Journalists are often not popular. People love to fuss about their local newspaper.
But you would not have known that Saturday night. A dozen Latino groups and businesses threw a fancy dinner party that packed the Bell House to pay tribute to Andrés Cruz, editor and publisher of La Voz de Kentucky.
The bilingual newspaper, which publishes more than 8,000 copies every other Thursday and online at Lavozky.com, has covered Central Kentucky's growing Latino community for a decade.
Tertulia Latina de Lexington, a social club whose members gather each month to share food and culture from the many Latin American countries of their origins, organized this impressive outpouring of affection.
"He does a lot of wonderful things for the community," Tertulia member Rosa Martin said, "so we decided to do this for him."
There were performances by amazing musicians who had immigrated from Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico and Ecuador. There were award presentations and remarks by Latino community leaders and Mayor Jim Gray.
La Voz means "the voice" in Spanish. "He really is the voice of our community," Freddy Peralta told the crowd.
Cruz is a physically small man, lawyer Joshua Santana noted in a formal toast, "but his intellect, passion and courage have allowed him to cast a huge shadow within the city of Lexington and beyond."
"I don't know what to say except thank you," an emotional Cruz said after the tributes were over. "Thank you for helping me to feel useful."
"Useful" has been Cruz's watchword for La Voz since he bought the newspaper in 2003 from Alejandro Gomez, a Mexican immigrant who started it two years earlier.
Cruz, 42, came here from Costa Rica in 1993 to study history at the University of Kentucky. "I got to UK and fell in love with Kentucky," he said. After school, he did translation and literacy work for several years, then La Voz captured his imagination.
Cruz said the newspaper has allowed him to use his training as a historian to chronicle the dramatic growth of Central Kentucky's Hispanic population. "Being able to witness all of this has been an incredible privilege," he said.
Hispanics accounted for more than half of the nation's population growth from 2000 to 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau reported recently. Kentucky's Hispanic population more than doubled, to 132,836. Hispanics represent 3.1 percent of the state's 4.3 million people, well below the national level of 16 percent. The Census counted 20,474 Hispanics in Fayette County — 6.9 percent of the population — with more than 15,000 of them of Mexican heritage.
La Voz's coverage focuses on Hispanic businesses, community resources, education, the arts and sports — especially the local baseball and soccer leagues that are meeting places for Latinos of all nationalities.
By publishing all articles in Spanish and English, La Voz aims for wide appeal — recent immigrants trying to make their way, and Anglos looking for a better understanding of their new neighbors.
Because Cruz sees La Voz as a community voice, he has not shied away from advocacy on immigration issues. He has urged passage of the DREAM Act, which would give undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children a path to higher education and citizenship. After La Voz helped to organize a huge immigrants-rights rally downtown in April 2006, Cruz said, he received several death threats.
Illegal immigration remains a controversial problem with no easy solutions, but La Voz tries to reflect the contributions documented and undocumented immigrants are making to Kentucky.
"I have come across incredible stories, incredible people," Cruz said. "There is an incredible desire in this community to work, to get an education, to better ourselves."
The weak economy has been hard on La Voz, as it has been on all newspapers. Cruz now runs La Voz out of his home in the Kenwick neighborhood with help from friends. His wife, Jennifer, who is from Elliot County, works as a nurse.
"At La Voz, we have a responsibility to help make Lexington a better place," Cruz said. "I don't make a lot of money, but it's a great way to live my life."