Maryam and Nivaal interview Mariana Atencio
An award-winning journalist, author, and media producer.
By Maryam and Nivaal Rehman
In our second interview for our Perspectives column, we were able to speak with the incredible Mariana Atencio. Mariana is such a big inspiration to us in our work because of her incredible career in journalism. She is a Peabody Award-winning journalist, speaker, author and the co-founder of her own production company, GoLike. She was an anchor at Univision/Fusion and a national correspondent at NBC news — travelling the world to cover some of the most volatile conflicts of our times, in English and Spanish, for more than 10 years. Her amazing TED Talk, “What Makes You Special?”, is one of the top 10 most-watched on YouTube, and has been translated into 11 languages. Her first book, Perfectly You, was an Amazon Best Seller for Latino Biographies and an Audible Editor’s Pick and AppleBooks “Must Listen.” In this interview, she shares her journey of being a Venezuelan immigrant who came to the United States to pursue her dream of becoming a journalist. We were able to discuss the ups and downs of her magnificent journey, from covering mass shootings to hurricanes, and her advice to others on finding their authentic voice on social media, in their writing, and on-screen.
What inspired you to become a journalist?
When I was growing up, there were so many things that I liked to do, I just didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. Overtime, I realized that I like writing, I like theatre, I like public speaking, and I have this sense of social justice. I grew up in Venezuela, which is a country that was going through tremendous socio-economic and political upheaval at the time so that also influenced my sense of “whatever I have to do has to be of service to others and has to build bridges of understanding.” So if you put all of that in a blender, what comes out? A journalist!
I didn’t quite know it at the time, but it was when the government was growing more and more authoritarian down there, when they shut down the biggest television station in our country, we went out to protests as students. And I still remember holding on to my younger brother and my younger sister, and we had our hands painted white, and we had flowers in our hands as a sign of peace in front of the national guard. It was a lot of what many young people today could also see happening in the United States in some way. And it was in that moment where I said this is my calling. To be a journalist. To tell these stories that aren’t really being told.
Still though, it was tough to admit it to my parents because I grew up in a really traditional conservative home where my mom always said to me “I would love for you to be a dentist. That way, you’ll get your own practice, and have your own kids and go for like half a day,” and I would say, “I have nothing against dentists, mom, but I don’t really see myself with my hand in someone’s mouth the whole day.” But I studied advertising in the beginning because I was like I don’t know if my parents are going to be okay with being a journalist here in this country in this context. But I was miserable sitting down inside that advertising agency. And I said to myself, “Why would I put myself through this?” I have to do what I feel most passionate about. And it was finally then where I said, out loud, “I want to be a journalist.”
We even read about this in your book. It’s just so inspiring the way that you shared your story, and went on to stand up against these challenges that came your way. And going off of that, what was the biggest challenge that you faced when starting your career, and how did you overcome it?
The biggest challenge was embracing my authenticity. And what do I mean? There’s always a tendency and it’s really easy to copy other people. And wherever you’re starting out, whether it’s at a newspaper or at a network, and to think this is what the successful person here is doing, it’s easy to copy them. Your bosses and your higher-ups are also going to want you to do that because there are these systems that exist, right?
At NBC they sent me to the Today Show makeup room and they said somebody will teach you how to do your makeup, and they send you a stylist who says this is what you should wear. And little by little, it’s not that they do this purposely, but little by little you start actually telling the stories that you see are getting on the air. But what’s the point of someone like you girls, or me, being at a place like that if we’re not really being true to our voices and telling the stories of our communities? And I always say that for me, that realization came from something as simple as how I pronounce my name on television. Because my name is Mariana, and if you see early clips of me, and you could still find them on YouTube, you can see me going, “This is Mary-Anna!” I remember I did some clips for the Huffington Post, and for Ariana Huffington, and I literally said the Mary-Anna thing, and it’s like who’s Mary-Anna? That is just taking away the very essence of my power, and giving it to somebody else.
So the biggest challenge for me was understanding that I had to be myself, from the way I dress, to my name, and the stories that I push forward, and not copy what everybody else was doing. And yes, that’s going to be hard because you’re going to be met with “Really? You think so? That’s not really the way we do things around here,” but if you respectfully speak up, you will stand out just like you girls stand out because you are yourselves among a sea of people who look and sound the same.
“There’s always a tendency and it’s really easy to copy other people. And wherever you’re starting out, whether it’s at a newspaper or at a network, and to think this is what the successful person here is doing, it’s easy to copy them.”
