Growing up in the U.S. I was hyper-fixated on the lack of women journalists I saw on TV. When you feel invisible in the mainstream, it's easy to believe you don’t matter. While writing my memoir I came to realize that I had seen women journalists on TV, but they were not in the U.S., they were in Mexico.
Mexican women journalists have been at the core of my life as a periodista. They have been my beacon and north star.
The first person who made me consider becoming a journalist and documentarian was Elena Poniatowska, the daughter of Polish refugees in Mexico. She was resolute. Elena unapologetically challenged the Mexican government, writing about the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre on student protesters that left hundreds and potentially thousands dead. Her book, La Noche de Tlatelolco, was my wake-up call to the injustices of police brutality. I realized I bore witness to this violence on both sides of the border after living through the 1968 Chicago DNC police riots.
After I became a working journalist, I finally met Elena. She was coming to give a lecture in New York and our shared book agent introduced us. I was in awe, but her wide welcoming smile made her approachable. My life’s work has been guided by one of her models of journalism: Yo practico el periodismo de la indignación. I practice journalism of indignation. Our job as journalists is to shine a light on the injustices we see around us.
When I was a college student in the 1980s, I met Blanche Petrich. She’s a Mexican reporter who, although differently-abled, was on the frontlines documenting the 1979 Sandinista Revolution, the FMLN guerillas in El Salvador, and the genocide against Gutamalan indigenous peoples. She was a real-life role model and I am lucky enough to call her a lifelong friend. Blanche was awarded the Premio Nacional de Periodismo, one of Mexico’s highest honors. From her I learned to be forceful with the powerful and to be humble with the people.
Recently, my life changed when I learned about the work of a Mexican American journalist born in 1885 by the name of Jovita Idar from Laredo, Texas. Idar was a writer and editor of a bilingual newspaper that the Texas Rangers tried to shut down. When they arrived, she stood up to them, literally standing in front of the door and blocking the entrance to the building— even though she was around five feet tall, just like me. She became a nurse during the Mexican Revolution and later an educator.
Then in 2016, I met another incredible Mexican woman journalist: Lydia Cacho. Lydia is the most recent paisana periodista who’s changed my life.
I’ve been with Lydia in person only twice. I learned about her life through unfortunate circumstances long before I’d ever met her. Lydia is a well-respected journalist dedicated to revealing stories of deep injustice in Mexico. Through her investigative work, she exposed a child sex trafficking ring and implicated a Mexican governor’s involvement. It was scandalous.
Men came after her, kidnapped her, assaulted her, and tortured her because of this story. She was released after an international outcry. She pressed on and continued reporting and even opened a shelter for domestic violence survivors.
I met Lydia in 2016, when my own life was falling apart (see Once I Was You). I was interviewing her because she was receiving the Lincoln Brigades Freedom award. They gave her 100k in cash in honor of work that had almost cost her life, and was living in Cancun with her dogs, recently divorced. She also ran a women’s shelter. Then in 2019, sicarios shot her German Shepherd guard dogs. She fled for her life and is now in exile in Spain.
Through it all, Lydia was composed. She told me she meditated every day. Actually, Lydia started me off on my five-year commitment to daily meditation. I am not sure how I would have made it through the last few years without this practice she taught me. Meditation helped save my life, my marriage, and my soul.
Lydia and I reconnected again, and when I told her about my recent experiences with the Mexican government, she said it seemed like harassment.
I practice my craft in the U.S. without much fear except for border patrol and ICE agents. After last week's bulletin, I hope you all see the circumstances we have to navigate as journalists, some that can make you feel like a target in your own birth country. But despite the fear, nothing clouds my commitment to the work I do.
The dangers I have felt have always been when I was on the frontlines. In 1989, I was on the ground in Apopa, El Salvador during the Guerilla offensive, when a military helicopter suddenly appeared overhead. It looked like the one that had just dropped bombs not too far from us. I was terrified. In that same year, I was reporting on Pablo Escobar controlled territory and came home to find our hotel room unlocked. More recently, I was sitting across from a white supremacist with Hitler tattooed on his neck while investigating a story. But in all of these situations, I could get out and go home.
My colegas in Mexico stay and do the work, or are forced to leave in order to survive. Last week, I had the honor of taking part in an international journalists conference called ForoCap, organized by the digital newspaper El Faro of El Salvador. There, I met the current and next generation of Latin American women journalists. It was inspiring!
I learned from Lydia and all of these other Mexican and Latin American women journalists that we have the power within us to challenge the men who run shit. I wish I could say in a nicer fashion but these women taught me to be unapologetically tenacious. And just like the Mexican Adelita revolutionaries, they’ve all stood tall in the face of fear, and pressed on. We force ourselves to own our power and our voices and to stand up to the most powerful people, sin que nos tiemble el pulso o más bien aunque nos tiemble el pulso.
These periodistas poderosas remind me that the work of Mexican and Latin American women journalists never ends. Like Elena Poniatowska says, I will be a journalist until the day I die. I am part of a continuum, an arc of periodistas de conciencia y con corazón que nunca nos vamos a rendir.