By Ben Bartenstein
The final night may have featured salsa dancing, but the NAHJ convention in Orlando was never just a party. A convergence of passionate journalists? Yes. But not quite a full fiesta.
Nestled in the basement of the world’s largest Marriott property, a team of 12 student reporters and nine mentors worked fervently throughout the week in mid-September. Its mission: to produce an online collection of stories on the Latino community.
The result? A series of narratives that showcased Latinos’ influence in Central Florida, underscored by the emergence of Puerto Ricans and Salvadoransrunning for office, chartered flights to and from Cuba, and Venezuelans demanding temporary protected status. Reporting also brought to light the challenges that remain for Latino journalists and partnerships intended to bolster newsroom diversity.
Filling in for UNITY Fellow Raji Ramanathan, I was excited to get initiated into NAHJ. Although I’ve attended four AAJA conventions and two for NABJ, this was my first with NAHJ. If there’s anything I take away from the past conventions, it’s the value of diverse relationships and engagement with other cultures. Without both, I can’t fairly and accurately represent everyone in my community. My experience at NAHJ reaffirmed this.
In Orlando, I had the pleasure of working alongside a talented team of students and professionals whose expertise ran the gamut from photography to documentary film to web development to reporting to editorial. I turned to many talented folks throughout the week for assistance.
Before traveling to a welcoming ceremony for Venezuelan immigrants, Arelis Hernandez, a reporter for the Washington Post, put me in touch with a friend who seemed to know everyone at the event and proved invaluable. I met families who had arrived in Florida within the past 48 hours, having fled Venezuela after receiving death threats. When I returned that afternoon, my mentor David Plazas, opinion editor for The Tennessean, helped me frame the story so readers understood why pseudonyms were critical.
For another story, I shot photos of top Orlando destinations other than Disney. The story seemed as routine as one could get, but I was proven wrong. My trip with reporter Vivian Padilla and mentors Jason Gonzales, education reporter for The Tennessean, and Kassandra Lau, producer at KUSA-TV, turned into a wild goose chase.
After arriving at Gatorland just as the park was shutting down, we moved onto the airport so Vivian could shoot photos. The only problem was getting out. Jason and I ended up making several loops before we found the exit. Then we proceeded to Universal CityWalk, where security guards wouldn’t let us enter with cameras. Despite these unexpected bumps, we got the photos, shooting CityWalk on our phones and Gatorland the next day.
It would have been easy for my colleagues to view me as an outsider, someone contrary to NAHJ’s mission. I’m not Latino; my ancestry is German, Norwegian, and Irish. And when it comes to Latino issues, I’m pretty ignorant. Sure, I’ve taken classes on the politics and geography of Latin America and have a Cuban roommate, but I’ve never been fully immersed in the culture. Thankfully, everyone was excited to share and help me improve my understanding.
During my final hours in Orlando, I listened in admiration to Carlos Avila Gonzalez, photographer for the San Francisco Chronicle, as he shared stories from his photo assignments in Nepal and sub-Saharan Africa. Then I watched my mentor David, who was project co-chair, shake his moves on the dance floor.
When I walked zombie-like through the Orlando Airport the next morning, I couldn’t help but feel a lift in my step thinking about new friends met and traditions experienced. Then I sunk back in my seat and took a nap, dreaming of next August in Washington D.C.