In his lunchtime keynote address at the Men of Color National Summit Friday, John Quiñones described overcoming discrimination and racism along his path from childhood poverty in San Antonio, Texas, to becoming an emmy-winning journalist hosting the television show ‘What Would You Do?’ on ABC.
“Despite all the progress we’ve made in this country – and we’ve made a lot of progress – there’s still a lot of work to be done,” he said, describing how time and time again he has been judged by the color of his skin and the accent of his voice.
“These are divisive times in this country,” Quiñones said. “It’s made all the worse when politicians take the national stage and they start making fun of people – bullying, ridiculing the physically disabled, Mexican immigrants, women. It kind of opens the door for other people to spew that same kind of ugliness.”
The way to fight that, he said, is through education and through initiatives “like this magnificent Men of Color National Summit. Thank you, Clemson University and all the sponsors.”
He said the achievement gap remains significant, with just nine percent of black and hispanic young adults having a bachelor’s degree compared to 69 percent for young white Americans. “There’s something terribly wrong with this country when black and Latino males make up 15 percent of the population of this country and yet they comprise 80 percent of the prison population,” he said.
“We’ve got to fix that. There’s something wrong there. It’s not only urgent but mandatory that we as Americans do everything we can to close that achievement gap for black and Hispanic males from cradle to career,” he said.
Quiñones said he had “the license to sound the alarm” because of his background born to poverty in San Antonio. “You know how some people say we were poor, but we didn’t know it. Well, we knew it.” he said.
He said his dad dropped out of school in third grade to pick cotton, and his mother dropped out in eighth grade to clean houses in the rich section of town. Quiñones shined shoes for 10 cents a pair until he and his cousin were beaten and robbed of their profits and shoe-shining gear.
He said he spoke no English when he entered first grade and was punished for speaking Spanish in class.
When Quiñones was 13, his father was laid off as the janitor at his high school and the family became migrant farm workers, traveling to pick cherries for 75 cents a bucket in northern Michigan, then tomatoes for 35 cents a bushel outside Toledo, Ohio. “We learned the value of a family coming together in times of difficulty and pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and making life a little better,” he said.
But he knew he didn’t want to spend his life on his knees on the cold ground amidst rows of tomato plants.
Quiñones dreamt of being a broadcast journalist, but when he asked teachers in junior high how to prepare they steered him toward woodshop, or metal shop or auto mechanics. Once again, he said, he was being judged by the color of his skin and the accent in his voice.
“In times of adversity, you’ve got to have faith,” he said. “And faith is taking that first step. It doesn’t matter if you don’t see that entire staircase. Just take that first step. And tomorrow will be another step. And the next day, another step.”
Quiñones focused on learning English, ridding himself of his Mexican accent and coming out of his shell. He tried out for drama and was urged by his English teacher to work on the school newspaper. “For the first time in my life, someone in my life said I could do it,” he said.
In high school, he was chosen to participate in the federal Upward Bound program, offering him extra courses during the school year and six weeks taking college-level courses during the summer.
“I would not be here today in front of you had it not been for that program,” he said. “Some people today would call that welfare – a handout. For me, it was life saving.”
He took on three jobs to help pay for college, including delivering prescriptions for a pharmacy at night, where he practiced recording his voice in the men’s room. “Suffering builds perseverance, and perseverance builds character, and character builds hope, and once you’ve got hope you’ve got everything you need,” he said.
At 18, he landed an internship at KKYX radio in the outskirts of San Antonio. Recording a radio advertisement tagline with the words, “Now available at Walgreens” became his first broadcast word.
Unable to get a job in television, he applied to graduate school at Columbia University. Accepted but without the financial means to pay the $15,000 annual tuition, he caught a cheap flight to New York where he knocked on every financial aid door until he landed an NBC News fellowship granting him a full ride through school.
At 26, Quiñones began working at WBBM-TV in Chicago where he made a name for himself by traveling undercover to Mexico posing as an immigrant and paying someone to smuggle him back across the border to the U.S. His camera crew hidden on the Texas side recorded him floating across the Rio Grande on an innertube.
After catching a bus back to Chicago, he got work at a Greek restaurant where he spent the day washing dishes and the night sleeping in the basement listening to the undocumented Mexican workers describe how they had worked for 16 weeks without pay under threat of deportation.
Following his report, authorities shut down the restaurant, arrested the owner and paid the workers their back wages and temporary visas, and he won his first Emmy Award.
“I knew I was destined to tell those kinds of stories. As a Latino, I could do them better than anyone. Journalism to me is what I call a candle in the darkness,” he said. “The journalist, he or she, is the person with the candle or the little flashlight. And they can shine it in the darkest corners of the room to illuminate injustice, to illuminate corruption and civil rights violations and human rights violations.”
When ABC needed a Central America correspondent his ability to speak Spanish closed the deal. “The irony did not escape me. Here was this little boy who used to get punished for speaking Spanish in school,” he said. “I wind up getting my dream network job at ABC News precisely for speaking Spanish.”
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