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Telling Stories

Mariana Atencio makes her mark

By Lauren Rigau

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When you go on social media or attend your next conference, you might glimpse a woman who is not only an award-winning journalist and author but an inspiring public speaker. Mariana Atencio is re-imagining what it means to be a communicator. 

LATINO Magazine sat down with Mariana to discover her evolving roles and how she is making her mark. "I have taken essentially over a decade of journalism work watching people overcome adversity and challenges and pouring it into an hour-long experience on stage that leaves people energized and hopeful and with a toolbox that will help them achieve their dreams. My impact is immediate and transformational. I think that the effectiveness of my talks comes from how authentic I am on stage," she said.

Just listen to her viral TEDx Talk from the University of Nevada, which received over 22 million views and was translated into thirteen languages. You learn the story of a girl from Caracas who dreamed of a day when she would get to tell other people's stories but realized that would not be possible in her country. She recalls being part of a group of students who protested for freedom of speech: "We were tear-gassed by the government, they opened water cannons on us, they impeded us from doing our everyday protest, and it was at that moment that I knew and was very clear of the fact that I wanted to be a journalist. It was my mission."

Mariana was forthcoming about the life experiences that unlocked her ability to put herself in other people's shoes. "When I was 23 years old, I went on a hike in the Ávila, the mountain above Caracas, and a man pulled a gun and held me at gunpoint for a long time." Taking a deep breath, Mariana recalled how this moment impacted her: "I promised myself that if I survived that assault, I would leave Venezuela and fulfill my destiny to try and help my fellow Venezuelans."

In 2008, she packed her bags and moved to the U.S. on a scholarship to study journalism.  Balancing cultural paradigms, she understood that to be a respected communicator, she would need to lead with her truth while embracing the American way of life. 

"That gave me a chance at the American dream. I cannot believe that having books by Christiane Amanpour, Katie Couric, and Barbara Walters in my childhood bedroom in Venezuela, I was able to work at NBC News and cover foreign stories. I literally achieved my dream," she said.

A dream to help others dream, what could be more American? A takeaway from Mariana is a fondness for embracing those traits that make people unique. For her, this goes hand in hand with a remarkable sense of pride in being Latina. The art of discovering your sense of belonging is a theme of her empowerment tour, catering to corporate America, where she offers Latinos actionable tools for their lives and careers.

We asked her where she sees Hispanic media heading in the future. "In one word, mainstream. Given the demographic growth of Hispanics, given the political, social, and economic power…there is no question that our stories and content will be enjoyed by all, consumed by all, and become the gold standard," she said.

As a journalist with an understanding of bilingual media, Mariana shared something that many media companies underestimate: "There is no doubt that Hispanics are the changing face of the new America, and Hispanic media has to represent that. …We need more Latino media executives making the decisions because that is the only way that this power that we have, the power of our stories, will be told in an authentic way and that more Latinos will be the ones telling those stories."

It is an indelible truth that we live in a world run by redes sociales, or social networks, but Mariana has found extraordinary value in using her voice to make her mark. This led her to become a spokesperson for the proposed Latino museum in Washington, DC, where she will "focus on the contributions the Hispanic community has made to this country for over 500 years.” 

Her assignment continues. Mariana is currently at work on two projects, a television show and podcast called "The Unforgotten" about missing women in underrepresented communities and people of color in the U.S, and "The Colombia Project" with former Latin American ambassador John Feeley, where she hopes to bring thought-provoking stories to life. 

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