After the Hurricane
What’s up with the reporter who took down Jayson Blair?
By Gigi Anders
Gigi Anders is a freelance writer and the author of the upcoming memoir "JUBANA! Confessions of a Jewish Cubana Goddess."
"I'm just a brown girl down here in the valley, trying to figure things out and make sense of them," Macarena Hernández says. It's mid-afternoon on a sweltering summer day in Edinburg, Texas, and the Rio Grande Valley brown girl and unsweetened iced-tea addict who inadvertently became a journalistic mega-catalyst is talking from her cell phone. "Hold on a second," Hernández says, pulling up to Whataburger, a fast-food drive-thru Texas staple. "Yeah, I'll have the unsweet tea. Extra-large. And extra, extra ice. Thanks. Sorry. I go out at least once a day for unsweet tea. I looove it. I won't make it at home 'cause if I did I'd just drink the whole thing in one sitting. This way I have to take it one gulp at a time."
Taking it one gulp at a time is how the San Antonio Express-News special- projects reporter has always approached her vida loca — and it has been loca, particularly since April of last year, when Hurricane Jayson blew through. The erstwhile and disgraced New York Times reporter Jayson Blair garnered most of the media attention. First for his serial plagiarism, fabrications and lies, which brought down the Times' leadership, and later for his nonstop book-hawking blitz.
Though Blair was an equal-opportunity thief, stealing from everyone, it was ultimately the theft of one of Hernández's articles that sealed his doom. "He stole my story and my voice," says Hernández, 29. "It pissed me off. I was like, 'You know what? You can't do that.' "
A brief recap: The story Blair stole had originally run in the Express-News on Friday, April 18, 2003. It was about Juanita Anguiano, a Los Fresnos single mother whose firstborn and only son, Edward, was the last American soldier MIA in Iraq. Hernández spent hours with the anguished and vulnerable woman, who sadly showed the reporter the final gifts her son had given her. A tennis bracelet. A set of Martha Stewart patio furniture. A ceiling fan.
Eight days later, early on Saturday, April 26, Hernández read online a New York Times story by Blair about Anguiano in which he described her pride in her "Martha Stewart furniture out on the patio." When Hernández had been there, the furniture, like the bracelet, was still in its original box. A mother with a missing son halfway across the world having the energy and interest to assemble patio furniture by herself? And be proud of it?
Hernández didn't think so, and told her editors so. (See "All About the Retrospect," June/July 2003.) The next day, Sunday, Edward Anguiano's family was notified that his body had been recovered. Monday, the family wasn't speaking to the media, who by then were swarming the house's front yard. Among the reporters there were Hernández and the Washington Post's Manuel Roig-Franzia. The two struck up a conversation.
"We talked and I told him what Jayson had done," Hernández says. "I'd torn his story apart, diagramming the similarities. There was no doubt about it. It was my story. The plagiarism was extremely obvious, stealing lines and phrases that I had written verbatim... Manuel contacted the Post and four hours later [Washington Post media writer] Howard Kurtz was calling my cell."
Hernández then called her old New York Times mentor Sheila Rule, who had hired both her and Blair five years earlier as interns. "I told her, 'I don't know how big of a deal this is going to be, but I want to give you a heads-up. Jayson Blair stole big chunks of one of my stories and Howard Kurtz is already on it.' "
Later that afternoon, Blair called Hernández, supposedly to double-check a quote the mother had given him in Spanish that had been translated into English by the daughter. He asked for a copy of Hernández's original story, which he claimed never to have seen.
"At that moment I knew he had never been there," Hernández says. "Because the mother spoke English. I thought, 'Oh my God, this is bad.' "
The denouement, like the build-up, was fast and fierce, disturbing and then dominating Hernández's life. Yet in the wake of that surreal locura, craziness, Hernández was the all-but-forgotten party. Sure, she went on TV and talked to Katie Couric and CNN and a few print reporters. Hollywood even called for her life story — Hernández didn't bite. Those conversations and interviews were all superficial, Hernández says, and mostly got her wrong.
"I felt like I was placed in this box. I became this walking sound bite. And people don't really know me, you know?"
Express-News Editor Robert Rivard, who does know Hernández very well, says, "For all the publicity Jayson Blair's received, the other story, Macarena's story, is a far more interesting and enduring one. Unfortunately, almost everyone has missed it. She's a natural-born reporter on the one hand and someone whose writing talents remind me of a young Sandra Cisneros on the other hand, a writer of uncommon grace and style — especially for her age. So I believe in the longer run people who didn't hear about Macarena the first time will hear about her later."
