Interviewing Mariana Atencio: Learning How to Be Authentically You
Updated: Oct 4, 2020
Maryam and Nivaal Rehman | Toronto, Canada
Article first published on our Perspectives Column for Women of Influence | July 20th, 2020
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. Continue reading this article for highlights from our interview with her, and listen the whole interview in the latest episode of our Podcast, "The Whole Wide World," by clicking on this link.
Mariana 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