Well, first things first…you take a picture with him! Then you listen to his amazing story!
It’s Hispanic Heritage Month and my alma mater, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), does things BIG where recognition and celebration are concerned. Each year they bring top Latino powerhouse speaker to students and the community at large. I’ve had the privilege of hearing and meeting Actress-America Ferrera (2011) and Actress/Activist-Rosario Dawson (2012). Last year Soledad O’Brien, Broadcast Journalist spoke about her CNN series Latino in America. All have brought great and inspiring messages to the students. I love hearing the Q&A portion of the evening and the poignant and heartfelt questions the students ask of the speakers.
This year, John Quiñones was on deck to bring a great message about embracing the changing face of our nation. But the bigger message was one of perseverance to the students in attendance by sharing his personal story. John is a 7th generation Mexican-American from San Antonio, TX. I smiled when he spoke a line that my dad used to say to me about his family in New Mexico – “we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed US!” He didn’t learn to speak English until he started school at the age of 6. It was a time when children in public schools were punished for speaking their native language. He spoke about his struggle to lose his accent so he could pursue his dream of being a broadcast journalist. At one point, his family joined a caravan of migrant farm workers and traveling through northern states after his father lost his job in Texas as a janitor. His father posed the question to him one day as they were working in the fields – “do you want to do this the rest of your life? “ As all parents, he wished for a better life for his son
He spoke of his great fortune in joining Upward Bound, a program out of St. Mary’s University, a federal TRIO program that helped prepare him for college. Ultimately, John earned a master’s degree from Colombia University’s School of Journalism. Soon he was working in Chicago at the local CBS affiliate and posing undercover as a migrant worker to cover a story he suggested to his bosses about why Mexicans cross the border illegally for a better life in the UA. He won his first Emmy for this story. The irony in all this? The kid who was punished for speaking Spanish as a 6-year-old ended up getting an anchor job because he spoke Spanish! He covered Latin American news for a number of years, in fact, he has covered stories all over the world.
And of course, there was much discussion about his award-winning TV show “What Would You Do?” Several clips from the show were shown and discussion followed. It’s such a study in human behavior and our own biases. The students had a lot to say about that!
Having John Quiñones in Birmingham, Alabama during Hispanic Heritage Month was the best way to kick off the festivities for me. Oh…and this wasn’t the first time I had the great fortune of meeting him. I had a photo opp with John in San Antonio – his home town – in 2010 at the NCLR (National Council of La Raza) conference. In the flurry of the NCLR Gala Event, he was very gracious and posed for a picture with me.
So proud of my Alma Mater UAB, for providing such excellent speakers for their students and community. Shout out to the Student Multicultural & Diversity Programs, UAB Lecture Series, and the Office of the Provost for Student & Faculty Success for a great event. Can’t wait to see what next year will bring!