Drama does seem to forever follow the petite but potent Mexican American journalist, who was born in the Rio Grande Valley and who covers that stretch of Texas-Mexico border today. As the second youngest of nine children spanning 15 years from oldest to youngest — including one who died at birth and would have been number seven — of Mexican-born migrant workers, for Hernández, El Affair de Blair was not quite how she'd dreamed of making her mark. Growing up in La Joya, in south Texas' Hidalgo County, Hernández never considered a journalism career. As she and her siblings accompanied their devoutly Baptist mother, Elva, and father, Gumaro, following harvest cycles from March to October — parsley in Colorado, grapes and raisins in California, cotton in west Texas — Hernández dreamed of a college education and a writing life, something no one else in her family had aspired to. Partly, it was practical. Hernández's forte was never picking veggies.
"I was the worst farm worker ever!" she says. "I hated it and begged my dad to let me off and let me sleep under the cotton plants. Sometimes he'd let me. I always thought, 'One day I'll come back to California and not work in the fields.' "
In school, the gifted and talented student, whose parents didn't speak English and never had more than a fifth- grade education, worked hard, got good grades and had a lot of "cheerleaders" encouraging her to excel. Throughout her life, Hernández would always have support from all kinds of mentors — including Anglo men — who invested and believed in her.
"I was competing in all these statewide poetry competitions and plays and debates," Hernández says. "Back then, all my father wanted for me was a job in an air-conditioned building. He would drive me to these tournaments at 5 in the morning. And when you grow up with parents who aren't part of that world, you think they don't understand. But they do, in their own way. I was the freakin' manager of the basketball teams, junior class president, senior class president, Miss La Joya High School and homecoming queen. I really believed school was my ticket out — plus I hated coming home and washing dishes!"
Indeed, the more Elva tried to train Macarena to be a mujercita, a good little woman, the more Macarena resisted. It was the reporter in her, Hernández now sees, longing to learn more about people's lives and the world beyond the traditional role of the quiet, obedient Latina wife and mother. And yet, it was Elva's unshakeable faith and spirituality that Macarena says has sustained her throughout her own life. "Faith is a beautiful gift my mother gave me," says Hernández, who spent summers at vacation bible school taught by visiting white missionaries. "I think life is an act of faith. I'm always calling my mom before a big interview or if I can't find the right words: 'Amá, can you pray for me? For my clarity?' When things don't make sense, I just need words, good words to understand and tell the story."
Against Gumaro's wishes — "He was like, 'tan lejos, mejor quedate aquí' " ("so far away, better you should stay here") — Hernández attended Baylor University in Waco in 1992. (Elva relented because it was a Baptist school.) When a college mentor suggested Hernández write for the school paper, the Lariat, Hernández added journalism to her English major.
Upon graduation in 1996, she went to the University of California at Berkeley, four hours north of where she and her family used to pick grapes, for her master's in journalism with an emphasis in documentary filmmaking. Before and during grad school, Hernández got her feet wet with summer internships at newspapers: the Monitor in McAllen, Texas, in 1996 and the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1997.
Tanya Barrientos, a Guatemalan American columnist and features writer at the Inquirer, took Hernández under her wing that summer. "There are so few Latinos at this paper that when I saw a new brown face in the cafeteria, I walked right over to bond," Barrientos says. "I sort of became Maca's personal mentor, and we got to be very good friends. I would help her with her stories and we'd talk about screwed-up boyfriends and things like that. She was this amazing, exceptional young woman with the drive to improve as a writer. She'd be there on weekends and evenings, working on stories she wasn't even assigned to. Here's this metro general assignment intern covering the Latino community in a way that wasn't typical for our paper."
Until she met Barrientos, who made her feel at home, Hernández felt like a stray dog in the newsroom. "Tanya understood, she totally got me," Hernández says. "She took me in and was like my big sister... In newsrooms you have to do that and create your own support network. It's so important to have people who believe in you as a person, not just what you 'represent.' "
Barrientos, who calls herself "this little upper-middle-class suburban assimilated gringa Latina," recalls going out to eat with Hernández one night after work, and, "she starts driving into the freakin' 'hood! I'm like, 'Where are we going?' Maca goes, 'Don't worry, it's fabulous. Best Puerto Rican pork stew on the planet!' I thought we were gonna be shot on the curb by the restaurant!"
