So You Want to be a Journo?
An essay by Ruben Navarrette
By Ruben Navarrette
Being a Latino journalist in America in the first quarter of the 21st Century means living at the intersection of “Chaos” and “Opportunity.” The chaos that now envelops journalism can be a positive thing because it brings opportunity. But because it brings turmoil and uncertainty, it can also wreak havoc. You spin the wheel, and you don’t know what you’ll get.
It means suiting up each day and bravely entering the arena even though you realize that — before the day is done — you’re likely to get kicked in the teeth.
It means being undervalued by a profession that doesn’t know how to treat people like you, or what to do with people like you, because it wasn’t built with people like you in mind.
It means being recruited by bosses who swear they want your perspective only to figure out sooner or later that what they really wanted was their idea of what your perspective should be.
It means making peace with the idea that you’re hopelessly trapped in a one-way, often dead-end, love affair with a selfish and ungrateful partner that doesn’t love you back.
It means coming to the understanding that while the journalism industry may pretend to cover a multi-colored world, it still operates within a black-and-white paradigm and overlooks the color brown. Most of all, being a Latino journalist means that, even after all the disrespect, the very next day, though you may be bruised and battered, you’ll be ready to get up and do it all again.
I’ve been in this game for more than 33 years, and I’ve made some lifelong friends among my fellow travelers. When talking shop, these other Latino “journos” and I finish each other’s sentences. When swapping war stories, we share the same frustrations. To a person, they tell me, this is the best job they’ve ever had — but also, in many respects, the worst.
Those of us who are now considered veteranos started out in the business — radio, television, print — in the 1980’s. This was before cell phones, or email, or the Internet. If you had a question, you couldn’t just “Google” the answer. You had to go into the street with a notepad and a pocketful of dimes so you could call your editor with what you found out.
One thing that my friends and I found out early in our careers was that the newspapers, magazines, radio stations, or television networks that hired us often wound up with more than they bargained for. Our bosses claimed — as white liberals do — that they wanted a “diverse” workforce of reporters, editors, producers, and opinion writers. But their idea of diversity was limited to skin color, and it didn’t include a diversity of views.
A Cuban American television anchor insists on producing his newscast when he notices that the only stories that the network runs about Latinos cast them in stereotypical roles like farm workers and drug traffickers.
A Mexican American columnist is besieged by racist and misogynistic hate mail after tangling with a right wing cable TV host who stokes outrage over immigration. Incensed readers tell her to “go back to Mexico.”
An award-winning Puerto Rican radio and television host who has been out of work applies for a job for which he is overqualified, only to be strung along for months before losing out to a less qualified white male.
A Dominican American reporter is told by her editors that she can’t cover a massive demonstration of pro-immigration protesters because she is “too close” to the subject, the implication being that she cannot be objective.
I’ve heard all these stories. I’ve lived all these stories — and more. In fact, when tasked with describing what life is like today for the relative handful of Latinos who have made journalism their profession — and the even smaller handful who have pulled that off — I was tempted to hog the stage and play all the parts myself. But what fun would that be? Stories are my life’s blood, and so I set out in search of other Latino journos with good stories to tell.
We aren’t exactly growing on trees. By 2042, the United States will be “majority minority” with whites clocking in at less than 50% of the U.S. population. Don’t expect the media to cover that story in all its complexity. It can’t. #MediaTooWhite. Newspapers no longer care about living up to their pro-diversity rhetoric. When asked to do an in-house accounting of how diverse their staff is, the white liberals who run newsrooms aren’t so liberal after all.
Since 1978, the News Leaders Association (NLA) — and its precursor, the American Society of News Editors — have conducted an annual diversity survey of the newspaper industry. The report, which relies on diversity data provided by the newspapers themselves, is supposed to help those who run newspapers do a better job of recruiting and retaining journalists of colors. What the NLA didn’t count on was that the overwhelming majority of the leaders of the newspaper industry would decide that they don’t want to do better. They’re fine just as they are, apparently.
Each year, thousands of news organizations are approached in the hopes that at least 1,500 will choose to participate. In 2019, only 429 news organizations responded. So, in 2020, the NLA — citing dismally low participation rates — paused the survey. In 2022, the NLA launched a new survey. Only 303 news organizations participated. Think about that the next time you hear a white newspaper executive tell a corporation or a political party that they should be more diverse.
In 2020, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate the lack of Latinos in media. The GAO found that Latinos — while accounting for nearly 20% of the U.S. population — made up just 11% of news analysts, reporters and journalists. But even those numbers may be inflated because the GAO relied on data that included Spanish-language networks, where virtually all employees are Latino. It also counted those who are employed in other aspects of news, who may not be journalists. The report found that the biggest growth among Latinos in the media industry was in service jobs.
Despite these long odds, I nonetheless managed to find two great Latino journalists to pass the time with: Julio Ricardo Varela, who is Puerto Rican and based in Boston, and Macarena Hernandez, a Mexican American based in her native Rio Grande Valley in South Texas.
