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PORTILLO PROPS

Arizona Daily Star Metro columnist Ernesto Portillo Jr. has been a target of mockery in these pages, but someone else has noticed his work and taken it more seriously. Portillo has been named Frank del Olmo Print Journalist of the Year by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

The Washington, D.C.-based association is a support group for Hispanic journalists, and tries to foster fair treatment of Hispanics by the media.

"I'm humbled by this," Portillo said last week. He said he was especially inspired that the award is named for a late Los Angeles Times editor with whom Portillo crossed paths during the 14 years he worked as a reporter in San Diego.

"For some of us in journalism, Latino and non-Latino alike, Frank del Olmo was a towering figure," Portillo said. "He was a quiet man, but when he spoke and especially when he wrote, you understood him clearly; you knew exactly what he stood for. Today, a lot of commentators are mean-spirited, but Mr. del Olmo was not a mean-spirited man. He could be critical, but fair; he could be judgmental, but not mean."

The Tucson-born Portillo said he didn't expect the award to change the basic character of his column. "I try to tell the story of Tucson through the voices and eyes of many Tucsonans, whether they're native-born or recently arrived," he said. "I want to try to help others and myself understand our wackiness.

"I know I am perceived as a Latino columnist, and I know this award is given to me by a Latino organization, but I don't view myself as a Latino columnist. I am a columnist who is Latino, a columnist who comes from a bicultural borderland experience. And yes, I see Tucson differently than the dominant society does, but I think my views reflect those of a great number of people whose perspectives and experiences have been infrequently told."

Some people might argue that awards and organizations devoted to a single ethnic group serve only to ghettoize that group in its profession. But both Portillo and Iván Román, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists' executive director, maintain that this is the only way Hispanics can get their due.

"If the media were doing what it should be doing, covering the Latino community in a fair manner, this organization wouldn't need to exist," said Román. "But we have to address longstanding deficiencies. We choose to highlight our people who are doing good work, and coverage that we feel contributes to the Latino community and understanding of Latino history and culture. And ultimately what we're about is highlighting and improving the quality of journalism overall, not just journalism by Latinos."

Meanwhile, Portillo said that this honor is motivating him to strive to be more like the award's namesake: "In my work I want to use the example of Mr. del Olmo, a quiet man with a loud voice, and do the best job I can."

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