At 23 years old, Mariana Atencio knew one thing for sure. She wanted to be a journalist. However, as a young college student in Venezuela, she was aware that the hostile political environment would not allow her to pursue the dreams she longed to make a reality. From 1999-2013, Venezuela was under the controversial leadership of President Hugo Chávez. As a young activist, Atencio was among the student protesters getting sprayed with tear gas as she fought against Chavez’s decision to shut down the nation’s oldest television network RCTV. The network was a known critic of Chavez. But ultimately it would be another life-changing experience that forced Atencio to chase her dreams and never look back.
After getting to the United States on a full ride scholarship to Columbia University, Atencio soared. Over a decade later, she is the only Latina national on-air correspondent at MSNBC. Having faced many challenges as a first generation immigrant, Atencio triumphed and made sure to use her voice to not only tell amazing stories but to help uplift others.
In a conversation with Her Agenda, Atencio talked more about her journey as a first generation immigrant, the life-changing moment that inspired her to pursue journalism, being the only Latina in the newsroom, and gives us the scoop on her new book, “Perfectly You.”
Her Agenda: I learned that while you were living in Venezuela, you were unfortunately robbed at gunpoint and that this had a tremendous effect on you. Can you tell us about how that inspired you to follow your dreams of becoming a journalist?
Mariana Atencio: It was a breaking point in my life. When I was a 23-year-old college junior with dreams of becoming a journalist, I went on this hike in the Avila mountains which is the valley that surrounds Caracas, which is the capital. And it was a day where I really needed to clear my head. The background noise was also the fact that the government at the time was closing the biggest television station in the country.
So I go on a climb and I sensed this man that gave me sort of the chills for some reason brush up to my right. It’s a very narrow trail so that tends to happen with people that are on the trail. I got to the top but really couldn’t kick this feeling that somebody was still like looking at me. And as I was coming down, in the corner of the mountain trail, there was a shaded area. And this man pounced at me from behind a bush. He pulled a gun from his shorts, pointed the muzzle in between my eyebrows and yelled count to 100. And I asked myself, ‘If you make it to 100, if you survive this, what are you gonna do with your life? You have all of these dreams of telling stories for a living that you know are not going to be possible in this environment that you are living.’
I came down terrified and I vowed to make something of my life and to tell the stories of my country and my communities from wherever I built a platform. That same week, I applied to scholarships to the United States and got a scholarship to Columbia University and the rest is history.
Her Agenda: How did you feel when you went back to that exact place?
Mariana Atencio: I felt afraid in the beginning. I’m not going to lie. You never sort of understand trauma until you’re going through it. In the beginning, it was sort of one foot in front of the other, you have to do it. Not everybody here is going to rob you. Not everybody here is that person. It was taking in the beauty of nature and realizing that I am a changed woman. This 11-year journey of growth and acceptance has led me to be so sure of myself in who I am that I won’t let those fears stop me. It’s recognizing they exist. But it’s understanding that within you lies the power to move forward despite the fear.
I vowed to make something of my life and to tell the stories of my country and my communities from wherever I built a platform.
Her Agenda: What has your experience been like as the only Latina journalist in the newsroom?
Mariana Atencio: Being the only in many rooms isn’t easy. It’s realizing the real battle isn’t getting through the door, but within. It’s understanding that you are representing so many other people. Because the agenda for what the nation will talk about that day gets determined in those rooms. So if you don’t speak up for your community, if you don’t speak up for Latinos, for people in the African community, for immigrants for undocumented immigrants — there’s probably about 50 million people whose stories won’t get told. It is a fight I’m willing to fight for with my three dragon’s in tow because it is so much bigger than me.
My purpose is reminding people to care about the faces beyond the headlines.
Her Agenda: As a first generation immigrant, what have been some of the hardest experiences for you? How did you overcome them?
