February 23, 2022

Below is an excerpt from The Collective, Poynter’s newsletter by journalists of color for journalists of color and our allies. Subscribe here to get it in your inbox two Wednesdays each month.

There are words I still avoid pronouncing in conversations with my friends, colleagues and sources. I take my time saying words like “vulnerable” and these days I am really glad I don’t know anyone whose name is “Luke” so I don’t have to worry about whether it’ll come out of my mouth sounding like “look.”

I have been speaking and writing in English for more than 20 years. Reading out loud in front of others still makes me nervous.

But now the feeling of pride and joy I get when I call my sources and they answer the phone comfortably saying, “Natalia ¿Como estas?” wins over any kind of insecurity I still have about my accent.

These days in Texas, we can hear someone speaking Spanish and Spanglish almost everywhere we go — but this wasn’t always the case. In newsrooms this was (and is today) especially rare.

I didn’t always embrace that I am bilingual. For a long time I tried to hide it. But my first language and embracing who I am has been pivotal to my journalism career.

I was born in Tampico, Mexico. In the early 2000s, I was 11 years old when my mother decided to follow her heart and we moved to the United States. Corpus Christi, Texas — the hometown of my idol, Selena Quintanilla — would become my new home.

I remember getting laughed at by my classmates when I would stare at them blankly because I could not understand what they were saying to me. I didn’t speak a word of English. I never expected my new home in South Texas, one of the places closest to my home country, to become such an isolating place.

In a school where the vast majority of the kids looked like me and had last names like Garcia, Villarreal, Perez and Gonzalez, I felt like a foreigner — though I guess I technically was. None of my classmates and friends spoke Spanish, and only a handful of my teachers did. Out at the store or at doctors’ appointments with my mother, those who did speak Spanish would seem annoyed to have to use it if we needed help.

I stopped speaking Spanish and became obsessed with mastering the English language. I stopped listening to music in Spanish, stopped reading books in Spanish and traded watching novelas on Telemundo for shows on E! and VH1. I became fluent in English by the end of the school year.

But mastering the language wasn’t enough.

All through high school and college, many people — even my closest friends, who were of Mexican descent — would make fun of my accent. Also, the fact that I didn’t know the meaning of words like “hearse” was until very recently a running joke (at the time no one close to me had died, so it wasn’t part of my vocabulary).

I always laughed with them and made fun of myself, but it truly bothered me. It made me so self-conscious and othered.

To my friends, Mexico and speaking Spanish were foreign concepts. I always felt like the foreign friend, no matter how similar we were.

After living in different parts of Texas, falling in love with its culture and its people, and taking some college courses to learn about its history, I began to understand why.

Racism and discimination against Mexican Americans in South Texas took away people’s sense of pride for their own culture, traditions and heritage. At the height of Jim Crow, Mexican Americans attended segregated schools where they were not allowed to speak Spanish and even punished for it. My friends’ great-grandparents didn’t teach or speak to their families in Spanish because they knew what could happen if they were heard speaking it in public.

This multigenerational trauma had impacted people in my community for centuries. It impacted me, too.

While taking journalism classes at a community college in Corpus Christi, I was given a chance to write and edit for the student newspaper. I volunteered to write and edit content for the paper’s Spanish-language section. This was the first time I realized how much power I had and that I could make a difference.

I had spent so much time rejecting who I was and not speaking Spanish, but this opportunity helped me regain a sense of pride.

Later, when I landed a gig as a reporter at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, though I wasn’t the only Latinx journalist there, being bilingual helped me get ahead.

During my time at The Indianapolis Star, I was one of two bilingual journalists. In 2020, I helped launch the paper’s first Spanish-language newsletter. This was the first time the publication made an effort to write stories about Latinx and for Spanish-speaking Latinx in Indiana.

Sharing information in Spanish and conducting interviews and meetings in Spanish with my sources helped me earn the community’s trust and respect. Speaking Spanish and even Spanglish became my journalism superpower.

Though some newsrooms are making strides to diversify, it’s time to have more than one journalist on the staff who speaks another language. Newsrooms should stop trying to reach multilingual communities the same way we reach white, English-speaking communities. That’s why bilingual journalists should be part of visuals, digital, audience and social media, sports, entertainment and — most important — bilingual journalists should be part of leadership.

I’ve worked at the Austin American-Statesman for less than six months. Speaking Spanish helped me earn enough trust with Southeast Austin residents who are protesting plans to build jet fuel tanks within walking distance from their homes. The owner of a beloved Austin panaderia opened up to me about his dreams of buying a Corvette and going to the World Cup after his retirement. 

The stories I am most proud of in my career I was able to tell because I interviewed people in Spanish. Today, I am also happy to see my friends, my community and other Mexican American and Latinx journalists reclaiming our culture, language, heritage and its power.

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The Collective is supported by the TEGNA Foundation.

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Natalia Contreras (@NataliaECG) is an enterprise reporter at the Austin American-Statesman. She previously worked at the Indianapolis Star and at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Contreras…
Natalia Contreras

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