â€œI was always a reporter,â€ Mercedes Fernandez said simply.
From Lima, Peru to Chicago, Illinois, this statement rings true. A reporter for Hoy, the Chicagoâ€™s Tribune Spanish-language newspaper, Peruvian immigrant Mercedes Fernandez stands at the convergence of two media markets. Her story reflects the many experiences of immigrants who come to the U.S. not only with vague aspirations for economic prosperity, but with clear and targeted career goals.
Fernandez immigrated to the United States in 1997, with a degree in journalism and communication sciences and with a law degree. After her education in Peru, Fernandez put her credentials towards a clear goal: being a journalist. For five years, she worked in cross-genre reporting, covering local stories, arts, culture, and trials for newspapers, television and radio. But the multi-skilled journalistâ€™s luck almost turned when she came to the U.S.
Without a perfect grasp of the English language or clips at American Spanish-language newspapers, Fernandez found it hard to find work in the field she had already made her professional niche.
â€œAs many immigrants, I worked at whatever I could to put food on the table,â€ she said. â€œI was a single mother with three children and my dad. It was hard.â€
Though her degrees spoke to her qualifications, Fernandez did not have papers and had to take whatever freelance work she could get. At the time, freelance assignments were the closest Fernandez could get to approximate her previous work as a journalist. She expected low pay for the paltry version of her previous career, working seven days a week to complete a few articles and, for ten years, saw no vacation time. Fernandez’s friends had a hard time comprehending her one-track mind and questioned why she didnâ€™t work in a factory or at McDonaldâ€™s, she said.
â€œWhatever [the freelance work] was, I said to myself, â€˜I want to go back to what I used to do,â€™â€ she said. â€œI told myself I could do it.â€
Journalism, however, is a particularly demanding job, requiring reporters to be informed on many fronts simultaneously: local laws, national laws, figures of public importance, current trends and attitudes. Often, reporting on local issues demands nuanced knowledge of which only a native can boast.
Thus, for Fernandez, being an informed journalist in an unfamiliar country was a catch-22.
â€œItâ€™s hard when you donâ€™t have any contexts and you donâ€™t know the system,â€ she said. â€œThatâ€™s the worst part.â€
To remedy this, Fernandez began the process of self-education characteristic of the modern immigration experience. Fernandez used her daughtersâ€™ textbooks and learned alongside them.
â€œI came to this country and didnâ€™t know anything,â€ she said. â€œThe judicial process, how it works; the political organization of the House of Representatives, the Senate, the state, Congress, federal, local levels. It was so different from my country so I had to learn from the ABCs.â€
This information was crucial to progressing as a journalist, though learning it was a headache, she said
â€œI thought it was a great chance to start learning all these things from a different world,â€ she said.
Fernandez worked hard as a freelancer, though the market for Spanish-language journalism is limited. According to Fernandez, there are only two or three Spanish-language papers which have a real impact on the community. Fernandez wrote for them all: La Raza, Reflejos, the weekly Spanish-language paper of the Daily Herald and, finally when she had a comprehensive portfolio, for Hoy.
After six years of freelance work, Fernandez got proper documentation and could accept a staff position at Hoy. Finally she could make more than a struggling freelancer. The staff position also came with new luxuries: weekends off and insurance for her children, whom she previously took to local clinics for low-income families. And of course, there was the prestige of working for the Tribune Co., on the 32nd floor of its landmark building.
â€œItâ€™s part of Chicagoâ€™s history,â€ Fernandez said of the work Hoy does for the cityâ€™s Spanish-speaking community.
The paper reaches half a million Latinos, Fernandez said, targeting first-generation Latinos like herself.
â€œBesides what the statistics say, these are people with names and faces and communities,â€ Fernandez said of Hoyâ€™s readership. â€œThe paper is acknowledging what the Latino community is doing to survive.â€
Clearly Hoyâ€™s influence, both for the Chicagoland area and for Fernandezâ€™s family, goes far beyond numbers.