So was the pork stew worth the risk of getting shot? "It was the best," Barrientos says, laughing, "but I didn't think we'd live. But that's Maca's forte. She really sees herself as of the people because of her background, and she knows how to behave and get the real story of people who are invisible."
By the summer of 1998, Hernández was anything but invisible professionally, and she went to intern at the New York Times. That gig would be a turning point in her career and personal life; Jayson Blair was a fellow intern in the minority program. He and Hernández weren't close, but occasionally they rode the subway to work together from their student dorm at New York University or had drinks after work.
"The New York Times was a hard transition," admits Hernández, who worked on the education desk and had by then covered everything from weather to murders. "As a 23-year-old girl from the border coming to New York City, it was overwhelming and less friendly than Philadelphia. I wanted to find my own voice and a way of telling stories that was more natural to me, not fit a standard. I mean, I really dug the Times, but I needed to find my own voice. I was too intimidated to find it there because I didn't feel any ownership in that newsroom."
Whom Hernández found wonderful there was Senior Editor Nancy Sharkey. She was Hernández's mentor and calls her adjectives any journalist would happily surrender their cell phone for: magnificent, vital, passionate. "Macarena was fantastic from the beginning," Sharkey says. "She's the real deal and the easiest mentee I ever had. I knew she was gonna be a star. It was more than her terrific work attitude, it was her enthusiasm for life and writing and narrative storytelling. There are so many threads and embers that go into her spark — curiosity, humor, interest, love. Who Macarena is, is who she loves. And she's always going to be that way."
When her internship was extended, Hernández took a break to finish a Berkeley documentary on Tejano artist and writer José Antonio Burciaga, and to see her family, whom she missed. Before leaving New York, Hernández dreamed her father died, and called him. Gumaro told her, "Ay, m'ija, I'm not going anywhere. But everyone has to die sooner or later." Hernández promised her father her byline would always carry his last name and told him, "You're the one who made me this reporter." A month later and two weeks before Hernández's 24th birthday, Gumaro was killed when his car was struck by an 18-wheeler in Peńitas, just a couple of miles away from La Joya. He was 61.
Hernández had relatives who lived to be past 100, so when her father died she suddenly realized she didn't own her time, that "I'm not eternal." She knew she couldn't return to New York. Elva was alone for the first time in her life, and, as the only unmarried and childless one in the family, Hernández needed the comfort of her big familia to heal. Staying in Texas and teaching remedial high school English to sophomores at La Joya High, Hernández's alma mater, was therapeutic. She counseled her students to pursue their dreams and, after a year, left to pursue her own on the West Coast. Hernández went to work for latino.com, a San Francisco-based Webzine for Hispanics. A year later, the company transferred her to San Antonio — and shut down seven months afterward. Hernández found herself back in Texas, on the unemployment line.
"By that point, I was like, do I really want to go work for a newspaper again? I had done all these different things in the meantime and I didn't want to move. Plus I wanted to stay close to my family."
Enter the Express-News. Going to work there in 2001 was the right decision because it reinforced that what matters is what you write about, not who you write it for. Currently, Hernández is wrapping up a series of articles detailing the death of her family's Mexican birthplace and their lives on this side of the Rio Grande. It's the story of many living along the border.
"My work is one way of keeping my people's stories and memories alive," Hernández says. "As a Latina, the heart of it is, 'What stories am I telling? Do I feel nurtured at work? Can I be myself?' Here, I can. That's how I know I'm successful, because I'm happy. I feel really lucky to be doing the kind of work that matters to me."
And as for "the big-ass storm" that was Jayson Blair, Hernández says she's looking at a rainbow now. But the experience highlighted what's wrong with newspapers: to wit, how they recruit and retain minorities.
"All the rhetoric about diversity is still a lot of bullshit," she says, finishing her huge Whataburger unsweet iced tea. "There's an emphasis on numbers in the newsroom but not what it means for the color of the pages. I got really tired of feeling like I was filling some kind of quota. I shouldn't have to prove anything. It's not about giving us people of color a break. It's about providing all readers with meaningful and comprehensive coverage. Hellooo, it's 2004! We need to move beyond the tamale, Cinco de Mayo and immigrants using Western Union stories. Besides, you know what? My dad would have preferred me becoming a lawyer. A million times over."
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