I listened to Felina Rodríguez’s stories about what it was like to grow up speaking Spanish in Arizona schools. Her memories stretched back to first grade in a Tucson elementary school. I took notes as she spoke, but it was her eyes, dark and soft, suddenly flashing like two sharp swords, that told me how Felina felt all those years ago.
How she still feels about the little girl who sat in classrooms with teachers who shamed her for speaking Spanish, with no educators who looked like her or spoke her native language.
It was then that I understood why she decided to become a teacher.
I understand Felina because I have felt that same feeling of isolation and hostility when I speak Spanish in Arizona.
To be honest, I still feel it and have come to think of it as a permanent tattoo, reminding you that speaking your mother tongue in this country is a challenge.
I remember it was a cold December afternoon, and I had never felt so uncomfortable for arriving dressed so extravagantly. I was going to a party after the interview. Felina in contrast with her simplicity and style. Jeans, silver hoops dangling over her zebra-print scarf and chunky black boots.
I thought to myself how young Felina was, looking like a student still herself, only to later end up recognizing that age has nothing to do with maturity, much less with dreams.
She told me about her ambitions as a child to one day be president of the United States so she could change laws that discriminated against immigrants and Latinos. After listening to her for more than an hour, I said to myself, “OK, this girl can be whatever she wants in life!”
Felina decided to be a teacher and an activist to help children not feel alone and intimidated in the classroom.
To remind children that Spanish is a source of pride and not shame. To tell them they can become president of the United States.
Editor’s note: This reporter’s notebook is a window into journalism for and with our communities tied to a series funded by the Solutions Journalism Network. Arizona Luminaria was selected as one of the national newsrooms to participate in SJN’s Labor Reporting Cohort. As part of that work, Luminaria reporter Beatriz Limón writes about the SJN fellowship project she led for our newsroom, developing workshops to teach other journalists in Arizona to write solutions journalism stories in Spanish for bilingual and Spanish-speaking communities.
Standing at the Burton Barr Library in Phoenix, greeting her students and adjusting her black leather jacket, Felina made it clear that powerful Spanish-speaking voices are needed to expose the inequities in Arizona’s education system.
Born in Tucson, she recognized that being a Mexican teacher, a bilingual teacher and the daughter of immigrants influences how she sees education in Arizona.
Felina was the first person I interviewed when I embarked on this journey of solutions journalism. I couldn’t have been luckier.
Her voice, sometimes provocative and always determined, opened up a picture of the enormous inequities Latino students and their families face in Arizona as teachers of color row against the current to support them.
Felina knew what she needed and was denied as a bilingual student. She became a teacher so she could help find solutions and guide students on their path to success.
Our state is still learning from the historic teachers’ strike of 2018. Today, our communities face a pervasive teacher retention and shortage crisis, and an overwhelming lack of teachers who reflect the diversity of the students who need them.
This is happening when Latinos are expected to represent more than 50% of the student population in Arizona by 2026.
I knew there was a deeper story here. Not just about the numbers and statistics.
I knew it when I saw Felina’s eyes light up as she told me: “I’m not going to stop, even if I have to teach under a tree.”
I knew it when I saw the challenges Latino teachers faced as their Latino students were being denied educational opportunities that pave the way for college and a professional career.
I knew this because I am a Spanish-speaker and had to learn a new language as an adult immigrant in Arizona. I understand that struggle. I have lived it.
And I was prepared to investigate the barriers and solutions for bilingual education and teacher retention in Arizona because the newsroom I work for was part of the Solutions Journalism Labor Cohort.
I am one of the many Latina and immigrant journalists who have fought for opportunities in this country. With solutions journalism, listening to Felina and other Latina teachers who speak my native tongue, I felt a space open up.
I remember quietly walking to the kitchen after a long day of researching and writing, and suddenly I saw Beatriz, the Mexican immigrant, with her Spanish language and her Spanish journalism as a banner.
I was learning to analyze long lists of statistics that seemed insurmountable but that I knew were critical to sharing the stories of Felina and the many Latina and Latino teachers and students like her in Arizona.
‘Let’s do it!’
I studied the painful history of systemic racism that continues to be prevalent in many Arizona school districts.
I wrote about the inequalities and marginalization that immigrant and Spanish-speaking students have endured generationally in K-12 schools in Arizona.
In many ways, my journalism project and fellowship started from scratch.
