Sunday January 31st, 2010
Sunday morning I woke up late. I’d been at a day-long conference the day before –a Saturday– with loads of Latino community organizers. It wasn’t a bad deal, but I had to sit through 2 hour sessions to get maybe 5 or 10 minutes of useful material or potential story ideas. The conference was set to continue Sunday, but I felt it wasn’t necessary for me to attend. Sleep late, I told myself then work on your story about the Juan Gabriel school of music in Juarez. Sounded like an especially good plan when my cell phone alarm went off at 7 am. When I finally pulled off the bedsheets at 9 am I went to my computer and scanned the headlines languidly. I went downstairs for breakfast then came back to my computer. I scanned the headlines once again, something I don’t typically do, and saw the shocking news. Fourteen people slain during a house party in Juarez. My jaw dropped. Mostly teenage high school students. Multiple gunmen in multiple cars. Dear lord. I reach for my cell phone and dial the news desk at National Public Radio. I tell the editor what I’m reading and offer a spot. She accepts and about an hour later I file. In the course of my phone calls, a government spokesman tells me there will be a press conference at 3 pm. I never thought of going until after I filed the news spot. More and more news agencies, mostly foreign, began posting reports on the killings. Then I thought, gosh it’s Sunday afternoon, most of the NPR reporters who might cover this are in Haiti….I should cover this.
I look to my equipment bag which is only semi-organized after a day of heavy usage. My rechargeable batteries need charging. My SD cards are close to full. I need to shower. I look at the clock, nearing 1 pm. I send an email off to NPR editors and make for the shower. When I’m out, the editors have responded in the positive. Now the question becomes do I go alone or try and find company. I text my compañero from the Dallas Morning News. “Vas a ir?” “Are you going,” I ask. Yes, he says, going with the Belo TV correspondent. Hmmm three reporters together might cause flexibility issues (it may also result in 3 identical stories!). Okay scratch that, I call up a reporter at a local Juarez paper and ask if he’d be so kind as to take me to the site of the killings. I didn’t have time to go figuring it out myself. Quickly, I braid my hair back, pick out a plain navy sweater and hide my passport, driver’s license and credit card in a safe place. I call my friend Julia, a.k.a. “mission control”, and give her the details of my intended trip. Then I bolt out the door.
On the drive to the bridge, less than 10 minutes away from my house, I call an NPR editor to outline my plan. The Mexican and American flags atop the international bridge whip in the wind ahead of me. I end my call and with my right hand do the sign of the cross across my face once as I turn into the bridge, twice as I pass under the “Bienvendios a Mexico” sign, and thrice right before I pass the customs checkpoint.
Okay no sweat, I can do this, I tell myself. This is the first real “breaking” news story I do for NPR. Doing this story means being on par with all the major international networks. It’s me representing NPR with this piece. No doubt it’s a huge opportunity to prove myself to this network. The clock inches towards 3 pm. Can I really pull of a stellar piece in one afternoon, which inevitably meant staying in Juarez past dark?
I arrive at the local newspaper office to meet my reporter friend. There few people in the newsroom, mostly middle aged men. A photographer calls me over to his computer screen and shows me dreadful images of the crime scene. There were mini rivers of blood streaming down the street. Ample puddles on the house floor. Blood stained hand prints on the wall. I felt like I was looking at a Quentin Tarantino film set. No more, I said, turning away.
My reporter friend tells me the press conference has been changed to 5 pm. Let’s go to the house then, I say. He shakes his head, it takes an hour to get there and back he said. The press conference is on the opposite side of town. He shows me a map of the neighborhood. Oh, I would’ve known how to get there on my own I say! Darn. There was little for me to do then but wait until it was time to leave for the press conference. In the meantime I ask the reporter if he’d let me interview him, after all he’d been at the crime scene earlier that morning. Plus, he spoke English.
