How transferring to UNC as a Nicaraguan-American student has shaped my journalism

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Being Hispanic has shaped my identity as a person and reporter in ways I didn’t realize — until now. 

Growing up in Miami, Florida, I was raised in a predominantly Latino community that blended a wide variety of ethnic and racial identities into a single area. 

I’d often visit Central American bakeries on Sundays, see storefronts in Spanish and walk into establishments where people predominantly spoke Spanish throughout the area. On a typical family restaurant outing, we would stop by my favorite Nicaraguan restaurant, Guayacan, and afterward, we’d pick up picos and cajetas (fudge) from the Central American bakeries by our house. I instinctively knew to kiss relatives and family friends on the cheek rather than shake hands or hug when we saw each other. 

I was used to asking those around me, especially classmates and people I met, where they or their families were from. They’d ask me, too, and I’d say that I was Nicaraguan-American. That sort of curiosity was almost second nature to me and the people around me. 

Little changed once I began as a freshman at a local community college in the area, Miami Dade College. With more than 160 countries and 63 languages represented among students, Miami Dade was a conglomerate of different racial and ethnic identities. 

My experiences certainly changed once I transferred to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill during my junior year to study journalism. I knew that the school is a predominantly white institution (PWI) beforehand, but it wasn’t until I actually stepped foot on campus last August that I truly understood. I realized I would spend the next two years surrounded by people who don’t share a similar identity to me, and could very well be in a similar situation throughout my career and life. 

It’s made me rethink how my background has shaped my identity and role as a journalist. It’s helped me embrace my own culture, and inadvertently helped me better understand and contextualize stories that relate to marginalized communities. For example, I worked on a story at UNC about how a prestigious faculty governance committee has had no woman or person of color since its inception 192 years ago.  

When I served as editor-in-chief of MDC’s student newspaper, The Reporter, it was typical for our stories to feature those from underrepresented backgrounds. But upon moving to a different school, I realized how that’s not the case in many student and professional newsrooms alike.

I wanted to use my experiences to cover the non-English speaking community across the Triangle as I felt it was a group that wasn’t being given enough media attention. 

With COVID-19 cases surging at the time and vaccination distribution just getting started soon afterward, there were a great deal of stories to be told within these communities, such as the prevalence of vaccine hesitancy among immigrants and refugees, as well as how non-English speaking families were adjusting to in-person and virtual school. 

Many cultural practices have also been impacted by the pandemic, too, such as quinceañeras — and how have Latino-owned businesses fared? 

Being able to speak Spanish has helped me connect with other Hispanic individuals across the Triangle with stories to tell. I’ve been able to hold interviews in Spanish and speak to Latino immigrants about their experience emigrating to North Carolina.  

It’s helped my storytelling abilities. I’ve learned to dig deeper and truly understand the nuances and context of coming from an unrepresented community. I’ll take that with me as I cover other marginalized communities outside of Latinos.

Heidi Pérez-Moreno, a senior at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, is a part of the News + Record’s “La Voz de Chatham” reporting team.

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