How One Woman Is Making Sure Families Separated at the Border Are Not Forgotten

As we’ve seen time and time again, threats to a society bring out the most fearless leaders. Attending college in Venezuela during the presidency of Hugo Chavez and the increasingly restricted freedom of speech, Mariana Atencio was inspired by the injustice in her country to use her voice to make a change. Throughout her career, she continues to turn her disadvantages into opportunities. Today as a determined journalist, while others run away from natural disasters and tragedies, she sprints in to get the story her audience deserves.

We sat down with Mariana and she shared how the qualities that make you different are actually your most powerful tools, and how she stays faithful in humanity despite current affairs. We left feeling pretty inspired to say the least.

Spoiler alert: she also loves JLo just as much as us!

 

Name: Mariana Atencio
Title: National Correspondent, MSNBC
Age: 34
Location: Miami, FL
Education: Undergrad in Venezuela at the Catholic University, Masters in Broadcast Journalism from Columbia University’s Journalism School.

 

 

What was your first job out of college and how did you land it?

 

Unlike most of my classmates at Columbia, being international, I needed a visa to work legally in the United States after college. No English-speaking network hired anyone who didn’t at least have a green card. Plus, my employer needed to pay extra for my visa, an enormous obstacle, especially in the middle of the recession, when I graduated.

After having the door shut in my face many times, I decided to use my apparent “flaws” as competitive advantages: my immigrant status, my Spanish and my knowledge of Latin America. I looked where no one else was looking, and landed an internship at a newspaper called El Diario in New York. I was later hired, and got my first paycheck.

El Diario/La Prensa is the oldest Spanish newspaper in the country (founded in New York in 1913), where I first worked as a reporter. Starting out, I didn’t have an office, not even a cubicle or a desk. I shared a space in a small room filled with books, piles of newspapers, and no windows. I had the worst allergies at the end of every workweek!

It was there where I first reported on the Hispanic community in New York. I also convinced my boss to let me host a digital show promoting the newspapers’ articles and even got to read the paper’s headlines on the local Spanish station (for a total of 1 minute every Saturday).

I was far away from working at a TV network like CNN, ABC, or NBC News. But using what made me different was how I got my foot in the door, albeit the back door, little by little.

 

 

After having the door shut in my face many times, I decided to use my apparent ‘flaws’ as competitive advantages: my immigrant status, my Spanish and my knowledge of Latin America. I looked where no one else was looking.

 

 

You’re originally from Venezuela, what made you want to pursue a journalism career, and what made your choose to pursue it in the United States?

 

When I was 23-year-old college junior, majoring in Mass Communications at the Catholic University in Caracas, Venezuela was already going through tough times.

After almost 10 years in power, then-President Hugo Chavez started curtailing freedom of speech, censoring, and shutting down independent media. Basically the same old dictatorial script he adapted from Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

The breaking point came when the Chavez Government shut down Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), the oldest and most emblematic network in Venezuela, like shutting off NBC, ABC, or CBS.

With that sole action he managed to silence people who didn’t have any other windows to the outside world or any other outlets to denounce the wrongs in their neighborhoods; he suppressed the poorest slums — those he said he would defend.

That act of injustice sparked something powerful in me. It was the lighting rod that made me realize I wanted to be a journalist and bring to light what they were fiercely trying to cover.

 

You’ve earned a lot of honors during the course of your career— a Peabody award, an IRE award, and a Gracie award— is there a moment you’re most proud of?

 

The proudest is actually the difference I get to make in people’s lives. No award can ever compare to helping another human being — like the people who were stranded during the 2017 hurricanes and actually received help and aid because of our reporting. Or during the 2018 border crisis, when many migrant children got to see their parents again because we staying on the story. Being a humanitarian is what makes me the most proud.

 

 

That act of injustice sparked something powerful in me. It was the lighting rod that made me realize I wanted to be a journalist and bring to light what they were fiercely trying to cover.

 

 

You’ve covered a lot of important, national stories over the years, including things like the shooting of Michael Brown and Pope Francis’ election. What story was the most rewarding to cover, and why?

 

Covering the magnitude 7.1 earthquake in Mexico in 2017 was the most rewarding. The challenges of getting this story on the air were quite big. It wasn’t a ‘domestic story’ for our “American” audience. Since many of the victims and witnesses on the ground didn’t speak English, I knew it would be hard to bring that humanity across.

We found pockets of Mexico City in ruins — hundreds dead, children crushed in their own primary school, volunteers and dogs sniffing for life, every second counted because dozens were still trapped underneath the rubble. There was still hope, but rescue workers needed all the help they could get.

