‘Some progress, but not enough’
Fernando Soto, an advocate for the Latinx community in Charleston, has had a long history of balancing his advocacy with his journalism work since graduating from Alabama’s Spring Hill College in 2016. Growing up as an undocumented immigrant with his parents on Johns Island, Soto made connections with members of the community from the grassroots, up, along with working with multiple media outlets before finally setting out to create his own: Nuestro Estado, a digital Spanish-language newspaper with a deep reach in the Lowcountry.
By the time the pandemic rolled around, Soto had already established his publication and quickly partnered with state health care experts and professionals to provide testing to Spanish-speaking communities and later, vaccinations.
Follow Soto on Facebook, where he streams breaking news and on-the-ground updates, and find his work at nuestroestado.com. And when you’re out and about, be on the lookout for the blue Nuestro Estado van.
We sat down with Soto last week at El Molino market in West Ashley to talk about his roots and reach over a few fresh tacos.
Charleston City Paper: At what point growing up, before journalism, did you start transitioning into the sort of advocacy work you’ve done for the Latinx community?
Fernando Soto: I don’t know; I think it just happened as a part of growing up as an immigrant child with parents who worked two or three jobs just to make ends meet. They didn’t really have time to study English and learn, so very early on, I was always translating for folks. It kind of became a part of who I was — part of my personality. And I’ve always been a defensive type of person, because I’ve encountered a lot of problems in Charleston, specifically with accessibility. And although at the time I didn’t realize the full spectrum of it, I knew that sometimes people were not being treated the same because they didn’t speak the same language, and that frustrated me.
That’s carried along with me into adulthood — into everything that I do now, but now, obviously, I have the ability to move the needle forward a little bit and influence other folks into making decisions or being informed, and the idea is to incorporate Latinos into the greater part of the community.
CP: Do you think, over time, you’ve seen some of those positive changes come about?
Soto: There’s been some progress, but not enough. I think there’s more language accessibility than there was 20 years ago, but not substantial — not intentional. Only if we ask for it will they give it, and only in that area in which we’ve asked, and then, it’s kind of sub-par. One of the frustrating things about the pandemic is that there’ve been so many resources available to the community through local government, but the City of Charleston doesn’t even have a Spanish webpage to access some of that information.
CP: Walk us through the journey of Nuestro Estado; how did you manage to grow from a one-man band, small outfit, to a digital paper with as wide of a reach as you’ve gotten?
Soto: I did it with, like, $100 because I didn’t have a whole lot of money, and I just kind of had to make it work, and one of the things that has been crucial to making it work is the community. I grew up here, so I already knew a lot of the community, and as an immigrant, I have that firsthand experience that a lot of people in our area go through. I knew where those fault lines were in our community and what people needed. It’s not enough to just translate a press release—we need to find a holistic approach to informing folks.
And I had a pretty decent following right away. When I started building the website, I think we had maybe like 2,000 followers, but we were growing rapidly. We were the fastest-growing Latino media outlet across the state, and now we’ve grown to over 12,000 followers on Facebook alone. But what’s more important is that we engage directly with people. They are letting me know that they trust the information we’re providing, and that has helped us grow tremendously.
CP: How do you balance your two roles in the community as an advocate and as a journalist, especially during the pandemic?
Soto: It happened out of necessity. I would love to just be a journalist and do the standard things we are taught — but what is unbiased journalism? Right after college, I worked for the media, and there was this idea that my lived experience and the lived experiences of people in that market were not getting told because they would be considered biased. But is it really biased to share information that is lived experience? There’s a lot of value to that, so the idea that we have to balance life experience for the sake of calling it “unbiased journalism” is kind of ridiculous.
When I’m informing folks, I am informing them of the immigrant living experience, and people find it uncomfortable because they aren’t open to understanding how undocumented immigrants in South Carolina, a deep-red state, function. But I’m simply advocating for policies that make our community safer.