That’s so true, definitely. And it’s so great to see that you don’t only represent the LatinX community, but also are able to tell their stories in a meaningful way. And not only people in the LatinX community, but also any minority group who might not see people like themselves on television. It’s so important to have storytellers that look like us as well on the screen and it’s so great to see someone like yourself really shining and doing such amazing things. And so can you tell us a little more about the most impactful or interesting stories you have told during your time as a journalist, and throughout your career?
Wow, so many. I’ve covered everything. Being a breaking news journalist, especially covering in Spanish and English, I was especially sent to the big natural disasters and the big tragedies. Why? Because I think that cultures like ours and communities like ours and our families also have this empathy, and our generation has this empathy that’s just such a positive tool that you can bring with you in these instances. Because I’ve had to interview people who have lost loved ones during a mass shooting. I’ve had to interview people who have lost everything during a hurricane. So, whenever I interview those people, I always treat it as, I’m inviting them into my home. It’s okay to put your arm around them, it’s okay to cry if they’re crying.
I think, in terms of journalism, we really break ground by breaking down the stereotype of being this cold reporter that can’t express any feelings. People are so saturated with information and news, that it’s really those moments of just being a human being in those tragedies and natural disasters that will connect with somebody watching you, in Ohio or in California, or in New York, or wherever it is. So for me, it has to be the big stories that also seem really historic. Now, with what we’re seeing in the United States, having covered Ferguson, Missouri on the ground for weeks, having spoken to Michael Brown’s family, I was tear-gassed, and I reported in front of burning buildings and I saw all of the dynamics that we’re seeing now, play out in that community. And that is something that for me as an immigrant, not having grown up in America, made me really understand the plight of the Black communities in the United States in a way that I don’t think I ever could have really understood had I not covered Ferguson.
Yes, that’s so important. And you’ve also written your book, Perfectly You, can you tell us more about the inspiration behind that? You do a really good job of again sharing your story really well and being authentically yourself, and “Perfectly You” as you describe it.
So the book! I love that you have it, we brought it to the Girl Up Summit which was just an incredible platform and all you girls who are leaders in the world were reading it. What inspired me was, honestly this idea that everybody has a story worth sharing. Writing a memoir at my age, I still got those comments from people like, “You really think that people are going to read what you have to say? Aren’t you a little young to be writing a memoir?” But there’s so much value in our stories, and I want everybody to really take that with them after our conversation today. Your story is worth sharing, and if you can tell it as authentically as possible, that’s when it will really resonate with somebody who says, “Oh my god! Look at what Maryam went through, or look at what Mariana went through. I see myself reflected there.”
But writing a book is still hard, right? And I had to write through hurricanes and elections, and all of these things almost on notes on my phone, as I travelled around the world. I still asked myself “Can I really do this?” And it was the passing of my dad, who was my best friend, my personal hero, I know he’s still around me every day and watching this interview now, but it was that moment when I said to myself that wow, we really don’t have a minute to lose on this earth. And I think after what’s happened in the past couple of months and after what we’re seeing this week and last week, there is this sense of urgency for everybody now. We have to put pen and paper, and a form of activism is and can be to tell our own stories on our own terms.
Yeah, definitely. And to expand on that, what was the experience of writing the book like? If you came through a time where you didn’t know what to write necessarily, how did you overcome that? What was the experience like?
It was like “Ahh!!” To summarize it in a gesture. We did it in a really short period of time, I had less than a year for everything, even for the book to come out, which is an incredibly tight deadline. And that deadline was just for me. There was an opening in the universe where I had to write that book. And it helps to have a tight deadline because I couldn’t really procrastinate much. For me, the challenges were two mainly. The opposite of what you said, so the opposite of “I don’t know what to write,” I had too much, and I had to really focus it and say, okay, what is it that I really want the reader to take away with them? And also I really had trouble figuring out where to start. And here I have a takeaway for people reading, an exercise that you can do if you’re thinking about “How would I start my own story?” or “How would I write my own book?” I literally sat down, and I wrote two columns. One for everything positive that had happened in my life, and one for everything negative that happened in my life. Literally bullet points. Because all those moments, I identified as junctures. As moments where my life really took a different turn because of something that had happened or a decision that I made, things like my sister’s car accident, or when my dad passed away, or when I migrated to America.