I remember it was hard to breathe. There were aftershocks, and the fear that the structures around us would crumble once again. We went into almost every rescue site, and spent entire days broadcasting the horror and the hope on national TV. Because of the urgency, it was the first time I dared speak Spanish, live on the air. People would tell me their names and stories and what they needed and I would translate for our audience. We went on for hours. It had never been done for that long, live on cable television.

It worked and the help kept pouring in.

On day four of the tragedy, I interviewed a father who had lost his child at a crushed school. His nickname was Paquito and he was only 7 years old. I will never forget what this dad told me: Paquito was a great kid, “un tipazo,” he said, and now he’s gone. Tears rolled down his eyes, as the camera kept rolling too.

I helped Paquito’s father — thousands of miles away in Mexico — connect to our audience, who in turned connected to a loss that wasn’t theirs. Even if we haven’t experienced a massive earthquake, we know what loss feels like.

During that earthquake, I understood that as human beings we are not removed. People do care and will care when it feels personal to them, too.

 

What is the most challenging part of being a journalist in 2018?

 

My biggest challenges as a journalist to this day are being a working woman who wants a family, and an immigrant who wants to give voice to those who need it most. With time, I’ve learned to discover the incredible strengths behind both, instead of considering them a burden.

I constantly put myself in the shoes of so many immigrant women who struggle to get papers, keep their status and their families together. After almost becoming undocumented myself 9 years ago, I swore I would commit to telling the stories of what it means to navigate our obsolete immigration system. My goal remains to speak for those who are deemed “the other,” to humanize they way they are perceived.

 

 

My goal remains to speak for those who are deemed ‘the other,’ to humanize they way they are perceived.

 

 

How has your experience as a journalist changed over the last few years? How has it remained the same?

 

It’s changed a lot in the 10 years since I started as a journalist. Firstly because of technology — now with social media you can interact with your audience real-time and stream live, without a camera crew. It is an amazing, democratic, pressing time to be a storyteller.

Secondly, I’ve changed greatly as a person in this profession. I’ve seen a lot of suffering, things that have affected me, but my commitment is still the same — and I hope it’ll always be the same. This job requires a strong will, just like when doctors take their oath. And you have to keep in mind that — no matter the changes — your ultimate goal is to service the audience.

 

With the “Fake News” claims being made in the U.S. right now, it can be a pretty frustrating time to be a journalist. What do you want people who are skeptical of the media to know about being a journalist?

 

What journalists do is serious stuff. Any journalist who takes their job seriously would go to great lengths to find out the truth. We are often away from our families, in dangerous places and/or harsh conditions, trying to convey the facts. I’ve interviewed many news reporters in Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Argentina, Morocco, China, Cuba, and even the U.S., whose lives have been threatened for doing their job. This isn’t a career or a profession; it’s a way of life. And in many instances, it’s pretty heroic.

 

 

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🙏🏽Ramon is 4 years old. He was separated from his dad after being detained at the border. He cried & cried while placed in what his father described as a prison cell. ‘I felt like the USA was kidnapping my son’, Ramón’s dad told me today. He said immigration authorities referred to it ‘as a new order’ to keep the children separated. Thankfully after a few days the Ramons were reunited. Dad wears an ankle bracelet and has to report to court while they fulfill their dream of moving to Maryland. They know they are lucky to be together as countless of families don’t know where their children are #Reporting all weekend for you on this heartbreaking story on @MSNBC @nbcnews #OnAssignment #tellingourstories #GoLikeMariana . . . 🎥 Ramon tiene 4 años. Fue separado de su padre luego de que los detuvieran en la frontera. Su papi me contó que se lo arrancaron de los brazos y lo colocaron en una ‘celda de prisión’. El niño lloró incansablemente. Finalmente lograron reencontrarse y ahora deben reportarse a las autoridades de inmigración, mientras luchan por su sueño de mudarse a Maryland. Saben que corrieron con suerte…al lado de tantas familias que no saben dónde están sus hijos. Seguiremos informándolos sobre esta historia tan importante todo el fin de semana en @msnbc @nbcnews #ContandoNuestrasHistorias #TrabajandoPorUstedes #MiGente

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You were recently reporting live from detention centers in Texas while conducting bilingual, one-on-one discussions with parents who are being separated from their children. Can you tell us what you saw and learned from this horrendous situation?

 

It was one of the most heart-breaking stories I’ve had to cover. As a woman, as a Latina and as an immigrant, this hit me at different levels. Every single family I interviewed, I kept thinking, “Dear God, this could be my family.” So the challenge of giving them a voice (in their own language) and conveying their ordeal with humanity and respect became greater. I fought. Hard. To get every story, every child, every parent on the air. Week after week, month after month.

