How embracing her identity helped MSNBC correspondent Mariana Atencio become one of the most well-known Latina faces on TV news
By Lyanne Alfaro
Today, Mariana Atencio is one of the most well-known Latinas on news television, having done Spanish and English coverage on major networks from Univision to NBC and now a published author with her autobiography, Perfectly You. But a few years ago, she was just out of college in her home country where she faced several hurdles for making her profession remotely possible.
With Venezuela in socioeconomic and political crisis, Atencio’s journalism career was at a standstill. The year was 2007, and President Hugo Chávez had just shut down RCTV, one of the biggest news stations in the country. She likened it to the scale of shutting down a network like NBC. Chávez planned to replace the opposition channel with a state network promoting the president’s socialist revolution.
“I realized I wasn’t going to be able to tell the stories that I wanted or at least how I envisioned in my country,” Atencio said. “I was going to have to leave and flee.”
So she took her degree in communications and moved to NYC, where she vowed to shed light on the crisis in Venezuela. Atencio secured a spot in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and then graduated into one of the toughest job markets in US history: the Great Recession of 2008.
She was also looking for a job that would sponsor her as an immigrant in the US. What’s more, is that Atencio was entering a workforce where she was the minority in more ways than one. It’s a diversity issue American newsrooms have to date: In 2016, more than three-quarters of newsroom employees were non-Hispanic whites, per American Community Survey data.
Here’s the thing about Atencio -- she is no stranger to the art of resiliency. If you are among her 120,000 plus followers on Instagram, you will quickly find she doesn’t shy away from posting about her wins as much as her challenges, and how she overcomes them with her self-made hashtag, #GoLikeMariana. When met with adversity all having to do with her identity and Latinidad, her question was: “How can I turn that into a competitive advantage?”
That’s what Perfectly You: Embracing the Power of Being Real is all about. Through Atencio’s stories about moving to the US, relationships with her family, and navigating being an immigrant in an industry where she did not see herself represented, the journalist writes about how embracing her identity helped her create her career. We sat down with Atencio to talk a bit more about her book and professional trajectory so far.
You said that moving from Spanish to English television was one of your biggest wins. What was that like for you? Why was it so important?
The crossing over, it was something I was afraid to do. I was very comfortable; I had just gotten married. To take this job on, I moved into a new house, my husband was surrounded by packing boxes, and we had been married for not even a year when I said, ‘I want to do this.’ And he supported me wholeheartedly, but it was a big leap of faith. I did it because I always have known that I have this potential. I speak English the way that I speak because my dad sacrificed so much for me to learn it when I was a kid. I felt like I was meant to do this like it was my purpose calling me. But also working at Univision and seeing these stories, I felt these stories are not being told here.
So you felt there was a gap?
Absolutely. There was a void. There was a need to bring our community’s stories to this wider audience, and I’m like, ‘who best to do it?’ Instead of being like, ‘no one is telling these stories.’ I had to take this on, and I’m going to do it. What surprised was that when I started appearing on camera and saying my name the way it was supposed to be pronounced; the response on social media from all these young people that were following was overwhelming.
Like ‘it’s a win for all of us,’ ‘we see us in you.’
How do you grapple with bringing your identity with you to television news? When you pitch stories, do you bring your Latinidad with you?
I will always be a person who is Latina. I carry my identity on my sleeve. I can’t separate that. In the beginning, it was almost like because you want to fit in, you think you have to hide it or nuance it but after a while, it’s like, ‘No. Why would I do that? What kind of lesson am I giving those young people who are looking to me that are seeing me on screen?’ It’s tough because it’s a tricky balance in the newsroom. You don’t want to get pigeonholed as the Latina correspondent and only do Latino stories, and actually, the opposite thing happened to me where I’ve had to fight to the nail to tell Latino stories. I’ve had to earn the privilege of telling Latino stories, by showing them that i can tell Latino stories the way nobody else can. In the beginning, I covered every hurricane; I covered trials. They would not send me out to cover immigration. I had to earn that privilege.
So you had to work your skills in every other department before they let you cover what you wanted to.
They also wanted me to be out of my comfort zone. But I think we now realized, and I also credit my bosses with this. I have a boss who’s a Latina, Janelle Rodriguez, who has been an amazing sponsor in the newsroom. She actually hired me, and now we are owning those stories. I proved to her I can do this better than anyone else can. That moment that it clicked for everyone was when that devastating earthquake happened in Mexico.
A school crumbled. I called her and said we need to get down there.
We were live on MSNBC, and there was an urgency to communicate what was happening. That was the longest time I’ve been live. We were live for entire days, in the rubble with our hard hats on. They needed help from Red Cross, international organizations…they had their signs saying we need these things. I just started organically asking them, ‘What do you need? What is happening,’ in Spanish and translating to the audience in English.
Having correspondents that look like you (and share similar experiences) in the newsroom is so important. You brought up you have a producer who is Latina, and I wanted to harp on the fact that having sponsors in the newsroom is so important. There are not enough people who are in positions of management who get to call the shots in terms of who gets to go where in the newsroom. In your eyes, how do we change that?
That’s a hard question. Even in Spanish newsrooms, you see all these Latina producers, and you go to the executive level, and it’s all guys. We would work so much harder in those newsrooms. I found Janelle has been a mentor and sponsor for people like Sandra Lilley and me at NBC Latino. It’s finding ambassadors in other communities. I remember Joy Anne Reid was like, ‘I want you on my show because we need voices like your voice.’
I have found in her an ambassador to our community. Sometimes preaching to the choir gets you only so far. So that’s hugely important. And I always think when you are with the Phil Griffiths in the elevator, have your elevator pitch, how many of us there are, how we are consuming media, how important it is to talk to that community.
To anyone trying to break into an industry where they are the minority, how do you encourage them to be “Perfectly You” and use it to their advantage?
First of all, stick to your guns. Don’t try to adapt to what you see because those voices already exist. What’s the point of being there if you’re going to have a haircut, and a sounding name and a title that looks like everyone else. You’re more easily replaceable, that’s number one. So don’t try to adapt to fit the bill. That’s hard because it takes courage to pronounce your name the way it’s supposed to be pronounced, to walk into a newsroom with your big earrings, your red lips, your colors. Stick to your guns, make no apologies for looking the way that you do, speaking the way that you speak or your beliefs, and call people out.
Perfectly You is now available in book stores nationwide and you can order your copy now!
(Photos courtesy of Mariana Atencio)