When my Arizona Luminaria editor asked me about writing solutions journalism and if I wanted to take on a Solutions Journalism Network fellowship, I didn’t hesitate to say, “Let’s do it!”
I wanted to learn even without knowing the depth of the waters I would have to dive into while investigating solutions with a rigorous methodology that pushes you to the limit at every moment.
To be honest, solutions journalism never swims on the surface.
You have to dive deep.
You have to dig until you understand complex problems and scrutinize solutions to ensure they work for the people who need them.
I soon realized starting from scratch is not so bad, rather it places you in a clear reality, to reach a fixed objective.
So I set myself on an ambitious goal of learning how to accurately and thoroughly write solutions journalism stories.
But I was not alone on this path. I was guided by editors from my newsroom and SJN advisors, like Carolina Gil Posse, a wonderful Argentine journalist who became my voice when I needed to be heard. A sweet and patient voice, like the waters of a river.
Even so, it was not easy. At that time, my life had just split in two. I divided my time between a new form of journalism for my Spanish-speaking communities and finding a new house to live in, to start over on my own, again.
I focused on writing in-depth solutions stories to finish my scholarship, developing my workshops and showing that Latinos deserve to be heard with a powerful voice, fighting for solutions.
And suddenly, I wasn’t starting from scratch anymore, the reporting lessons I was learning, one by one, were adding up, tipping the scale on my solutions journalism journey.
The mounting challenges
My interest in writing solutions journalism began as a small snowball rolling down a mountain until it gathered force and size.
Maybe this change came because, through the solutions journalism method, I saw the way to offer an answer to my communities.
Maybe my hunger to learn something new in my beloved journalism career made me try harder to understand the importance of the four solutions journalism pillars:
- Focus on a response to a social problem and how it is or isn’t working.
- Offer insight that makes the lessons relevant and accessible to communities.
- Show readers the evidence, outlining the data and scientific research, or lack thereof, to back up your reporting.
- Be transparent about the limitations or shortcomings of any solution seeking to address complex issues.
The numbers tipping the scale on my solutions journey kept adding up. The efforts were paying off. And I remembered what my father always tells me: “be patient because knowledge is always stingy.”
Quicker than I expected, I found myself writing a second solutions journalism story, taking another dive into reporting about education, immigrants and people working for change.
I wrote about All In Education’s Parent Academy, a program that prepares Latino and Spanish-speaking families to navigate policies and practices in school districts and guides them to become leaders and advocates for their children’s rights and education.
Parents do not need to speak English. Their Spanish is enough.
They train them to have the skills that will allow them to make their way in an educational system that can feel insurmountable for Spanish-speaking immigrants in Arizona.
With the experience gained from writing my first solutions journalism report, the second project was easier in terms of structure and navigating the methodology.
That was how the small snowball was growing in the mountains of my imagination and curiosity for journalism for my communities.
Knowledge is stingy, papá. It is also worth the wait.
Sharing what I’m learning
You know you’re doing something right when people look you in the eye and nod.
While teaching solutions journalism workshops at universities in Arizona, I was able to see something powerful in the eyes of bilingual students, just like what I saw in Felina’s eyes.
When one is young, ideals are high and sometimes utopian, but the future can seem far and dreams can feel out of reach.
Journalists with experience, like me, are here to remind them that they can achieve it. They can write with dignity for their communities. They can question, seek truth and give back.
How can they do it?
With knowledge, persistence and solutions journalism.
I recognize this will not solve systemic inequalities that often are driven by racism and discrimination, but there is always a path that can shed a light.
My fellowship focused on giving workshops to bilingual students and journalists, teaching them how to write solutions journalism in Spanish.
But before taking on this responsibility, I had to learn to write these stories myself. That is how I developed these two education projects about Latino communities, which gave me the skills and confidence to share the knowledge I had gained with other colleagues and students.
You can read both these stories on Luminaria’s website. You can also find them as a model for others to learn in the Solutions Story Tracker, with more than 15,100 stories by 8,600 journalists and 1,900 news outlets stretching across 190 countries.
During my experience leading the workshop at the University of Arizona, I had the generous support of the director of the school of journalism, Jessica Retis; veteran bilingual journalist Liliana López Ruelas and one of my editors and a co-founder of Arizona Luminaria Irene McKisson.
Julio Cisneros, professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and Dianna Náñez, my executive editor and another co-founder of Luminaria, both journalists with many years of experience in the field, supported me in my second workshop at Arizona State University.
