UC Santa Barbara alumna, Nancy Rodriguez, interviews Emmy Award-winning television executive producer, Marisa Venegas, for impactmania.
During a 26-year career at NBC, CBS, Univision, and Telemundo networks, Maria Venegas has launched and developed prime-time news magazine shows. The writer and multimedia expert shares her road to becoming a television producer and offers us a glimpse of the human stories behind some of the most pressing societal issues of today: immigration and child labor.
BY NANCY RODRIGUEZ
Can you tell me what your journey was to becoming a journalist?
Well, I didn’t set out to be a journalist. I was involved with the school paper in undergraduate school. My real interest was in being an anthropologist, and specifically a medical anthropologist. After I graduated, I worked at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York for four years. And after four years of being involved with a lot of different research studies in the department of epidemiology, I decided that I was really interested in going back to school and either pursuing a PhD in medical anthropology or getting a Master’s in science and environmental reporting. That’s what I ended up choosing at NYU: the program, science, and environmental reporting included a lot of courses in medicine, oncology, and science in general. One of my professors was a producer at NBC News, and when their science correspondent was looking for a researcher, he thought of me. I told him that I knew nothing about television, and he said it didn’t matter because I knew about science. I ended up getting the job at NBC news and working for the senior science correspondent for two years, and then went to CBS news to do the same thing. I worked in the medical unit at CBS News, and then went to work for a news magazine that they were starting doing primarily signs stories, but now in long form. Instead of a minute and a half, I was doing ten-minute stories.
How did you become involved with Spanish audiences?
I eventually was transferred to the Miami bureau of CBS News. After two years there, the bureau was downsized from like eighteen people to two or three. If I wanted to stay in Miami, I had to figure out how to translate my skills into another medium. I heard that Univision was starting a news magazine show and it seemed like that would be a good fit for me. I had never worked in Spanish, but I knew how to tell stories and figured that I would give it a shot. I was part of the four-member launch team of “Aqui y Ahora” which is now in its eighteenth year at Univision. I stayed there until 2011.
What were your roles?
My role as executive producer was to assign stories. I was responsible for putting out 50 original hours of television a year, 50 original hours of prime time. Each show had four segments and I had to figure out what went in each show. Aqui y Ahora is partially investigative and partially it follows the same format as other news magazines including “60 Minutes” and 20/20. You have some profiles, investigative stories, and human-interest stories. You have to combine them so that they are of interest to the audience. My job as an executive producer was to make sure that we had a very solid show every week. I sent people off to wherever the story was happening: Latin America, Central America, South America, all of over US. When people came back, I would review the scripts and everything else that’s involved in putting a show together in the control room and budgets.
Was there a story that kept being brought up throughout Latin America?
The story that always comes up in Spanish language is the issue of immigration—and the issue of violence in all of our countries. The violence in Mexico was starting to take hold when the show launched, and over the course of the eleven years that I was at Univision it only got worse. And the same thing with the issue of immigration, gangs, confrontations between police departments and immigrants, and undocumented or documented people all over the country. It’s a Spanish language network, so, it caters to a specific type of audience.
Are there any limitations on what you can and can’t show?
You have to exercise judgment in terms of, if there’s a beheading, if there’s an autopsy of a dead baby, which both situations I confronted. You have to decide how much to show so that people aren’t repelled and turn off the TV. At the same time I always argue very strongly that it’s important to show graphic images because unless you see a graphic image, you’re not going to understand what we’re talking about. If you sanitize it, pixelate it, or if you remove the blood, it’s not going to have the same meaning to you as if you see.
Can you take me through the steps of what it takes to make a movie like Muriendo Por Cruzar?
In the case of Muriendo Por Cruzar we were approached by the The Weather Channel. They obtained some 911 calls and call logs from lost immigrants who were dying of thirst. We thought that this would be a potentially good partnership because we were able to illustrate very vividly what somebody goes through when they are in that desperate situation. We went with the team from The Weather Channel and did interviews for a week or more in Texas. Each entity got the same hard drive with the same images. Once all the interviews were transcribed and all the video was logged, each of us decided how we wanted to structure it. I wrote it in my case for Telemundo and a colleague of mine wrote for The Weather Channel.
I remember the heart-wrenching phone call of one of the immigrants whose brother died in his arms while he was waiting to be rescued. When border patrol finally arrived, they took him into custody. We were able to find the immigrant and his sister, who is undocumented. Telemundo went to the mom’s house and explained what we were trying to do and asked if she was willing to talk. They opened their home to us. We did this interview in their house with open windows because it was so hot.
Literally across the street were a lot of gang members. They could hear everything we were saying. The mom was very courageous because the young man who died was a very talented tattoo artist. The gangs approached her son to get him to tattoo them. When he refused, the gang members beat him. At that point, his older brother said, “We need to go.” And that’s how they began their journey. The mother and the older brother, who is now in custody, were able to tell us about what motivated them.
The importance of that, plus the video that we were able to obtain from her of the little brother when he was being interviewed on a television show about his tattoos, was that it took you from that stereotypical image of the crouched immigrant running across a field dodging “la migra” to people of flesh and blood with aspirations.
Sometimes they’re educated, sometimes they’re not, but they’re all human beings with lives and stories. Nobody leaves his or her country unless there’s a reason to. You don’t do it just because the US is the best country in the world. You do it because there’s something that’s making you leave.
I also wanted to talk a little bit about Cosecha de Miseria. Can you talk about that documentary and what it was about?
The documentary builds on the research of Dr. Emma Zappata and her team of researchers in Mexico. They documented the situation on the ground and had written a book. When I saw the images of little children carrying these sacks of coffee, I wanted to do a documentary.
On the heels of the success of Muriendo por Cruzar, my colleagues at The Weather Channel approached me about working on another project. I pitched them that particular project, and they agreed. We pooled our resources and we went to shoot it. The minute we got there, we started seeing the children with, in some cases, 100-pound bag of coffee on their backs. We were also shocked that the parents all felt that it was okay because they felt that they had their kids with them. The kids could help them increase their daily yield so that they could all make some money. It challenged us to suspend our judgment. However, we had to point out that it’s illegal in Mexico for children to work.
The parents have their reasons, but nobody is doing anything to stop it or to improve the situation so that the parents don’t have to take the kids to the fields. We found out that in this particular case, the coffee was being bought by Nestlé, which is one of the most powerful companies in the world. We were able to show them the video that we shot. They took it very seriously. They came with us, and we hope that it’s made some difference in their corporate awareness.
Dr. Emma Zapata, is that your mother?
Can you talk about the women who have made an impact in your life?
I’ll start with my elementary school teacher. I just arrived from Colombia a year before, and probably didn’t speak English that well. She was gentle, loving, and encouraged me to read. I would say she was one of the main people early on.
My high school guidance counselor told me that I had to go to college. Even when I thought that I couldn’t, because how could I afford it? My anthropology professor encouraged me to go to university, even when I thought that I could never. My mother, of course, is the most important figure in terms of believing in all her kids and making sure that the issue of education was non-negotiable. That regardless of whatever we wanted to study, we had to study. My sister, Cristina, supports me intellectually and emotionally. We try to work together whenever possible. My aunt, economist Ana Zapata—impactful women have surrounded my life.