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July 22, 2019

Passion and Purpose

A reporter seeks connections at the border and in life.

Michael Goldman
  • Vera Franceschi
  • An immigrant herself, Mariana Atencio covers immigration for MSNBC.

    Mariana Atencio

Covering the border crisis in Mexico last year, MSNBC reporter Mariana Atencio, herself an immigrant from Venezuela, wanted viewers to know who the actual people caught in the calamity were, and why they were there.

"When you walk with thousands of people carrying whatever belongings they could salvage, with little babies, pregnant women — it shows you how physically grueling that journey was," she says. "No one would go through that unless they felt they absolutely had to. They were doing it just to survive."

Does Atencio's passion clash with the notion of the dispassionate journalist? "It would be simply impossible," she says, not to be moved by what she has witnessed, particularly on the immigration issue.

"I lived that immigrant experience, and my experiences fuel my coverage. It completely molds who I am," she says. "That's where I've found my purpose — injecting empathy into stories; that feeling that, on any given day, it could be you or me. I'm a journalist first and foremost, but I'd like to be known as a journalist who cares about everyone she speaks to."

Atencio has given two TEDx Talks to promote such ideas, which she explores further in Perfectly You: Embracing the Power of Being Real, a book released June 11 in both English and Spanish.

Growing up under Venezuela's Chavez regime, Atencio saw what suppression of a free press and other hardships can mean for a family. She recently lost her father, she says, because of Venezuela's medication shortage, and she helped her sister convalesce after a car crash.

But it was as a 17-year-old, living in New York on 9/11 while preparing for her senior year of high school in Connecticut (a general strike had closed schools in Venezuela), that Atencio realized she wanted to be a journalist.

"That day, I began to understand the value of journalism and started to ask myself: what is my purpose?"

Atencio earned a full-merit scholarship for a master's program in broadcast journalism at Columbia University, so she moved to the U.S. in 2008 to pursue her dream.

Her first job was with El Diario/La Prensa, a New York–based daily newspaper. From there she went to Spanish-language TV station V-me Media. In 2011, she moved to Miami for reporting and anchoring duties at Univision, segueing two years later to the ABC/Univision co-venture Fusion, where she spent three years before joining NBC News.

In 2012, she was part of the team that won Univision's first Peabody Award, for reporting on the "Fast and Furious" firearms scandal. She also interacted with Pope Francis in 2015 as part of an ABC 20/20 virtual town hall.

"That was a humbling moment," Atencio says. "I was at Fusion and the network wanted [Univision's] Jorge Ramos to be at the border to ask the pope questions. For some reason, Jorge couldn't do it and they turned to me.

"It was a live 20/20 special, talking with immigrants who had just crossed the border, helping them ask the pope questions. I translated into English — the first time I'd put that skillset of live translation to use on the air. That was one of the first times as a young journalist that I was aware I had an ability to connect people through their experiences."


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, issue No. 6, 2019

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