During the development of the training I came across two different scenarios, but they converge in a single path: the interest in learning this new method of journalism and using it to elevate the voices of underrepresented and underserved communities.
The first workshop in April showed students eager for knowledge and receptive to learning, but above all, interested in serving their bilingual and Spanish-speaking communities through their reports.
The second workshop later that same month, made up of students and experienced journalist colleagues, informed the dialogue with more questions about how to find story ideas and how to investigate solutions. They were equally interested in the training, showing a broad curiosity to bring this type of journalism to their newsrooms to better serve our communities.
With everyone who sat with me to learn and question, I felt a shared sense of identity and excitement for writing news stories in Spanish.
Although the majority of students and journalists who attended are bilingual, they understood that within many families and borderland environments in Arizona, Spanish is the only language spoken.
This is how writing in Spanish becomes a solution to the lack of quality information that Spanish-speaking communities deserve. This effort to share evidence-based solution journalism can translate into equity in news models that better inform decisions about critical issues in Latino and immigrant communities.
What I discovered, personally, revealed how our news industry has long focused on problems, blurring the realities of so many people in our communities working toward shared solutions.
Many who attended the workshops, initially mistook solutions journalism for activism.
How far has journalism, and have some journalists, drifted from our communities that we see evidence-based solutions as activism?
In truth, solutions journalism is a dedicated and painstaking process that involves research, data checking and rigorous analysis. My editor, Dianna, a long time investigative journalist shared this with the class at ASU: If you want to learn how to be an investigative journalist who centers our communities and writes stories that hold power to account, learn how to write solutions journalism.
Growing my own voice to share stories of my communities
A key moment that helped me understand the growing search for journalism that better serves our Spanish-speaking communities happened at ASU. Rosanna Feyerabend, the founder of a local journalism project in her own northern Arizona community, got in her car and drove for more than two hours to be part of the training.
If there is a willingness to travel from one city to another to learn, there should be more willingness on the part of organizations to invest in training bilingual and Spanish-speaking journalists in programs and fellowships as relevant as those of the Solutions Journalism Network.
This is just one powerful example.
Do you want another?
One morning before I was to give my second workshop at ASU, I received a call from Victor Ceniceros, a journalism professor at the Universidad Xochicalco in Baja California.
He told me that he was interested in traveling from Mexicali to Phoenix, which is a four-hour drive, plus time spent waiting at the international border crossing, with more than 15 students to attend my April workshop.
I told him to wait. I’d decided it was time to share the knowledge I’ve learned with people from my hometown.
In mid-September, I will return to México to host a solutions journalism workshop in Mexicali, where Victor and his Spanish-speaking students can join without risking the long drive to Phoenix.
For me, for Victor and for many others like us whose native language is Spanish, the will to learn how to investigate solutions for our communities is important enough to invest time, travel hours and cross borders.
And since we are talking about borders, language and the journalism career I’ve spent nearly three decades studying, I want to make clear that we are setting a precedent by taking this solutions journalism training from the United States to the Autonomous University of Baja California (UABC), my alma mater, to host binational workshops.
It was clear from everyone who attended the first two workshops that our communities demand more than just traditional Spanish-language news, which often focuses on entertainment, crime and crises.
Latino students and reporters are eager to learn, and regardless of the time they have to spend starting from scratch, driving across cities or the borders they have to cross, they show up.
I’ve learned to investigate problems and better understand the people and communities looking for and creating solutions. A space has opened up for me and our communities at Arizona Luminaria and with solutions journalism.
In a state with English-only laws, I sometimes used to think that my own voice and my own journalism in impeccable Spanish was diminished by my imperfect English. I was wrong.
I am now settled in my new home with my two chihuahua puppies, surrounded by caring colleagues and friends. I am using my voice and my language to share a better way of doing journalism that empowers people. Remember, sometimes it’s not so bad to start from scratch.
It’s time for journalists to recognize that Spanish-speaking readers want community-focused stories with more context and evidence that show where solutions are working and why or why not.
It is time to write and more widely publish solutions journalism in Spanish.
Spanish-speakers have a powerful voice, as powerful as Felina’s as a child in Arizona schools. As powerful as the teacher and leader Felina is today, in those same school systems.
It is time to listen.
Editor: Dianna M. Náñez Copy Editor: Becky Pallack Visuals: Noelle Haro-Gomez, Beatriz Limón Translation: Beatriz Limón, Dianna M. Náñez