In the negative column, there was this incident that when I wrote it down, I thought, I haven’t really spoken about this, and I hadn’t really internalized what it meant in my life. It was a moment when I was 23 years old and I was held at gunpoint in my native Venezuela, which could have been the catalyst for me moving to the United States in search of a better life. But it was so traumatic that I had practically erased it from my brain. And that’s what happens with trauma, right? You just put it in a drawer, you shove it in there and you really don’t want to relive it. And what I realized, when I saw that in the list, I was like, this is the beginning of the book. And reliving that moment, from the way that the Earth smelled on that hike when that happened, and what I was feeling as that man drew a gun, all of that made that chapter really make sense as the beginning of my story.
And that moment, us reading that as well, was so powerful in the sense that you described everything, it felt like we were actually there with you. It’s really incredible how you were able to take that trauma but also make it a learning experience for all of the readers and really take them on that journey with you. And so that was really awesome to read as well, so thank you for sharing that. You shared some really great writing advice, but what other advice do you have for aspiring writers who want to write their own book based on your experience of writing your own book?
People will want to read your story. There’s a huge thirst for diverse voices and young voices. You may think that there isn’t, because what we see in bookshelves isn’t really reflective of that, but there is. So take your story, and fight really hard for it. If you see one door shuts in your face, go somewhere else, there’s a ton of publishers out there. I would advise, if you can, get a book agent and really have somebody that believes in you as much as you believe in the book and in the story. Have a book proposal, all of that helps. And also, have everything else be aligned with the coming out of your book. You have to see it as a realization. And you girls do such an amazing job at this, which is that all of your social media is aligned with the book and the message.
A publisher is going to look at you as a brand, so there’s people that I speak to that say, “Obviously Mariana you’re a journalist, you’re a public figure, you’re a brand.” You girls are a brand, too. But I always tell them “No, it’s not just me because I’m a public figure. Today, everybody is a brand and you have to see yourself as a personal brand.” So whenever someone’s going to publish you, and you send them an amazing book proposal, they’re going to look at your instagram account, and they’re going to look at your TikTok account. So have all of that, if your message is about authenticity, or if your book is about dogs or about whatever it is that makes you light up, have everything be aligned with that because they’re going to buy you as the whole package.
“Look within yourself, especially at things that society and employers and your peers have told you are negatives, and instead of eliminating them, try to see how you can flip the script, and turn them into things that would make you stand out.”
That’s a really good point to make. And a lot of people don’t realize that especially when they think about if they have a private account or whatever, but you could be tagged in things. Growing up, our teachers and everyone told us to make sure that you’re careful about what you share on social media because when you put something out in the world, it’s there for the world to see and so that’s also important to consider. In the book you talk about being true to yourself and finding your voice as you navigate your career. What advice do you have for other immigrants and people in general struggling to be their true selves in their work?
I think you have to really look at all of the unique traits you bring to the table, even those that society and other people have told you are negatives. In my case, I was laid off from my first job in journalism and my first ever job in America. So I thought that I was going to die and I have to go back to Venezuela and I was a failure, like this can’t be happening. And I really had to sit down, and I’m a really big fan of lists as you can tell, but I had to write “what makes me who I am?” I always had to start from scratch. And what are these things that employers are telling me are negatives? And these are things like my accent, or my name, or my long hair which you didn’t really see on television, or the way I dressed, or the community that I represented or the fact that I didn’t have a Visa, like I came here without a Green Card also.
And I looked at that list and I thought, these are things that I can’t change. I can’t really change the fact that I don’t have a Visa. I can’t change my name. So how can I turn these things around and make them competitive advantages? And I started looking for opportunities in places where those things were a sought-after skill set. So my first-ever job was at a newspaper where knowing Spanish really well was something that really put me at a different level than everybody else. I said to myself “Okay, if I’m an immigrant and I can’t really change that, how can I cover immigration with my unique viewpoint and one that nobody else has?” I just literally became an American on Valentine’s Day. I will be voting for the first time, and that’s also something that I’m asking myself, “How can I showcase that unique experience of being a first-time voter, on television in these platforms where nobody else is going to have that?”
So the message for you all is to look within yourself, especially at things that society and employers and your peers have told you are negatives, and instead of eliminating them, try to see how you can flip the script, and turn them into things that would make you stand out.
Yes, that’s so important. And being able to share your voice is really incredible not only for yourself but we think that, that’s something that everyone needs to be doing and you show that so incredibly in all of your social media and all the things that you do, but also in the new production company “Go Like,” that you launched. Can you tell us a little bit more about this venture, what inspired it, and what it’s all about?
