to do it the right way. I think it takes a while to cook it. I guess you can ask around and see if the chef at your favorite Mexican restaurant can make some for you. It’s inexpensive, delicious and spicy.
NN: What do you listen to when you are working? Give us your top three albums of the moment.
JND: I listen to lots of different types of music. I like some of the technocumbia coming from South America, specifically Argentina. In English, I recently discovered Thievery Corporation, a group that makes an amazing mix of rhythms. Based on what I’ve downloaded in the past few months, my top three albums right now are by Quantic, Thievery Corporation and A.Chal.