As five o’clock drew near, we learned the press conference was switched to a location not far from the crime scene. Urrrgh! I hate how this is so typical in Mexico. I could have made it to the neighborhood instead of sitting around waiting. I clenched my teeth. Things weren’t looking so great. I grab my stuff and tell the reporter that I can make it on my own to the press conference and neighborhood on my own.
There was palpable tension at the press conference. The state attorney general, a thin woman with dyed blonde hair, even flew in for the event One reporter barked at the officials that Juarez was sick and tired of this violence, “What are you going to do,” he demanded. I sat on the floor trying to capture everything with my shot gun mic. When the press conference ended, I took a deep breath and headed towards the neighborhood. The sun was starting to dip into the horizon. I was in the far southeast corner of the city, far from the American border. I was going into a strange neighborhood uncertain of the possible outcomes. But I tried not to linger on those thoughts.
The hospital where most of the injured victims were taken is not far from the homes where the killings occurred. As I passed it on my way to the neighborhood I thought maybe I’d have better luck finding loved ones there. And it certainly felt safer. The hospital was large and modern looking. Okay, I thought quickly, I’ll give this a shot. So I found a parking spot and prepped my recorder so that it would be ready to pull out should I find someone to interview. What may have been even smarter is if I had taken the recorder out completely and recorded from the moment I approached the hospital.
Turns out the first people I asked were friends of one of the injured boys. Go up to main doors, they told me, his mother is up there. Okay. Indeed the mother was there, she was slumped in a plastic chair surrounded by other family members, wailing. Had I had my recorder out and recording I could have captured that scene. But it felt totally inappropriate for me to take it out once I was already there and point my microphone in the direction of the sobbing mother. This kind of situation is one of the most difficult yet necessary parts of a reporter’s job. Capturing these moments is what really gets a listening audience to comprehend the severity of the situation. It’s the kind of scene that causes you to stop and listen. I tapped one of the family members on the shoulder and introduced myself. Could she speak with me? Turns out no. Try to speak with the mother, she says. Almost guiltily I approach the mother who’s sobs have transitioned into gentle sniffles. I ask and she politely declines. Okay, I say, a little flustered not knowing what to say next. I’m going to hang around for a while, I say, and patter off to the side.
Now I pull out my recorder and have it ready to push record. Meanwhile, I manage to speak with one of the boy’s friends. Turns out they are in a football team together. Our coach, he said, is on his way over here maybe in about half an hour. Sigh, okay. I begin to question my decision to choose the hospital instead of the neighborhood. I hang out a little, record some ambi and then try to approach the mother again. This time when I make my request I am recording and holding my shotgun microphone close to her. Luckily the space we’re in is pretty dark and the microphone doesn’t call to much attention to itself. Again she politely declines. When my son is released from the hospital, she says, then with pleasure I’ll speak with you. Sadly, the next morning I learned her son had died.
Before I left the hospital I interviewed the boy’s coach and recorded the group of family and friends reciting a prayer. I think I spent a little over two hours at the hospital, so by the time I left, it was night. I had to get back, log tape, and write the piece. Honestly I didn’t feel it was smart to go knocking on doors in the neighborhood at this hour. The tape I had was pretty good. I did drive by the neighborhood, although in the darkness it was hard to find the exact location and I was feeling too antsy to really find out. The homes were tiny pastel colored and pressed together like matchboxes. People glared at me as I drove by. Okay, time to go I told myself and swerved out to the main road. I called my mission control friend and drove directly to the international bridge. It took 90 minutes to cross into the United States.
I walked through my front door at 10:00 pm. My editor said she wanted a piece no more than 3 minutes and 45 seconds. She needed a script first thing in the morning. I stayed up all night writing. Luckily, my new intern helped with logging some tape. I went to bed at 5:30 and woke up at 8:20 to finish the work. I had one more interview to do with a professor at UTEP. Back at home I did and edit and voiced my tracks under a bed sheet. Then I filed my story just in time to make the deadline for All Things Considered. Robert Siegel needs to practice saying my last name.