I’ve been on national television now for ten years between Spanish and English, and there was always this whisper in my ear, and this rumbling of, “there’s more that you could be doing.” I wasn’t fulfilled, and as much as it was the kind of job where people would be like, “Are you crazy? Nobody leaves NBC,” or “People are here for 20 years of their life!” I just kept asking myself, and thinking that there’s more that I can do. And sometimes you will be kind of scared of those whispers and you will be like, “Shhh, I don’t want to listen to you today.” But, trust your gut because ultimately that’s your instinct and that’s your sense of purpose.
And the more I listen to that whisper, the more I realized that I really believed in telling positive stories about my community in a way that would make a difference in the mainstream. I think that’s something that not everybody can do. And I really believe in that. Traditional media, as much as there was so much growth for me there in these networks, and they allowed me to have so many of the experiences that I have nowadays, it was just that you can’t tell your own story in your own terms. It just won’t happen at a national news network. And so I said I’m going to venture out and do it on my own.
And what I loved was that I actually found the perfect partner to do this with. Because I always say if you’re going to jump off a cliff, if you do it holding somebody else’s hand, it’s not that scary. And the person holding my hand was my mentor, and then she became my business partner. And over time we were both thinking that we so believe in this that we both want to dedicate our time to doing this full time. And it has been an amazing ride, with Perfectly You the book, it was our first product and it was a big success so everything else that comes, TV or speaking wise, I know will be a big success as well.
“For those of you who want to be journalists, storytellers, authors, tell stories through social media, or just communicate, do it! We need you. We need you more than ever, and if you have any questions I’m always here for you. The world needs your voice now more than ever.”
That’s amazing! And you also have incredibly positive and influential presence on social media, which we have kind of touched on before too, but can you tell us about how you use social media to connect with your audience and your viral hashtag #GoLikeMariana. And what inspired you to use social media in this way, because a lot of people (and you touch on this in your book as well), you could be sharing about putting on makeup, but you have a different story and a different take on all of this so can you tell us a little bit about that?
I think when you’re growing your social media and curating it, it has to be really authentic to you. I write about it in the book. It makes no sense to become a real big hit doing cooking videos if cooking isn’t something that you’re really into. And that’s literally my example. I can’t cook to save my life so if a video of mine went viral cooking and I had to do it every day I would be like, “No! This is not sustainable!”
I really believe in inspiration, and I really believe in positive messages. I believe obviously in journalism that is reflective of our voices and our communities and I really strive to create a community on social media that has those values. Where people that are there, if you see the comments and all that, it’s all positive, it’s all growth. I think that people have to see you and know that you are real close to them, there has to be an intimacy there, and I really believe in changing the world through positivity so that’s also something you’ll find on my accounts.
Awesome! And you also feature some amazing individuals through interviews on your platform and also share about several social causes. Why is that important to you and why is it important for you to be sharing about these kinds of things and amplifying the voices of others?
It’s critical to what I do as a journalist. It’s lending your platform to other people. It is also joining voices of people who are beacons, like Joy Reid, and I had Amara La Negra on yesterday, and actually today I’m announcing the next guest for Friday. They’re all black women. Why? Because this week, we need to hear from them. And we need to hear how their struggle intersects with the LatinX community in my case for example.
So being able to share your platform and make it a service for other people to have important discussions that you wouldn’t really see on national news, that’s exactly my dream. It’s what I left NBC to do. To have these kinds of conversations that a national network might not say, like “Oh yes, let’s have a conversation between a LatinX immigrant and a black woman about solidarity between the black and brown community, and what both of them could be doing at this time.” That just won’t happen on national television right now. I think the time has passed to wait until more traditional outlets cover these stories and put them on the air. We have to put them on the air ourselves, and then one day, not very far away, they’ll say “Look at this! Did you look at the interest? Did you look at the comments? Why aren’t we covering this?”
Exactly. And social media is a really great tool to do that as well. Sharing the stories that aren’t on national television like you mentioned. And perhaps social media is even more influential now among youth because kids don’t watch television as much and so social media is a really great place to be doing all of this which is really awesome. This brings us to the end of our interview! Is there anything else that you would like to add or another message that you would like to send to our readers and listeners?
I’d love to just say that for those of you who want to be journalists, storytellers, authors, tell stories through social media, or just communicate, do it! We need you. We need you more than ever, and if you have any questions I’m always here for you. The world needs your voice now more than ever.