By Christine Nieves | Overhead lights cut through the black and blue background of the studio, their heat offering a welcome respite from the air-conditioned chill. The black wooden table where my hands rested was the only barrier between me and the cameras. “You’re on in five,” Matt said as he clipped a microphone on my collar. I nodded, probably too fast, and attempted a joke about being born ready. Behind Matt’s encouraging smile I imagined his wonder at my capacity to deliver. After all, he was a veteran, and I a rookie. He disappeared behind the door to the monitoring room. “Quiet on the set,” I heard him call through the speakers. “We’re going in… three, two, one!” And just like that, in an instant, I became the new face of En Portada, Telemundo’s public affairs show in Philadelphia.
Trust me, I still find it hard to believe that viewers give me the privilege of entering their households every week. I’m just like any other Penn senior, trying to write my thesis to graduate on time. Occasionally I run into viewers and am reminded of the responsibility I have as a television host. Those fortuitous encounters motivate me to continue (barely) balancing my days between classes, midterms, teleprompters, and more makeup than I care to admit. It’s all worth it. Every minute on air is my opportunity to make a difference.
The journey began when I was in high school in Puerto Rico, trying to apply to universities in the United States. I was surrounded by eternal pessimists who viewed careers in television as hopeless and superficial. I disagreed. I saw television as a powerful, direct, and effective way to shape society for the better. But among my family and peers, my dreams of working on-camera were just that: dreams.
Yet, before I knew it, television came knocking on my door. Not long after arriving at Penn, I was invited as a guest on the local ABC affiliate’s Puerto Rican Panorama, one of the longest-running shows of its type, hosted by Diego Castellanos. I will never forget that day. I stepped in hoping to inspire young people to apply for scholarships. I walked out with a mentor. Determined to carve a path for myself, I absorbed every anecdote, every lesson Diego had to share about his television career. He encouraged me to focus on school; television could wait, he said. So I explored an eccentric range of experiences: interning for Fannie Mae, working for Pfizer, volunteering for Puentes de Salud, a Philadelphia non-profit clinic.
The constructive wait didn’t dent my vision for the positive power of television. But something else threatened to: television itself. Dismayed by the mindless pablum of low-quality programming and the cupidity for ratings, I had been tuning out. Yes, it’s a business, I knew. But that didn’t make ignoring all-too-real stories about the plight of undocumented workers, and human-rights violations right in our backyard, any less shameful. I had to do something. So I walked into the office of Annenberg Dean Michael Delli Carpini with a proposal and two contacts I hoped would help me pull it off. Part of Annenberg’s mission is to strengthen communities through better communication. I believed that connecting the school to Juntos, a community organization in South Philadelphia, and La Casa Latina, the student cultural center, would help accomplish just that.
The result restored my faith in the social possibilities of media. A conference titled Community, Media and Immigrants: When communication is in our own hands brought practitioners and activists from around the nation to Annenberg. They shared tales of the resourceful and ingenious ways other people had tried to overcome the indifference of commercial media outlets to stories and problems like these. In the absence of mainstream coverage, practitioners used everything from the Internet to community radio to mobile-phone texting. At the end of the day I was torn. I was encouraged by the creativity of some of these non-commercial media initiatives, which were free from the race for advertising dollars. But I wanted to reach a larger audience. It seemed to be a choice between black and white—and maybe the pessimists back home were right. That’s when I came across Spanish-language television: a middle ground whose potential gray tones I hadn’t fully appreciated.
I met with Clara Rivas, Telemundo’s general manager, at Center City’s La Colombe. Diego Castellanos had given her my name as a candidate for on-air talent. It was a chilly February afternoon, but the scent of Colombian coffee surrounded me in a blanket of ease. Clara believed Telemundo would be a promising platform from which to reach my aspirations. Yet I did not take her words to mean that, in a matter of weeks, I would be making my first TV show appearance.
There has been nothing conventional about my experience working in television. One day I’d be crafting a show about domestic violence for En Portada. Another, I’d find myself emceeing the Hispanic Fiesta at Penn’s Landing, one of the largest Latino festivals in Philadelphia, attended by thousands. No biggie. One evening I attended the Hispanic Choice Awards, black dress and red carpet. The next day I interviewed Albert Pújols for the Spanish Beísbol Network. In a sink-or-swim situation, I dove in with equal enthusiasm whether reporting in English or Spanish, on entertainment or education. I conquered my fear of improvising on issues I had no previous knowledge of—ahem, baseball—and overcame the discomfort of mixing mainstream stories with ones closer to my idealistic vision.
As graduation approaches, and decisions about the future distract me from writing that human-rights paper or getting that criminology homework done, I have been told to keep an open mind. In an ideal world I would walk out of Penn, diploma in hand, and begin hosting a prime-time talk show. Or two—one for each language. And there would be spare time to pilot the educational TV show for girls I developed two years ago as part of a Children and Media class. And to start a blog about food and cooking. And publish a book about the adventures of an average girl from Puerto Rico who hosts a radio show in London.
The reality, of course, is that my future is far from certain. But one thing is clear: whatever the path, spotlight or not, I will continue to look for opportunities where I can bring tangible change.
Christine Nieves is a senior majoring in communication and public service. She is the new anchor for FactCheck.org’s “Just the Facts” online videos, and a presenter for Telemundo’s En Portada, a public affairs show.