Journalist Mariana Atencio Details Personal Tragedy and Career Struggles in Inspirational New Memoir
Journalist Mariana Atencio wasn't always so sure of herself. “When I crossed over to English-language television, I had all these doubts about ‘Will I really be able to do this?' — in terms of speaking English on the air, being live and jumping on the day's biggest stories in a language that isn't my first one,” she tells CHICA. But she also had a desire to bring the stories that she covered in Spanish, the stories of her Latin-American community, to a wider audience. Encouragement from young people and an army of social media followers helped. There was support “from mi gente, people from our underrepresented community, people who are fully bilingual and want to see our stories on mainstream media.”
Overcoming her own fears, in 2016 the Peabody Award winner, 34, took a leap of faith, leaving a stable and recognized five-year career as a reporter at Univision and Fusion to start over and pave a new path for herself in English at NBC. Since then, she has covered the aftermath of natural disasters like Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the devastating earthquake in Mexico City, often translating from Spanish live on the air and giving an expanded voice to the voiceless. The MSNBC and NBC correspondent describes that experience and much more in her debut as an author, Perfectly You (Harper Collins), a book that celebrates the power of being yourself and embracing your Latinidad.
In her book, she details how she made the transition to English-language media, getting over insecurities about both her accent and her sense of belonging. “Sometimes when you are the only Latina in the room and you are trying to pitch a story about DACA, Venezuela or immigration, you have to be doubly passionate to get that story on the air, because there aren't that many people around you that are also thinking about those stories as headlines for the news of the day,” she admits. “As journalists, every day we sort of determine the nation's agenda, what the nation is going to be talking about that.”
Being a Latina in the mainstream media comes with social responsibilities, Atencio recognizes: “It's not about hiring someone who is a minority and then morphing that voice into an existing one. It's about retaining your authenticity so you can keep reflecting the needs of your community. That's truly my purpose.”
An immigrant herself, the journalist has been able to connect with people leaving their countries to look for safety and a shot at the American Dream. “I, as a Latina, understood why these families were fleeing, and why you would walk with your child for over 2,000 miles to make it to a place of refuge. And then the pain of having your child ripped apart from you was so devastating to hear,” she says of interviewing parents who were part of a migrant caravan coming from Central America. “On cable television in English, you are giving viewers the opportunity to hear them without any voice overs, without any subtitles, you are giving Hispanics the chance to tell their stories and you are humanizing the debate.”
She is also covering the political and humanitarian crisis in her own country, an assignment that hits close to home. “I had to bring my sister over in 2017, because they were tear-gassing in our neighborhood, after losing my father in the midst of the health crisis in Venezuela,” says the author. In February 2018, she was by her father Alvaro Atencio's side when he died, after battling pneumonia for weeks and undergoing lung surgeries, at a hospital with dwindling medical resources in Caracas.
Though she had a happy childhood in Venezuela, she feels she's lost the country she grew up in — having seen it crumble now under Nicholas Maduro's leadership. She talks about marching in the streets of as part of a pro-democracy student movement in 2007 who were protesting after the RCTV news station was closed down by the government. “We were tear-gassed, they opened water cannons on us, and this experience really shaped my passion to fight for freedom and be a journalist,” she says.
That dream came true thanks to a scholarship to study at Columbia University in New York City in 2008. “For me, it was like sending a message in a bottle. I sent out these applications, and when I got that email that I was awarded a scholarship to go to Columbia, it had God's writing all over it,” she says.
Although she nabbed the job she was striving for, she talks in her book about getting laid off from her first job in journalism (at New York City's El Diario). After graduating from an Ivy League school, she had to look for work “without having a visa, being almost undocumented,” she says. “I felt like I had a sticky note on my forehead that said: ‘Don't hire this person.'”
Atencio has covered and experienced her share of suffering, both on the job and off. Getting personal was the only option when writing this memoir, which is dedicated to her dad. “This book involved so much soul searching,” she says. “My family is very private, and it was hard for them to get around to the idea that our whole lives are going to be made public. My husband is very private, and I also talk about how I found love in the middle of covering natural disasters, politics and immigration. And I'm extremely open about all facets of my life, that's part of being perfectly me, being authentic and being an open book.”
She tells her readers not to get discouraged and to keep pursuing their dreams — without forgetting who they are in the process. “You have to be authentically you in work and in your personal life,” Atencio emphasizes. “You have to be truthful to yourself about what you want.” In her case, that meant not caving in to society's pressure and holding off on having kids. Even though she says she is happily married to her soulmate, she wants to focus on career plans and ambitions before becoming a mom. “My husband wanted kids last week. We would have three kids already if it was up to him,” she laughs.
Perfectly You will hit book stores nationwide in June and you can pre-order your copy now