“The good thing about dreams is that it doesn’t cause you a penny to dream; it’s free. You don’t need a stimulus package to dream, right? Just have a dream. Once you have a dream, create an action plan. Once you have an action plan, execute it to perfection.” –Enrique Rodríguez
Gozamos: Tell me about your childhood and where you grew up.
Enrique Rodríguez: I grew up in the beautiful state of Michoacan in Uruapan. It’s a gorgeous city; Mother Nature has been gracious to it. The main production there is the avocado, so I know everything about guacamole. I grew up there up until I was 13, before moving to the United States.
Why did you choose the field of communication for your career?
ER: Since I was a little kid I already knew what I wanted to do and what I was born to do. I remember vividly that I used to grab a broom and use it as a mic and then I used to turn on the TV and put on a soccer game like los PUMAS. I’d shout, “Y viene Hugo Sánchez, viene viene y goooooool.” I also used to watch the news and imitate the anchors and reporters.
When, I arrived in Los Angeles in 1995, it was very difficult as you can imagine. I didn’t know English and it was just a different style of living. But, I finished junior high and high school, and my dream was to study at the National University of Mexico and play professional soccer there because that had also been my passion since I was a little kid. But I never went back. My parents said, “You know what, you’re here now. Why don’t you make your dreams happen here in the U.S.? There are a lot of opportunities here.” I wanted to become a journalist, but I also wanted to have my own business, which I did. I was very young, though. Back in 1997, I had my own business in financial services, and there’s a long story for that.
How did you eventually finish your college education?
ER: When I graduated high school, I started college but right after I finished my freshman year, I got kicked out of school because Proposition 187 went into effect in Los Angeles. It was an anti-immigrant proposition that didn’t allow undocumented immigrants like myself to go to a four-year university. In the process I lost 7 years.
During that time, I told myself I had two options: I either victimize myself or I make it happen. I went to admissions and records and asked for a list of dropouts by ethnicity and Latinos were high up there. I posted that list on my wall and every day in the morning when I woke up I asked myself, “What am I going to do today to make sure that I don’t end up as part of that statistic?” Every night before going to sleep I used to ask myself, “Did I do what it takes to make sure I’m not going to be on this list?” That was my motivation.
It wasn’t until 1997 that I was able to return to school, thanks to a guardian angel, mi madrina. She works in admissions and records and helped me out. And you know, I’m an old-fashioned Mexican, so once she helped me out and we became good friends, I told her “Why don’t you be my madrina for graduation?” And there it is. We’re like a little mafia now. We belong to the board of directors of an education organization in Los Angeles and we raise money for undocumented students. Every year, we give about 15 scholarships. We always try to help undocumented students and Latino students in general. We became a family.
What were some of your most difficult obstacles during the time you were out of school?
ER: I had a lot of obstacles, financially and with my family– enfermedades, you name it. But I was finally able to finish my two degrees. It’s funny because my graduation was in May and my green card finally arrived in April of that same year. All the pieces of the puzzle were beginning to fall into place. I lost a lot of opportunities to start my career sooner because I didn’t have documents. I did my thesis at CNN Los Angeles, and it was awesome. I could have done an internship there and eventually get a job, but I couldn’t because I didn’t have my documents. So yes, there were days when I felt, you know what this is not worth it; I’m going to drop the towel. But my parents used to tell me, “When you feel like giving up, you’re getting closer to your goal,” and I always kept that in mind. I just kept on going, and in 2003 I got my degree, my green card, and became a member of the United States Hispanic Journalists Association. I went to one of their conferences in New York and took a demo tape and my resume and that’s how I got my first job– two weeks later after the conference.
What is your opinion about the way Latinos are portrayed in mainstream media?
ER: Oh my, that is a very good question, and I have a lot to say about it. You know, one of my fights in the newsroom is always to advocate for positive things about the Latino community, because yes, we have to do hard news but not everything is Latinos fighting each other or people killing each other. There are so many positive things about our Latino community, and as a member of the media, I feel the responsibility to try to advocate more for that even though I understand it is very difficult because the mentality here is “that doesn’t sell.” I mean yes, we have to do everything, but on the weekends, for example, many times the first segment is shooting after shooting—it’s depressing.
I always try to advocate for positive things like art and the Pilsen Arte en el Barrio series that I just won an Emmy for. I spoke to 6 muralists to try to show people the political, educational, and cultural influence that the muralist movement has had in a community like Pilsen.
I think we have been completely stereotyped, but at the same time we as individuals have contributed to that stereotype. It is now up to us and the new generations to start changing that stereotype, just like we are doing with the Latino vote. Everyone said it would be a very tight race, but Latinos responded. 71% of Latinos voted for Obama. 74% of youngsters between the ages of 18-39 voted for Obama. We need to start changing our stereotype, and it’s happening. You see more Latinas and Latinos getting educated. In the business world, Latinas are more successful nowadays than Latinos. Either way you look at it, it’s happening, but we have to go a step ahead.
That is one of the main reasons I try to make a difference through the stories I do on a daily basis or even when I anchor the news and bring guests. I think the biggest difference that I can do is invest my free time in doing something with the community.
In what ways do you think journalists can give back to their communities?
ER: First of all, there are a lot of so-called “Latino” journalists in the English market, but I mean just because you have a Latino last name doesn’t mean you are a Latino. First of all you have to get to know what the community is all about. For example, I’m an immigrant; I know what it’s like to be an immigrant. A lot of others don’t, and it’s hard for them to know how to give back. When you try to give back to the community, people need to feel you. If they don’t see where you’re coming from, no matter what you say, they’re not going to listen to you.
For Latino journalists, there is a difference between like we say in Spanish, “el peso que tienes como periodista,” (the difference that you make as a journalist). But, the biggest difference is the weight that you have as a journalist, and the weight that you have as a journalist investing your time with that community. You gotta give back. Go to schools. Talk to students. Motivate them to stay in school. Let them know that even though money is sometimes an issue, there are ways to do it. Like myself: I was undocumented and ineligible for financial aid or scholarships so I used to go to school 8-3, work 4-12 in the restaurant, and I used to study 1-7 in the morning. I hardly ever slept. That’s the only way I could do it. When I got my degree, I graduated without owing one penny. I paid school on my own. That’s what I tell students. We have to invest time with our community, we have to promote higher education, and we have to make sure we highlight Latino professionals who are really making it happen.
What advice to do you give to future, aspiring Latino professionals?
ER: First of all, they have to have a dream. The good thing about dreams is that it doesn’t cause you a penny to dream; it’s free. You don’t need a stimulus package to dream, right? Once you have a dream, create an action plan. Once you have an action plan, execute it to perfection. To have an action plan, it’s always good to have a mentor. There’s going to be challenges and obstacles but it is the attitude and the determination that you use when you face those obstacles that will determine your outcome. Life is about decision-making. Our situation right now is a result of the decision we made five years ago. The great thing is that the next five years don’t have to be like the previous five. They will depend on the decisions that we make today. People need to understand that every time they hear a NO, you’re getting closer to the YES. They need to be very persistent and cannot allow anyone to say you cannot accomplish your goal.
Like me, there was a lot of people who said I couldn’t do it, but you know what? There was a gut feeling deep inside myself that told me, you are going to make it happen and you got what it takes; you just have to be patient. I waited 17 years for my green card. I don’t know I did it. I was lucky to have great family support and my sister who was my role model. That’s another thing that I tell students, if you have younger brothers or sisters, you have a lot on your shoulders because they’re looking up to you.