What influenced you to move from the US to Mexico to work as a freelance journalist?
I fell in love with Mexico when I traveled there as a 20-year-old exchange student. I've lived in Morelia, Oaxaca, and Guadalajara, and Mexico City. The cost of living is lower in Mexico, and I enjoy working bilingually on issues related to human rights.
In your opinion, what are the specific challenges to freelancing, and what should people be prepared for if they decide to be a freelance journalist like yourself?
I grew up poor in rural Arkansas, and it has taken me a long time to figure out the financial part of freelancing. Have a clear financial plan, apply for fellowships, and have money saved before you start. Many publications take 3-6 months to pay writers, so you need to have money saved to maintain some stability. At the moment, I am writing for Longreads Originals and Lenny Letter about migration, but I've experienced every kind of weird failure. I’ve been broke and had no health insurance.
Do you often find that there are more women than men in the freelancing profession?
I think women often freelance because they're forced to or because it's more flexible for childcare or for caring for the elderly. I have a lot of female friends that freelance because they are primary caregivers.
At a recent Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC) training that I attended, there were 19 men and five women. The other women in the group are successful in their field, but they said, "Even sometimes when we want assignments, an editor will say, 'I don't want to send you there because it's dangerous. I'd rather just send a man."
You centre a lot of your work on Mexico, human rights, and gender equality, and you write a lot about women in Mexico. What do you hope people learn from your writing?
Violence against women is always on the front page – we like to show the body, the physical side of it. I write about the institutional and the political aspects of the violence, and that is what I’m interested in. For example, in Mexico, a mother may go to the police to say, "My daughter's missing," and they respond, "Oh, no, your daughter's not missing. She probably ran off with her boyfriend." This occurs in the US as well.
4 years of experience
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Exclusive Interview by Aisha Babalakin on April 12, 2017.
I think of the Steubenville rape case, or all these cases where as soon as you try and seek justice, as soon as you try and do something, the fact that you're a woman gets in the way of you doing anything. The physical violence is what people focus on, but often there are other types of violence that come much before that: when women are denied help, when they go to the police and no one listens to them, when they're domestically abused but no one will take it seriously because it is considered a personal issue. I feel like women would be more protected if people would take all of those other things seriously first, rather than, "Oh, she died. Oh my god," or, "She was raped." There's a lot of things that come before that that often push a woman into a very precarious place, including economics.
Neither you nor I nor any woman is paid what a man is paid. These things keep pushing us to the edge, and I feel like we need to talk about that and not just, "Oh my gosh, she was raped and that's so terrible."
It’s also interesting to see how a history of domestic abuse relates to terrorism or mass shootings.
Exactly. Trump’s administration is infuriating for me because we have a serial sexual assaulter in the White House, and he has hired members of his Cabinet who have either been convicted of domestic violence, convicted of rape, convicted of sexual assault, or have a restraining order against them. It's unbelievable.
His presidency legitimises not only violence against women and people of colour and marginalised people, but also legitimises this kind of hyper-masculinity that's really just a shroud for fragility.
Yes. This project that I'm doing about migration, as soon as Trump won I thought, “I'm going to write against everything he stands for.” He calls migrants “rapists” and “criminal aliens” and makes lists of their crimes as if we were living in the times of Hitler. I had to do something to speak about against his demonization of migrants.
You have interviewed many people since the inauguration. Do you find people's attitudes towards the US have changed?
In Mexico, I asked some migrants, "Are you more deterred from coming to the US by Trump?" Well, they think he's terrible. They think he's a racist and all these things, but many of them said to me, "America's always been racist. This is just more overt," and they also said, "Truthfully, we're not afraid of Trump. We're afraid of violence on the Mexican side." Because the most dangerous part of the migration journey is really getting past the gangs and cartels that control the border, on the Mexican side.
They said, "Look, if we get caught on the Mexican side, they're going to kill us. If we get caught on the US side, they're going to put us in a detention centre. Maybe we won't have any food, or maybe they'll keep us there for eight months, but they're not going to kill us." It's interesting to me that Trump thinks he's scaring people away. He doesn't know what they face in terms of violence.
I wish the administration would look more closely into the work that you and people like you do about migrant journeys across Central America and on the border, because I think you need to understand people's story before you can start legislating against them.
Do you feel that there is enough diversity in journalism to represent all the challenges that people face?
No. In terms of any by-line count you do, women and people of colour are under-represented.
I am a part of Women Photograph and this year they did a gender count of all the major photo of the year lists. Of the TIME 100 photos of the year, I believe none were taken by women, and of the New York Times, it was something like 20 out of 150. It is important to support and mentor women and people of colour, because journalism needs to be representative of more than just white men.
You can't be what you cannot see. If you don't see any woman, for example, as conflict photographers out there, and you don't see them in the TIME 100, you don't feel as motivated to go out and be that war photographer.
What would you recommend for aspiring young women who want to do the kind of work that you're doing? In terms of mentorship, let's say if we keep it on the western hemisphere, what would you recommend that people do or who they reach out to or what groups they could try and join or who they should follow?
The great thing is that currently there are a lot of supportive groups, at least in the US that I'm a part of. Women, Action, and the Media is a strong group of feminists, writers, editors, activists. I’m also part of the Journalism and Women Symposium and the Binders of Women Writers on Facebook.
The Journalism and Women Symposium offers mentorship that can connect you with an older journalist. Aside from that, I've always been a fan of cold contacting. I try to contact the writers that I love. I was just in New York and there's a writer at the New Yorker who writes about Juárez and about the border, and I contacted him and said, "Hey, if you're free, let's get coffee. I just read your latest article, and I'm working on something similar," and we got coffee. If you have done the work, people will take you seriously.
You are a translator as well. I wanted to ask how you got into that. Did you speak Spanish at home in the US, or did you learn it at University?
I learned it at university. I grew up in rural Arkansas, and I had no access to languages. My education was terrible. The schooling there was abysmal. When I went to college, I became obsessed with Spanish. I was sad that I hadn't had the opportunity to learn a language earlier in life.
I studied Spanish in college and then I did a Masters and Ph.D. All my classes were in Spanish. After that, I translated articles for free for academic friends who needed help. I didn't ever think I was good at it, or even think that I could make money, but eventually I realised that I could make good money translating. It's not just mechanical, it's also literary, and I like that part of it.
Do you prefer writing in English or Spanish?
English is easy. I'm always going to write better in English, but I think I was surprised to the degree that my ability to write translates into Spanish as well.
My final question concerns role models – do you have a role model?
I have several role models, especially from my online writing community. I have a good friend that I met online maybe eight years ago, and I didn't meet her in person until last year, but she's been a mentor to me - Julie Schwietert Collazo.
She's a freelancer, has three children and lives in New York. She translates, she edits, she fact checks–she does whatever she has to do to make it work. I admire that sort of grit. Anyone who wants to learn more about freelancing should take a class with her.
Lauren Bohn and Elmira Bayrasli at Foreign Policy have also been inspiring mentors. I was a fan of their work, and then I applied for the Foreign Policy Interrupted fellowship. Their mentorship has been key to helping me grow as a journalist.