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In reporting on immigration, identity and background prove strengths

In reporting on immigration, identity and background prove strengths

Picture of Paulina Velasco
(Photo by yashmori via Flickr )
(Photo by yashmori via Flickr )

“There’s always a necessity to get involved,” said Héctor Plascencia on our Zoom interview. We’d been talking for over two hours at this point, about how they see their role as an immigrant health advocate. “There’s always a necessity to get involved,” they repeated, “Whether people will? What moves them towards that? That’s where I draw back to healing.”

This quote would become foundational to my understanding of the reporting project I was pursuing under the auspices of the 2020 California Fellowship. I’d been hearing for months, while reporting in the field in Los Angeles, how much of an emotional and mental burden activists were carrying as they sought to serve L.A.’s immigrant community. Usually after my interviews ended about the effects of a new policy, for example, activists would tell me that no one really ever asked them how they were doing. The immigrant rights movement in L.A. is as diverse as the immigrant community itself. But it became clear that anyone with some connection to immigrant communities in Los Angeles was reeling from the impacts of a Republican administration that advocates say demonizes immigrants with its rhetoric and damns them with its policy.

As I searched for people to talk to about this, I discovered that nearly everyone I found had a personal connection to the people they were serving. I spoke to seven people — organizers, activists, therapists, all professionals in their fields, all of whom work in service of L.A.’s Latinx immigrant community in some way. Including myself, we all had Latino backgrounds and an experience with immigration to the United States, and specifically, to California.

“People who are very conscious about disparities and who’ve experienced them themselves, I think, are people that go into this advocacy kind of work,” said Frances Chinchilla. Chinchilla is a licensed clinical social worker at Alta Med, a health network in Southern California that serves primarily low-income Latinx immigrant families.

This assessment rings true for Evelyn Hernandez, an organizer at the Central American Resource Center, who has spent years advocating for a path to permanent residency for holders of temporary protected status, like her. It’s true for Hector Plascencia, the health policy consultant, who works to help immigrants access health care, including those who are also undocumented. It’s true for roque armenta, who found out as a student that organizing made them feel less powerless, and who now works with Power California to engage young people of color across California. It’s true for Maegan Ortiz, the executive director of Instituto de Educación Popular del Sur de California, a workers rights organization, and it’s even true for Chinchilla, the therapist, who said coming from a Guatemalan family in Los Angeles gives her the best possible connection to her patients. It’s also true for me — a first-generation Mexican-American journalist who focuses on reporting from immigrant communities, including the incredibly diverse Latinx community.

 

I learned while reporting this piece that burnout and compassion fatigue are real, that they affect people in helping fields acutely, and that protecting one’s mental health requires a disciplined self-care routine. “Because you are caring for others ... you have to constantly check in with yourself, you have to constantly replenish your well, to do this work and to do any work which is in the service of others,” Chinchilla told me. “So it’s almost like taking care of yourself is, like, a selfless act because you're doing it not only for self-preservation, but in order to keep doing the work that you do.”

I didn't know I was seeking an answer to how people were coping; I set out to simply document the mental health of this segment of the community. Like Plascencia, who “drew back to healing,” Chinchilla and the others were telling me that taking care of themselves was crucial to their work in the service of others.

This was the biggest lesson I learned during my reporting: that our identities and backgrounds can and should be seen as strengths in a variety of professions, including activism, social work, and even journalism. That background is so often the very reason we choose to do this work in the first place. Recognizing that, and taking care of our physical, mental, and emotional well-being, is part and parcel of doing good work out in the world in a sustainable way.

It was a beautiful thing to gather these lessons from the long, personal interviews I was able to do with activists and therapists: like getting a glimpse into the moxie and discipline that many hard-working, compassionate people exercise on a day-to-day basis. I made sure to let the interviews guide my conclusions about their approach to mental health, and not the other way around. For example, several people I spoke to acknowledged the stigma associated with mental health among Latinos, and how much pressure Latino culture can exert to take care of everyone around you before taking care of yourself. I expected this to be a larger topic of conversation, just from my understanding of my own background. But I was surprised to find out that the people I interviewed broke open those stereotypes, and one activist even reminded me to make sure to look at the ways our culture helps us take better care of ourselves, instead of just holding us back. I thoroughly welcomed that perspective!

As I wrapped up my interviews and began combing through hours of raw tape, I realized the importance of producing a documentary that would ring true to the people featured in it. I feel like this is not always the case for reporters like me, who file stories from underreported communities for radio or podcasts. It often feels that I’m writing stories that are not meant to be heard by the people featured in them. But in this case, not only was I grateful to the people I interviewed for sharing their personal journeys in activism with me, I also became increasingly aware that the content itself, grounded in research and woven together as a rich tapestry of personal narratives, could be very important for us to hear right now. I ended up making it for those of us struggling to stay “involved” amidst the compounding crises of 2020: the feelings of betrayal, confusion and fear, the desire to do better for our communities, and the debilitating sense of powerlessness in the face of what seem like huge, intractable problems.

The editor I worked with said to me during our first edit that this documentary was turning into “a love letter to organizing.” This was appropriate to the show’s social-justice-minded audience.

There are a lot of conversations taking place right now about the role of journalism in 2020. One of those is about whether or not a journalist can express outrage at the violence they witness, or show how scared they might be for their own communities. It's why it was challenging for me to embrace the notion that my background and life experience are strengths, as I report about immigration in the United States.

In the documentary, I quoted the Hutchins Commission, a report about the freedom of the press carried out in the 1940s: “It is no longer enough to report the fact truthfully. It is now necessary to report the truth about the fact.” I do not think we can report the truth about the fact by refusing to use all the tools our life experiences have given us.

Listen to the documentary here.

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