In my two months at the border, I saw human suffering. Kids who had been yanked from their parents. Desperate people, many of whom had 1 minute to explain their whole life situation in a courtroom, while being nervous, separated from their children, in a foreign country.

I saw a child appear before a judge, and after an hour-long proceeding, he asked: “What is a lawyer?”

I learned there are horrors like those we have witnessed and been ashamed of throughout history that can happen again in the 21st century. And in the future, we will all be asked: “Where were you?” And “what did you do?”

 

 

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Trump administration plans to keep migrant kids in detention INDEFINITELY. What does this mean? What will happen to these children? Who is profiting? . 😓And when asked why are people coming, i tell you: people come for their life. I can’t help but refer to the humanitarian crisis in my own home country of Venezuela, where families are fleeing on foot, trying to survive the lack of food and medicine 🇻🇪. 🙏🏽 Thank you @joyannreid for inviting us to come back and shed some light on this crisis #Msnbc #FamilySeparation #Immigration #Venezuela #amjoy #GoLikeMariana . . . . 👉🏽La administración de Trump planea mantener a niños inmigrantes en detención indefinida. ¿Qué significa esto? ¿Qué le pasará a estos niños? ¿Quién se beneficia? Y cuando preguntan por qué hay gente viniendo a los Estados Unidos, les respondo: la gente viene por su vida. . 🇻🇪🙏🏽 No puedo evitar referirme a la crisis humanitaria de mi propio país, Venezuela, donde las familias escapan a pie tratando de sobrevivir la falta de comida y medicinas. Gracias a @joyannreid por invitarnos a regresar a su programa y conversar de esta crisis. #periodismo #sosvenezuela #migente

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What keeps you motivated in your career?

 

Faith in humanity. Faith in the good we all have inside. Faith that the best in us will always prevail.

 

What advice would you give to a young woman pursuing a career in journalism?

 

Be yourself. Find what’s unique about you. Be passionate, committed, and truthful. Never lose yourself. Be courageous. It’s good to stand out, not blend in. It’s good to know your value. It’s good to speak up.

 

How do you choose to spend your free time?

 

I grew up with the Caribbean caressing my feet, its salty wind blowing my hair… so I love going to beach and spending all day in the ocean. It’s relaxing, liberating, and reminds me of home. I also like working out — because we need to be physically fit to cover hurricanes, earthquakes, and politics for 24 hours. My body is the main vehicle that takes me around the world doing the job I love.

But, the priority during my free time is being with my husband. Since I’m traveling all the time, when I’m home, I want to give him my full attention — and that means my phone is off. It’s the only way to keep a healthy work-life balance.

 

 

What are you most looking forward to in your future right now?

 

I’m looking forward to working on a book about my reporting adventures, my journey to America, and the wonderful people I’ve met along the way. I want other young girls to learn from my experience and find a voice of their own. 

 

What is the best career advice you’ve ever been given?

 

My mentor Maria Elena Salinas, a former anchor at Univision and the most recognizable female face of news in Spanish, advised early on that I develop what I now call: “The Yes Attitude.”

Quite simply it means to say YES to everything that comes your way. Later in life, you’ll learn the power of no, but especially in the beginning, say yes to every opportunity. Even if it’s not exactly what you want to do or if you feel you can’t do it… just have the yes attitude.

 

What advice would you give to your 22-year-old self?

 

Be yourself. Trust your instincts. Work hard. Carve your own path. It’s ok if you want to have kids at 45, or not have them at all; its ok if you want to get married or if you don’t. Do what makes your eyes sparkle — not what your parents, your teachers, bosses, or society deem acceptable.

 

 

Maria Atencio is The Everygirl…

 

Favorite place you’ve ever visited? Spending New Year’s Eve with my family in the Sahara desert looking up at the stars. I have never felt more at peace with the world, and with myself.

If you weren’t in journalism, what would you be doing? I would be a motivational speaker. I love talking to people, learning from them, and inspiring them to take on the world.

Your iphone camera roll is full of… Old photos of my dad, who passed away 6 months ago. Seeing his face, remembering every wrinkle and every facial feature give me the courage to be myself.

Last item you splurged on… Flashy sneakers. I need a sturdy, but fashionable pair of kicks to run around when breaking news happen.

Last book you read? I’m currently devouring DeRay Mckesson’s On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope.  

Favorite moment of 2018 so far? Getting to see little kids reunified with their migrant parents after months of separation.

If you could have lunch with any woman: I would take JLo out for Taco Tuesday. She’s the epitome of hard work, success, female empowerment, and never forgetting where you come from… and because she’s just JLo. 

 

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