Saturday, April 1, 2006 | 7:29 a.m.
About 20 editors, reporters and publishers swarmed Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Friday after he spoke to a Hispanic newspapers and magazines conference at the Las Vegas Hilton - to have their pictures taken with the man.
The newsgatherers fawned over the newsmaker.
But in the hallway outside, Joe Carrillo, marketing director for a Philadelphia-area weekly paper called Al Dia, handed out leaflets written in English titled, "Al Dia Reminds Gonzales of His Promise."
The promise: to not waste what the paper called a "historic opportunity to publicly acknowledge the millions that risked their lives to come to America." They wanted him to come down against the House-backed bill that would take immigration cases out of Justice Department officials' hands and make illegal immigration a felony.
In a nutshell, the National Association of Hispanic Publications conference's 325 participants, representing the fastest-growing sector of the U.S. print media, had mixed feelings about the man.
Is he one of the nation's most visible Hispanics, a "son of Aztecs" in the White House, as one publisher put it, or a conservative mouthpiece of the Bush administration and no more. Or both?
Immigration was what was on everybody's minds as they finished off salmon lunches and listened to harp music from Veracruz, Mexico, in the minutes before Gonzales stepped to the podium. The event was one of the few at the Hilton where the waiters could say "Excuse me" in Spanish as they served each course.
Gonzales detailed Justice Department programs on "three issues of concern" for Hispanics: violent gangs, civil rights and immigration.
For the most part, it was a talk he had given in several cities recently, indicating the administration's interest in fighting violence and preventing youths from entering gangs, protecting civil rights and, as Bush has said in recent days, strengthening borders while offering a way for workers to stay in the country temporarily.
He aimed certain phrases at the room of mostly Hispanic-surnamed listeners.
One of those remarks was about his mother, who "once had to enter the back door of a restaurant and ... recently went into the front door of the White House."
The audience clapped.
Valdemar Gonzalez, a reporter for El Mundo, one of the two local publications at the event, summed up what many at the event felt about the man.
"He's a Gonzalez, just like me," the reporter began, noting that the final "z" in his name and the "s" in the attorney general's name shows their ancestors came from opposite ends of Spain.
He said Gonzales should do what's right by Hispanics, noting that "all people, when it comes to making decisions, have a certain historical obligation ... to their ancestors."
But at the same time, he hastened to add, "many Hispanics haven't been in agreement with his policies ... and we have no idea where he's going to come down on the issue of immigration."
Afterward, several conference attendees made clear how the nation's Hispanic press listens to the attorney general.
They noted details such as Gonzales tripping over Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's name. Another said that a guest worker program will never work in a real-world situation, noting that employers could take advantage of employees while holding over their heads the need to stay on the job until the program's time is up.
Veronica Villafane, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, said she cringed when Gonzales used the word "aliens" to describe undocumented immigrants, a word she described as "dehumanizing."
At a short question-and-answer session afterward, Ric Oliveira of El Latino Expreso, a New England newspaper, tried to pin down Gonzales - the man, not the politician.
"How did you feel when you saw the marches?" around the country in recent days, the reporter said.
Gonzales talked about people having a right to express their opinion and the "long tradition" of protest in the United States. Oliveira wasn't satisfied.
"But how did you feel?"
A tad exasperated, Gonzales said, "It's not like I saw the people come out and said, 'Oh, I get it now.' This is an issue we've been thinking about for years."
Another reporter asked, in Spanish, if Gonzales would answer a question in Spanish.
"En ingles, por favor," the attorney general said.
Gonzales scored some points when he said he thought a wall at the border was "contrary to our traditions," adding "99.9 percent of the people crossing the border want a better life."
Afterward, Oliveira said the attorney general "should be able to relate to what they're going through," meaning the people doing the marching.
"But it's unclear. Who is he really?"