During a 26-year career at NBC, CBS, Univision, and Telemundo networks, Marisa Venegas has launched and developed prime-time news magazine shows. The journalist and writer shares her road in 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
and Paksy Plackis-Cheng*
Can you tell me what your journey was to becoming a journalist?
Well, I didn’t set out to be a journalist. Although 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. 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. 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, Health, 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. When their science correspondent was looking for a researcher, he thought of me. I told him that I knew nothing about television. He replied that 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. I 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. The magazine started covering science stories 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 eighteen people to two or three. I had to figure out how to translate my skills into another medium. I heard that Univision was starting a news magazine show. It seemed like a good fit. 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 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 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, and all of over US. I would review the scripts and everything else that’s involved in putting a show together in the control room including 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. Over the course of the eleven years that I was at Univision the situation only got worse. Issues of immigration, gangs, confrontations between police departments and immigrants, and undocumented people.
Are there any limitations on what you can and can’t show?
You have to exercise judgment. For example, if there’s a beheading, if there’s an autopsy of a dead baby. I was confronted with both. 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 is important to show graphic images. Because unless you see an image, you’re not going to understand what we’re talking about. If you sanitize it, pixelate it, or remove the blood, it’s not going to have the same meaning.
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 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 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 team had the same hard drive with the same images. Once all the interviews were transcribed and all the video were logged, each of us decided how we wanted to structure the story. I wrote 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 the man into custody. We were able to find the immigrant and his sister, who are 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, a lot of gang members could hear everything we were saying. The mom was very courageous to speak out, because her son who died was a very talented tattoo artist. The gangs approached the young artist to get him to tattoo them. When the young man refused, the gang members beat him. At that point, his older brother said, “We need to leave.” And that’s how they began their journey. The mother and the older brother, who is now in custody, were able to tell us what motivated them.
The interview plus a video that we were able to obtain from the mother shows the younger brother when he was being interviewed on television about his tattoo art. It took you from that stereotypical image of the crouched immigrant running across a field dodging La Migra [border patrol] to seeing 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 Zapata [Marisa Venegas’s mother] 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 felt that that 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 improving the situation so that the parents don’t have to take the kids to the fields. We found out that in this particular case, Nestlé was buying the coffee. Nestlé is one of the most powerful companies in the world. We were able to show Nestlé the video that we shot. They took it very seriously. They came with us. We hope that it’s made some difference in their corporate awareness.
* What does it take to drive cultural, social, or economic impact? People often think that there is little they can do to make a difference. What have you seen that shows the power of the individual. How did they go about making a change?
As a journalist, my primary mission is to uncover hidden truths or shine a light on ones that are evident if only people are willing to “see” and act. I also endeavor to give a voice to people who are often depicted one-dimensionally.
Immigration is an area where a lack of understanding on both sides of the border is a barrier to meaningful dialogue. When people are reduced to labels, illegal aliens on one side and border patrol agents, La Migra on the other, they are each stripped of their humanity. They become law breakers and thugs when the reality is far more nuanced. By giving all players a voice, and not merely a soundbite, we can go a long way to driving change. So is seeing images up close and uncensored. In the case of Muriendo Por Cruzar, a team of volunteer forensic anthropologists from Texas State University, Baylor University, and Indiana State University exposed what amounted to mass graves in southern Texas—not in the traditional sense you encounter in war zones or genocide—but ones that resulted from an impoverished county’s ill-conceived decision to bury unidentified remains in shallow graves where they became co-mingled.
As the anthropologists uncovered hundreds of bodies, the outcry was such that resources were mobilized to begin the painstaking process of identifying them and eventually repatriating them. Mercedes Doretti, a world-renowned forensic anthropologist, is one of the most passionate and impressive professionals I’ve had the honor of interviewing. She has exhumed mass graves in her native Argentina, as well as El Salvador, Bosnia, and Rwanda. Mercedes Doretti says that the number of unidentified remains along the U.S.- Mexico border is far greater than anyone had anticipated. Nearly 7,000 people have been found dead since the late 1990’s, while hundreds remain unidentified in morgues and cemeteries in Texas and Arizona. She summarized her commitment to the project this way, “No one would like their family member, or any one they know, to be buried in a garbage bag.” This idea is at the root of my belief that cultural, social or economic impact can only occur when it’s approached from a standpoint of mutual respect—from the certainty that we have more in common with one another than the arbitrary confines of nationality, immigration status, or race, that often separate us.
Can you talk about the women who have made an impact in your life?
I’ll start with my elementary school teacher. I 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 Barnard College, 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. 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. Then there is my aunt, economist Ana Zapata, impactful women have surrounded my life.