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Meet the Mexican intellectual who powers an Anchorage community newspaper

Gabriela Olmos is the editor of bilingual newspaper Sol de Medianoche and an author of children’s books. Photographed on Oct. 5, 2017. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Gabriela Olmos was entering the Guadalajara Book Fair — one of the largest in the world — when men in military uniforms pulled her out of line, detained her in a room and mistreated her, injuring her shoulder. She is a small woman.

They had taken her because her name tag showed part of a poem with the phrase, "We are meeting 43."

Olmos had written a beautiful children's book about Mexico's plague of violence, distributed internationally for kids who experience war's horrors. (Its English version is titled, "I Dreamt: A Book About Hope.") At the book fair, one of her readers gave her the poem and she put it in her name tag.

The number 43 was explosive, because 43 student protesters had disappeared earlier that year, 2014. An international investigation found the authorities were complicit in their deaths.

"At that moment I thought, 'I'm going to disappear 44,' " she said. "My only thought was, 'I have to be brave and get out of here.' "

So she taught the soldiers about the power of words and the tradition of poetry. She teaches critical theory at the university level.

"Poetry does no harm," she said.

She recalled telling the soldiers, "I am going to present a book now. There are 200 people waiting for me. If I don't get there, they will start asking questions, and they will start looking for me, and they will find me here with you, and I will tell them that I am detained because I have a poem. Will you stand at such a ridiculous thing?"

She is quite a talker, with a smiling voice and words as fast and clear as falling water. She was released.

Now, living in Anchorage, and editing a bilingual newspaper called Sol de Medianoche (Midnight Sun), Olmos thinks about what might happen to DACA youths sent back to violent countries without the verbal skill she learned there.

President Obama's program called DACA, for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, protected young people brought to the United States as children without immigration documents. President Trump canceled the program on Sept. 5, threatening those young people with deportation.

Returning young people to countries where they never lived would be like setting zoo animals lose in the wild. Olmos said children who grew up with America's peace and freedom wouldn't survive amid the violence and corruption she knew.

As Trump's announcement approached, Olmos held back publication of the bimonthly paper to be able to cover the news and provide immigrants with the practical information they would need. But her article did not criticize Trump.

"To advocate for the immigrant community, speaking about the president doesn't help much," Olmos said. "What helps is to give the information they need."

Gabriela Olmos is the editor of Sol de Medianoche and author of “I Dreamt… A Book About Hope,” and for 17 years worked for the magazine Artes de Mexico. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Sol de Medianoche is not the first Spanish-language newspaper in Anchorage, but its quality and reach are exceptional and it has survived 18 months. Olmos said it breaks even financially by selling advertising for its free distribution of 3,000 copies.

Olmos, 43, worked for 17 years at Artes de Mexico, the largest art magazine in that country. The spectacular publication reproduces art on thick paper between hard covers with articles, criticism and fiction. The job introduced her to Mexico's most famous artists and writers.

For one of her projects, Olmos tracked down an indigenous Huichol shaman to learn about his people's mysterious dream-based world view. At the interview, she arranged purchase of a collection of rare, large shamanistic artworks for the magazine.

The Mexican government sent her on a world tour to present the work. In 2015, the tour brought her to the Out North Contemporary Art House in Anchorage.

Among the people she met here were Daniel Esparza Sr. and Lina Mariscal, leaders in the city's diverse Latino community who had discussed the need for a newspaper. Olmos became an adviser to make it happen.

"We started meeting and started FaceTime from here to Mexico and she told us how to do it," Esparza said. "We have good intentions, but we don't know how to write a newspaper.  . . . It is much harder than I thought."

Lauren Horn, a non-Hispanic Out North board member (and a high school friend of mine) met Olmos at the exhibit and they struck up a long-distance relationship. Olmos visited Alaska again, volunteering for the newspaper.

The paper began as a quarterly in April 2016, but with the growing anti-immigration movement, Trump's rise, and Latinos reporting that their children had faced racist incidents at school, it stepped up the frequency of publication to six times a year.

Eventually, Olmos and Horn married. With Esparza and Mariscal selling ads, the newspaper became successful enough to pay her a small stipend as editor.

The paper gives Latinos a tool to navigate the culture, a connection to help their communities unify, and pride in their cultures. Olmos said that provides some immunity to racism.

Olmos said a non-Hispanic woman asked her if she didn't need professional training to run a newspaper. Olmos listed her degrees and long background as an author and intellectual, then asked the woman about her professional training — but got no response.

"People think we are all maids and gardeners," she said.

I wondered how a writer with her illustrious resume could be satisfied writing simple articles with headlines such as "Salvadorans in Alaska: you are not alone," or "Tips for immigrants protected by DACA."

In a review of the remodeled Loussac Library, Olmos alluded to Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, but Sol de Medianoche is nothing like the sophisticated journal she used to edit.

She said, "Working in a community newspaper helps you help more. You have to use the academic knowledge not to be a snob, but to really serve the people. That is what knowledge if for. If every scholar I know would use their knowledge to push the world forward, we will have a way better world."

She is a wonderful import, full of knowledge and willing to share. Gabriela Olmos makes Anchorage better.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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