Efrain Roche, 61, owner and editor of popular Latino newspaper

Posted: January 28, 2014

THE AIR WAS redolent of charred wood, the furniture black with soot, half-burned papers were strewn about - but in the cherished tradition of journalism, the staff got the newspaper out.

Someone had deliberately set a Dumpster on fire in 1998 outside the building in North Philadelphia where the weekly Community Focus was being published, and the fire spread into the building.

Drug dealers were believed responsible, angered by editorials demanding they be shut down.

But this wasn't the first time the newspaper was the target of somebody's anger. In 1994, the office was firebombed, and in 1992 an arsonist struck after a group of right-wing Cuban exiles were angered over editorials about the U.S. intervention in Nicaragua.

On another occasion someone poured gasoline through a mail slot, but was caught before it was ignited.

Death threats were common, but Efrain Roche, owner and editor of the bilingual weekly, wasn't about to let the paper's enemies stop the presses.

"It's not that I don't worry," he told Daily News reporter Yvonne Latty in 1998, "but there's a difference between being scared and being worried. We have to be with the community. You don't have to be scared of everything."

That was what Efrain Roche devoted his career, and his life, to doing: being with the Latino community against all odds.

He died Friday after a long battle with heart disease. He was 61 and lived in Melrose Park, Cheltenham Township.

Efrain, who was born in Puerto Rico, was hired in 1983 by Community Focus, then an all-English publication started in Kensington, to translate some articles and columns into Spanish.

Juan Gonzalez, a former Philadelphia Daily News reporter and later a New York Daily News columnist, had suggested the Focus go bilingual because of the increasing number of Latinos in the communities it served.

Efrain summed up his mission this way: "We try to show the good things the community tries to do. The little things that no one else covers and no one knows about, the struggle of the people, their hopes."

He wrote a popular column called La Cotorra (The Parrot) that employed satire to go after politicians, community leaders and others he deemed power-hungry or unethical.

"People used to wait for the paper every Thursday to see what the Parrot was up to," said Pedro Rodriguez, longtime friend who once wrote for the paper and is now a Civil Service commissioner. "He spoke the truth, what was going on in the community. He went after politicians, community leaders, businesspeople, even ministers.

"He cultivated dozens of sources. People would say, 'Got to tell the Parrot this or that.' He always remained true to his principles. He never wavered. He was a straight-shooter, always telling it like it was.

"Everybody knew where he came from. He always put the interests of the community ahead of his own."

At its height, the paper had a circulation of about 25,000.

"He was my boss," said City Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez. "I wrote for the Focus when I was in high school [Mastbaum] and college [Lincoln University], doing community-interest stories.

"Efrain was a unique individual, with the biggest heart. He wanted to raise people's consciousness. You could ask him about anything and he would give you insights. The Focus was critical to a lot of community development."

For a time the paper - Enfoque Comunal in Spanish - was a voice for the doings of such organizations as the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights and the Young Lords party, and other groups it believed had the interests of the community at heart.

Community Focus went out of business three years ago because of financial problems.

Efrain Roche was born one of the 16 children of Efrain Roche Sr. and Santia Santiago in Ponce, Puerto Rico. He got his early education there, and the family then came to Philadelphia. He attended Community College of Philadelphia for two years and worked in several factories in the city.

He was recruited by the then-owners of Community Focus to translate articles and columns into Spanish when they decided to become bilingual.

He married Priscilla Curet on Feb. 24, 1989. She joined him in community activities and became an ordained Lutheran minister.

"We were planning a 25th wedding anniversary," she said. "He was a joyful person, committed to the fight for the community. His principles were non-negotiable.

"He was loyal and faithful, a wonderful father."

Besides his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Ester Roche-Curet; two sons, Guillermo and Juan Roche; four brothers and 11 sisters.

Services: A celebration of his life will be held on Feb. 22 at St. Gabriel's Episcopal Church, 101 E. Roosevelt Blvd.

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