USC Annenberg journalism students (top row, from left) Astrid Kayembe and Caitlin Hernández, along with Annenberg Media coach Laura Gonzalez, speak with chef Alfonso Martinez (below) during a Facebook Live event for the multimedia zine project in Amara Aguilar's class.
Photo courtesy of Amara Aguilar

Class connects with L.A. TACO to create community ‘zine’

From his bustling home kitchen, chef Alfonso Martinez is cooking someone else’s recipe for a change — specifically, a recipe for black beans, frijoles de olla, submitted by a reader of the hyperlocal website L.A. TACO.

Martinez, owner of Poncho’s Tlayudas, explains, as an audience watches him work over Facebook Live, that he began stewing the clay pot of beans two hours earlier with just onions and water. “Son algos muy sencillos,” he says in Spanish, “algo simple pero muy sabrosa.” (“These are very ordinary things — something simple but very tasty.”) Spanish is one of three languages he speaks during the stream, along with English and the Zapotec indigenous language from his home state of Oaxaca, Mexico.

Interacting virtually with Martinez via Zoom as he conducts his guided tour of indigenous Mexican food and culture are USC Annenberg undergraduate journalism students Caitlin Hernández and Astrid Kayembe, along with Annenberg Media coach Laura Gonzalez from USC Marshall. Hernández, a junior majoring in journalism, asks Martinez why maintaining his connection with the cuisine of his hometown is so important.

His answer is simple: “Nuestra comida, no vamos a permitir que eso se desaparezca,” he says. (“Our food, we are not going to allow it to disappear.”)

The event earlier this semester is part of a multimedia collaboration between USC Annenberg and L.A. TACO spearheaded by Amara Aguilar, associate professor of professional practice of journalism, as part of her magazine production class. The project, which began in Fall 2020, offers students the chance not only to create video and written content (including several bean recipes) for L.A. TACO, it also culminates in a printed independent magazine – or “zine” — called Taco Life that will be distributed throughout Los Angeles.

The project started in November when Aguilar began looking for a media partner to help her students tell authentic stories about L.A. She knew that L.A. TACO would be a perfect fit and approached the publication’s editor, Javier Cabral, with the idea of collaborating on a print zine.

Aguilar said that the idea was about both the medium and the message — content that would resonate with an L.A. audience.

“Here, in Los Angeles, there are so many cultures that contribute to our experiences with food, to our experiences with the arts and music, and also to social justice,” she said. “With all of these meaningful engagement initiatives, we hoped to capture some of these amazing stories.”

“I love investing in young journalists who have a passion for storytelling,” Cabral added. “Amara took it upon herself to find a way for us to collaborate.”

Aguilar then brought the idea to her students in her JOUR 499 “Magazine Production” class. Melody Waintal, a master’s student in the specialized journalism (the arts) program, remembers the project taking shape: a zine that would involve different interactions with the community.

The missing piece, Aguilar notes, was funding for a print product. Undeterred, she applied for and was awarded a 2020 Challenge Fund for Innovation in Journalism Education grant from the Online News Association. “The grant required a special emphasis on engagement and diversity,” Aguilar said. “Our project really embodies those two areas — it's very community-driven and collaborative.”

“We were given a lot of free rein,” Hernández said. “We would brainstorm ideas, and then once we had something really solidified, we would send it over to Professor Aguilar, who would send it over to Javier and then he would approve it or give us feedback.”

Hernández added that they and the other students working on the zine are determined to practice “engaged journalism” in conceiving and reporting these stories. “Engaged journalism is a way to bridge new and existing audiences together,” they said. “It’s a give-and-take, not just providing news, but getting people in the community involved in the reporting.”

Since the final zines will carry the L.A. TACO name, Cabral has been involved in approving and vetting all of the students’ story pitches.

“At L.A. TACO, we’re down to publish new stuff, we’re down to trust new writers,” Cabral said. “With the students, if I see a pitch that isn’t perfect, I won’t discard it right away. I try to find a way to work with them on that particular angle, maybe pivot or shape it in a way that is relevant to our readership — but also still reflects that person's experience.”

Aguilar said that 4,000 copies of each of Taco Life’s two volumes will be printed and distributed free in May to L.A. TACO members — and also to libraries, community centers, taquerías and restaurants throughout Los Angeles County.

“We hope the print zine distribution will also help grow L.A. TACO’s membership, community, and expose people that may not have internet access to the important journalistic work L.A. TACO is doing in our community — especially around the topics of food, culture, social justice, and other critical issues vital to Los Angeles and beyond,” Aguilar said.

Even before publication, the work on the community zine has earned accolades. The students’ presentation on the zine — which included content like the livestream with Alvarez and another virtual event featuring street vendors — earned first place in the 2020-21 RJI Student Innovation Competition, an annual contest hosted by the Missouri School of Journalism’s Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute.

For the students involved, the rewards of the project have gone far beyond the grants and honors their work has earned. Cabral notes that L.A. TACO has already hired two of Aguilar’s students — Kayembe and Samantha Nuñez, a progressive degree student in public relations and communication management — for part-time positions.

“The zine is a really innovative publication,” said Waintal, who will be starting work as a multimedia journalist at KION-TV in Monterey/Salinas after she graduates this year. “I love innovation, and I think the future is a combination of broadcast and print.”

Hernández emphasizes that the opportunity to tell local stories about historically underrepresented communities has been particularly meaningful.

“There’s a wealth of stories that don’t get told, so it’s important to provide a platform when you can,” they said. “I really enjoy being a part of that.”

Aguilar says the biggest takeaway for her students from this project has been learning to meaningfully connect with the people they cover.

“As journalists, we must put communities’ needs first in our practice,” she said. “The zine is built around community engagement strategies and human-centered design that focus on using digital, social media and print products and practices to grow engagement and ultimately better serve our communities.”