Varela is President of Futuro Media, a columnist for MSNBC, and co-host (with Maria Hinojosa) of the podcast, “In The Thick.” He is also the founder of the Latino digital media site, Latino Rebels. I asked my friend how he found journalism — or did it find him? You could say that they first met while Varela was in high school in the 1980’s.
“When I came from Puerto Rico to New York, I fell in love with the sports page of the New York Daily News,” he said. “I really jammed on good writing. And so, in high school, I just knew that’s what I wanted to be.”
After high school, Varela attended Harvard and started writing sports stories for the campus newspaper, The Harvard Crimson. He took his clips to the Boston Globe, and wrangled the chance to write more sports stories there as a stringer while he was still in college. After graduation, he was offered but turned down a reporting job in Florida because he wanted to stay in Boston. He made his best case to editors at the Globe that they needed bilingual reporters like him because the city’s immigrant population was increasing, yet they were not persuaded. So he spent the next several years working for an advocacy group that defended bilingual education and later for the book publishing company, Houghton Mifflin.
“My mission has never changed,” he said. It was always about inclusion and equity. I eventually kind of came back to journalism, but it was a longer journey than I thought it would be. But I’m actually really proud of those 20 years.”
While working as a journalist, Varela has lost count of how many times he has been accused of being “biased” and defending Latinos. I asked whether he thought it was ok for a journalist to dabble as an activist.
“This whole journalist-as-neutral-observer thing is exaggerated,” he said. “Journalism is supposed to be about truth telling. We forget that.”
When I suggested that Generation X’ers like us have been more willing to challenge Latino officials than previous generations, he agreed. He also predicted that the younger Latino journalists of today would follow suit.
“We have set the foundation that gives these younger Latino journalists the permission to say: ‘I can shine a light on the unflattering aspects of my community,” he said. “That takes fortitude and courage, and we’ve shown that. I’ve learned not to be too humble about such accomplishments. I look at white journalists who have been doing this for a long time, and they have no problem bragging about what they’ve done. But we’re told to stay in our place. That’s one of our problems.”
Of course, not staying in your place is what journalism is all about.
“Change only happens by speaking out,” Varela said. “And we have to maintain that tradition of advocacy journalism that speaks out.
Another journalist who has made a career out of speaking out is Macarena Hernandez, a former reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and editorial columnist for the Dallas Morning News. Trained at the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism as a documentary filmmaker, my friend is also a former journalism professor at her alma mater — Baylor University. Currently, she works as a freelance writer and produces podcasts. I wanted to know when Hernandez came to journalism.
“I came to journalism at a very young age, because a high school teacher brought me into it,” she recalled. “No one wanted to be the newspaper editor. I showed up with a column I’d written, and she said: ‘Hey do you want to be editor?’ It allowed me to be better at writing outside the kind of writing I was doing in school. I was a lucky kid. I was able to see writing beyond just the benchmark on the state exam.”
Hernandez had intended to have a career in the law, but she was seduced by another profession.
“I went to college thinking I was going to law school,” she said. “I was majoring in English literature, and I took on a second major in journalism. Because, even then, as an undergraduate, I really loved it so much. Deep down inside, I knew that I didn’t want to go to law school and that what I wanted to do was to be a journalist. When I stepped into the college journalism department, I felt like I had found my tribe.”
Not everyone is cut out for this profession, she admitted. “Journalism attracts people who aren’t eager to get out of poverty or to get rich. Most of my Latino, my first generation friends, they’re all lawyers. That’s what immigrants want their kids to be.”
But what she wants — and has always wanted — is simply to become “a better writer.” Hernandez also thinks media companies can be much better, and that Latino journalists shouldn’t apologize for advocating for their people.
“White opinion journalists have been doing that since the beginning of time,” she said. “These institutions purport to speak for all people. But they speak for only a few people, and they speak about others.”
So we need to speak up for ourselves, she argued. “There is an urgency because we’re playing catch up to a system that has not written about us accurately, that has trafficked in stereotypes, that has magnified the worst fears of the white imagination against anyone that is not like them. And to not acknowledge that part of it, I mean, C’mon. And even then, Latinos, estamos bien calmados considering everything.”
Finally, I asked, what about those who would see her as “biased” and thus be less likely to trust her words. She was defiant.
“Look, am I going to be compassionate when I interview an immigrant porque me duele that this woman reminds me of my mother, and I can connect with her in Spanish?” she asked. “Sure. I mean, that’s humanity. And if that makes me more human, I’m sorry. Maybe that’s what we need in journalism today, a little more fucking humanity.”
You heard it. Many Latino journalists spend much of their careers believing that there is something wrong with them. After all, that’s what readers, viewers, listeners and editors have told us for years. But in truth, there is nothing wrong with Latino journalists. In fact, we just might be the right people to fix what’s wrong with modern journalism.
Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group, columnist for The Daily Beast, author of A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano, a contributor of video commentary to Straight Arrow News, host of the podcast, “Ruben In The Center,” and CEO/founder of The Navarrette Sonic Podcast Network (NSPN).