My personal story fuels our origins story. It explains why I am so passionate about this project and why I believe we must invest in training programs for our youth and our communities. It is also a case study for the Power of our Story.
I have been a storyteller all of my life.
My reporting days began in high school in the border town of Nogales, Arizona. I joined my school newspaper and quickly realized it didn’t accurately reflect our reality as students, so I started an “alternative” newspaper – The Lip. Within weeks we captured student interest and attention and unfortunately, administration disapproval. I was suspended from school, offended several teachers, and crossed some boundaries. I was hooked and knew I had found my calling.
I went on to study Journalism at the University of Arizona and, while still in college, I started working for a local TV newsroom as a writer. I ended up working for every TV station in Tucson as a writer, photographer, reporter and producer – all while trying to finish college.
After a few years I moved to Denver and worked in what was then one of the most competitive TV news markets in the country. I covered floods, parades, political campaigns and crime.
As a journalist, I had the chance to visit a small remote town in Nicaragua. I met individuals caught in the middle of the war between the Sandinistas and the US-backed Contras and started telling stories about people that had been largely ignored.
I ended up in L.A. working for the PBS station as a producer/reporter covering local news PBS-style – longer and more carefully researched stories. I always found ways to tell stories about people on the margins – communities that were invisible to most – stories that mainstream media seemed to overlook.
The war in El Salvador was generating national attention and soon I was meeting and interviewing dozens of war refugees struggling to survive in L.A. My desire to learn more led me to move to San Salvador to work as a freelance journalist. I spent several months traveling throughout El Salvador and Central American reporting for CBS Radio and several U.S. newspapers. While illness forced me to return, that experience was the most rewarding, challenging and sometimes disturbing time of my life.
During the 23 years I worked in news I covered stories about the Mexican Mafia resulting in threats to my safety. I spent 36 hours in the middle of the L.A, Riots in 1992 reporting on a city at war with itself.
I returned to Latin America to cover the Zapatista revolt in Chiapas, Mexico; human trafficking in Costa Rica; the assassination of a human rights activist in El Salvador; and the indigenous victims of extreme poverty in Bolivia.
I never imagined the life I would lead as a journalist – the people I would meet, the situations I would find myself, and the lessons I would learn.
But there are parts of our stories that aren't always easy to talk about. My story includes a painful chapter that, after 21 years, I still struggle to talk about.
I was a committed journalist but I somehow found time to get married and have children. Today, however, I find myself a father without my children. I lost my sons, Asher and then Rafael, to what then was a mysterious disorder. Asher died after being with us for only four months. He was born healthy but never thrived and eventually succumbed to an opportunistic infection.
I don’t remember much about what happened after the funeral except my ex-wife and I separated. Traci, who is a physician, moved to another city to finish her residency and I buried myself in work. We were naturally devastated but love and hope somehow survived. We reconciled and then, happily discovered we would be parents again.
Rafael was also born healthy and we believed there would be a happy ending to our story. But life isn’t about happy endings. When he turned two months old, Rafael suddenly became ill and we relived that nightmare. I remember waking up every day wondering, ‘Is today the day we lose Rafael too?’ I don’t want to dwell on the details – they’re not important to this part of my story – but we lost our second son at the age of 10 months. We later learned both boys had a very rare genetic disorder incompatible with life.
Traci and I eventually divorced – our relationship could not survive what we had endured but I am grateful to say we are now friends. She supports The Next American Media Makers and better than anyone, understands why it’s so important to me.
During my years as a journalist I interviewed many people who had experienced a similar kind of loss and pain. Remembering their stories was part of what sustained me. I knew it was possible to survive a “universe-shaking” experience – I prayed I could as well.
Once you become a father, there is no “Off” switch. You are a father for the rest of your life – regardless of what happens to your children. I am still a father.
I have never stopped loving my sons and thinking about them. I celebrate their birthdays every year and now in my heart and my imagination they are young men, 19 and 21 years old. I keep their memory alive and believe I have found a healthy way to go on with my life. But I have spent the last 19 years trying to figure out what to do with that sense of responsibility – the Father Button is still switched “On.”
I recently had the opportunity to work with a group of young people – students at a Compton high school – on a video production project and that experience gave new purpose for that Father Button. The students almost overwhelmed me with their enthusiasm and energy. They were not only eager to learn how to tell other people’s stories; they also wanted to share their own stories about growing up in Compton. They understood clearly how myths and stereotypes define them and they wanted to break free and define themselves.
They wanted to OWN their own narrative.
Today I am very grateful to those students. They provided an entry point and the opportunity to share what I’ve learned during 30-plus years of being a journalist and a communications professional. And as I listened to their stories, I realized they had something vital to teach me.
We must make room for the next generation of storytellers – like those students in Compton – who must tell their own stories. By doing so they will create new chronicles about our communities and our country. If ever there was a time for a new American Story, it is now.
And as my professional experience has taught me, these new storytellers must reflect all of our communities – especially those we have long ignored.
I believe we are all exactly where we are supposed to be, and this belief has sustained me – particularly in the most painful and confusing times of my life. It helped me to understand the horrible and amazing moments I have witnessed as a professional storyteller. And it helped me survive and then start to heal from the loss of my children.
And now, it helps me understand why someone with my experience met those young people in Compton. Like the thousand stories I’ve witnessed and shared – I know their story must be told.
So I sat down and created what has become the Next American Media Makers. Our story is just beginning.