Mariana Atencio: There have been experiences that many many immigrants can relate to, like not having a green card, going to a job interview knowing that you’re likely walking around with a sticky note on your forehead that says don’t hire me. If I had to pick probably the most difficult moment, which I talk about in the book was when I got fired from my first job in journalism. I was literally served a 30-day notice to find another job that would sponsor me in the Great Recession or I would have to go back to my country of origin, which wasn’t an option or become undocumented. So it’s realizing that the system is stacked against immigrants in many regards. But when I survived that, that 30-day sentence and I got to keep my legal status is when I vowed to tell the stories of illegal immigrants in this country with or without papers first hand.
Her Agenda: I read a chapter of your book, “Don’t Look Too Latina,” where you recall the time that you were heading to White House Correspondents Dinner. You said you had a dress picked out — one that you felt really represented your culture and you were proud to wear. And then a supervisor called you and told you not to look too Latina. What advice do you have for other people, women especially struggling to own their culture in spaces where they are the minority?
Mariana Atencio: The first thing I’ll say is do not be ashamed of your name, your accent, your background. Wear your best self, your accent, your dress as a badge of honor. And be prepared that these things might happen to you at the workplace, at a restaurant, at a supermarket. I think that when it happened to me, the sheer fact that it was happening was so shocking that I didn’t even have a response for this person. But next time it happened, I was prepared with a respectful answer to confront that person so that it never happened again. Arm yourself with a respectful answer because these things still happen.
Her Agenda: What was your response to that remark the next time someone said it to you?
Mariana Atencio: The next time it happened was regarding my lipstick color and I told this person in front of everybody else in the newsroom: ‘If what you have to say doesn’t concern my editorial or my work ethic, I would ask you to please refrain from telling me those comments in the future.’ And I think this person realized ‘Oh My God, this is hurtful and offensive.’ And it never happened again. And the next time I went to the White House correspondents dinner, I was proud to look very Latina and very me.
This 11-year journey of growth and acceptance has led me to be so sure of myself in who I am that I won’t let those fears stop me. It’s recognizing they exist. But it’s understanding that within you lies the power to move forward despite the fear.
Her Agenda: Why do you think it’s so important for voices like yours to be present in the newsroom considering today’s political climate?
Mariana Atencio: In those rooms where people that determine the nation’s agenda and what the nation will be talking about every single day, there are still not enough people. Sometimes there are no people that look like us and understand our stories. So [we] need more diverse journalists in those newsrooms to fight those battles because it is the only way that we will tell the stories of our communities. It’s about changing the storytellers and telling real, authentic stories. And for me, it’s about realizing that it’s not about this Mariana, but it’s about the other Mariana and the other little boys and girls out there who are going to see themselves reflected in me and who are going to see the stories of their communities told on tv.
Her Agenda: What was the inspiration behind the book “Perfectly You”?
Mariana Atencio: My very first day on Good Morning America, on English speaking national television… it was a moment that I dreamed of since I was a little girl in South America looking at the television screen. When it actually happened, it wasn’t as perfect as I dreamed it. So when I was going home thinking I was a total failure, I started hearing from so many young people across the country and the world, people in Mexico and Venezuela telling me ‘how did you make it, do you have any tips for me?’ This means that I too can do that. The first person to pre-order the book said this is a win for all of us. So that was the spark of this book.
Her Agenda: What are some of the key messages people can take away from the book after reading?
Mariana Atencio: To be perfectly you means giving your best effort to be true to yourself and committing to being your best self in everything you do, to wear your accent as a badge of honor. Perfectly you means embracing what makes you different and reaffirming yourself that you got to where you are because of who you are. And to remind yourself that you belong in each and every room you enter.
Her Agenda: You said in one of your Ted Talks that you realized while your job is to tell the truth, you have really refocused your storytelling to make sure that people care. Why is that so important to you?
Mariana Atencio: I found that finding the truth and being first, that’s just my job. But my purpose is reminding people to care about the faces beyond the headlines. I talk about this is in the book, which is also sort of a great behind the scenes of news and being at the forefront of the most important stories of our time. I have traveled all over the world to places that are different and distant as Haiti and Hong Kong and Mexico and Ferguson and I found that we are all more alike than different. The world is more and more interconnected. Sooner or later, whatever happens in the world – good or bad, will hit home. It happened to me, it may happen to you. So I just want us all to care about everything that’s happening even if it’s not impacting you at that point.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]