By Sarah Rafael García
Celebrating 16 years as an award-winning and at times infamous journalist in Orange County, Gabriel San Román is officially joining the TimesOC on August 9th, 2021. Although this means he will no longer keep us informed as the featured writer of our Off The Page column in LibroMobile’s Arts & Culture section, LMAC and all its members are extremely proud of him and can’t wait to see what community highlights and controversies he covers for the LA Times.
As he stated in his weekly newsletter Slingshot!, San Román never intended to be a journalist. Yet, he credits his failed attempt at being a rapper and taking a journalism elective course in middle school as his humble beginning. As a youth in the late 90’s, he found himself appreciating the creative perspective of the nationally syndicated column by the late sportswriter Jim Murray and engaged by SLAM’s cover story on Scotty Pippen in 1996. Rooted in Anaheim, San Román says 90’s sportswriters of the Los Angeles Times and SLAM Magazine contributed to the development of his own award-winning profile pieces and cover stories.
“I had a very culturally relevant educational upbringing, both within my English classes through the Puente Program and Chicanismo,” explains San Román
But that’s just one part of San Román’s journey towards journalism. Straight out of high school, San Román graduated from University of California, Riverside with a bachelor’s degree in History and a minor in Religious Studies in 2004. However, his dedication to publish minoritized communities and political issues began with Chicanismo, books by Ricardo Sanchez, Oscar "Zeta" Acosta, and Sandra Cisneros, and being part of the Puente Program with Mr. G (shout out to Steve Gonzales) in the Anaheim Union High School District.
“I had a very culturally relevant educational upbringing, both within my English classes through the Puente Program,” explains San Román, “and then outside of the curriculum, learning about the Chicano Movement outside, because there wasn’t anything close to Ethnic Studies besides those English books we were reading.”
From Books to the Airwaves
Back in 2005 at the influential age of 23 and fresh out of the ivory towers, he joined KPFK LA as a volunteer producer for the Uprising Radio show simply to be part of the anti-war voices in the media. San Román felt he was on track to focus on public history, possibly develop a career as an archivist — not a journalist — with a specific interest in the Pacifica Radio Archives. Eventually, he “showed his chops enough” and served as a director of the radio show. This led him to build his media network and began contributing to various small publications, including the OC Weekly in 2006.
While reminiscing through challenging times as a writer and his path towards a life in journalism, San Román traced back the progressive move in his career from books to airwaves to the direct mentorship he received while at UC Riverside. Dr. James Brennan advised him through his senior thesis and their shared love for history keeps their dialogue engaged to this day. Venceremos is a now a pamphlet published by PM Press that offers a short cultural history and charts the development of the Chilean movement from the years before Allende’s victorious campaign to the brutal U.S.-backed military coup on September 11, 1973.
Additionally, as an undergraduate student, renowned author Gary Soto was San Román’s first critic (but not his last!). While taking a creative writing course, Soto checked San Román on his poetry, demanded he read voraciously, and gave him the best advice to “show not tell” regardless of genre. A lesson he still uses as a template for all writing — including the diverse publications that won him a dozen Orange County Press Club awards.
A Stint at the Weekly
As most of us know, San Román wrote alongside Gustavo Arellano for the late OC Weekly. A cultural institution we all miss — and led to both writers being heavily criticized for the stories they unearthed about politicos, while also reveling in the success of the diverse O.C. community and underrepresented gente. With a census population of approximately 60% of people of color (POC) in Orange County, San Román contributed to creating visibility for the POC music scene of 2006, published numerous freelance pieces and cover stories in 2012, 2013 and 2015, while covering a mosaic of cultures during his stint at the Weekly: historical journalism, police brutality and gang injunctions, labor struggles with Disneyland, Black history, Little Arabia and its businesses, Latinx culture, and various other topics. Then he was laid off in November 2019 – that’s right, just before the pandemic.
“Gabriel San Román, he’s a hell of a reporter, an underrated writer, and a brilliant humorist!” — Gustavo Arellano
Although San Román hesitantly admitted he turned down the Chapman University MFA program to accept a full-time position with the Weekly in 2016, he still feels privileged and humbled by the stories he covered for the community over the last six years, including LibroMobile’s Arts & Culture section for the last fifteen months. Lucky for us, he also found a home for a cover story that went unpublished by the Weekly. In March 2020, TimesOC took their first chance on San Román as a freelance writer by publishing a piece on the first Black cop in Santa Ana — Harlen "Lamb" Lambert.
In May 2020 he began his Slingshot! newsletter as well as the Off The Page column with LibroMobile. Most recently, he also received three OC Press Club 2021 awards. All of us at LibroMobile are indebted to him because of it. As he would likely say, his writing has placed yet another underdog under the spotlight. In the category of “Non-traditional or Specialty Publication,” San Román received 2nd place for “Best Arts/Culture Story or Review.” The piece is titled “Santa Ana Artist Reflects on Día de los Muertos with ‘And Still I Rise’ Installation,” which shares the work of local artist and teacher Rigo Maldonado and Valley High School students
Now, TimesOC, part of the LA Times which was the home of the sportswriters he admired as a youth, gave San Román a new home as a full-time featured writer. But we are not the only ones celebrating his recent awards and new position.
“Gabriel San Román, he’s a hell of a reporter, an underrated writer, and a brilliant humorist,” said Gustavo Arellano. “It’s been awesome to see him grow in all those capacities, and I’m thrilled he’s joining us at the LA Times. Anacrime forever!”
Not Just a Journalist
What’s next? I asked him that question too. San Román plans to keep doing what he has been doing for our diverse O.C. community — focusing on people of color and creating visibility for untold histories. He will help us continue LibroMobile’s Arts & Culture section by serving as a board member and building new ways to publish and pay more community-based writers. He will continue to build his newsletter, currently 700+ subscribers, and add his new bylines to updates.
With his new position, and now fully claiming his journalist status at the age of 39, San Román will continue to write alongside his editor-for-life partner Irene Arellano (not related to Gustavo) and plans to find the right publisher for his first book, Calendar of the Revolt, in the months to come.
“The common thread in my life is an intellectual, perpetual curiosity — and a voice. I feel I have something to express out into the world,” said San Román, “and that is best done through storytelling, whatever the medium is, these days it’s writing.”
¡Felicidades, Gabriel! Thank you for being a relevant role-model to our community.
“Venceremos” Víctor Jara and the New Chilean Song Movement by Gabriel San Román, published May 2014, PM Press. $5.95 (pamphlet)
Gabriel San Román is a contributor to Times OC and a former OC Weekly staff writer. Subscribe to his weekly Slingshot! Newsletter. And in case anyone is wondering, he's still the tallest Mexican in OC.