The Storyteller

October 13, 2003

Macarena Hernandez has had a busy year. She spent much of her spring being interviewed by fellow journalists about a story that garnered national headlines for weeks -- that a former New York Times reporter, Jayson Blair, had plagiarized her work. Further inciting the media frenzy were two other facts: that Blair and Hernandez were fellow interns at the Times in 1998 and that Blair was black, the latter becoming fodder for heated editorials and discussions about affirmative action. 
Suddenly finding herself as the subject, not the author, of a story, Hernandez, BA '96, tried to maintain some sort of normalcy in her own job as a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News. She faced a second challenge in July when she was injured in a car accident that caused her to spend much of her summer in doctors' offices. 
Graciously, she shared with Baylor Magazine about her life and her unexpected year. Although Hernandez has worked in Philadelphia, New York, San Antonio and San Francisco, her path for now has taken her full circle to the Rio Grande Valley and to Edinburg, Texas, not far from where she was raised. As a little girl, she was mesmerized by her grandfather's accounts about his life in Mexico -- a fascination that led to her desire to help other Latinos tell their stories. 
"I knew before I wanted to become a journalist, before I thought I would become a writer or ever call myself a writer -- I knew that there were these important stories down here to tell," she says. "I want, when people read my work, that they see themselves in it. I'm not using my space in the newspaper to make myself sound smarter, I'm there to be a vehicle to tell other people's stories."

Q: Throughout this experience [with the Jayson Blair story], how do you think you've been treated by members of the media? 
A: "What I've realized from the whole thing is journalists make a lot of mistakes; sometimes they use other people's work as a template, a shell, for their own work and they don't verify little details. There were a lot of inaccuracies written about me, and it was usually the people who didn't bother to interview me. It was a little scary for me to become part of the story. 
"One of the biggest disservices the media did, in my opinion, was the connection they drew between Gerald Boyd [former managing editor] and Jayson Blair. They latched on to the fact that they were both black. People wrote to me, 'How can you say it's not about race?' It's so irresponsible to manipulate facts that way."
Q: You've mentioned that it's odd to be on the other side of the story. What kind of lesson has it taught you? 
A: For me, it was a lesson in humility. To be a good journalist, you need not only to be honest, you need to be humble. When it comes to public figures -- politicians and celebrities -- they're fair game, because they use the media as well. We have to really understand that when the average person speaks to us, it's a privilege that they even talk because they owe us nothing. We usually approach people at some of the worst times in their lives and ask them to open these wells of pain and sadness, to tell stories, and we need to keep in mind that we are fortunate that people are even speaking to us. Now I know what it's like when we leave a person's house, when we hang up the phone -- the doubts and the confusion that we sometimes leave behind. And I'm a trained reporter. Can you imagine the average person?"
Q: The race card has been played quite a few times regarding Jayson Blair's success at The New York Times, i.e., people wondering if affirmative action is responsible for allowing him to advance through the ranks. How do you think history is going to remember this story? 
A: "I think some people will always think about it in terms of race, even though race had very little to do with it. The story about Jayson Blair is not about a black kid who made it at The New York Times, even though he didn't belong there; it's a story about how management allowed a kid who didn't belong there to stay there. So to make it about race is almost to dilute the real issue here, which is what is going on at newsrooms where someone can get away with this for so long? Jayson Blair didn't plagiarize because he was black; he plagiarized because he could get away with it. 
"I'm a product of the exact same program that got Jayson Blair to the Times. We have very similar stories. People didn't really pay attention to this side of the story. I thought that it was important that if you want to point the finger at Jayson and say this is what's wrong with diversifying newsrooms, then you need to point the finger and say the girl who uncovered it was Latina. 
"A lot of people -- black journalists, Latino journalists, Asian journalists -- want to write about business or be feature writers or want to have the opportunity to write about whatever they want to write, and newsrooms are not diverse enough yet. When they do hire a person of color, sometimes editors just want them to write about their community. I welcome that opportunity. I speak Spanish fluently -- it's my first language -- and I come from a family of immigrants. So I feel like their stories are very dear to my heart, and I want to be able to share them." 
Q: Tell me about your time at Baylor. 
A: "My father didn't want me to go away to college, and I knew that the only way I could get him to support my decision was if I went to a Christian school. But Baylor was very hard for me because it wasn't the friendliest place and there were very few people like me. My first year, I was so depressed and felt so out of my element. I thought that if I left Baylor and went back home, that people would think I had failed. 
"But I met some wonderful people. I always talk about mentors as coming in all colors -- two of my mentors at Baylor were white men, and they were so beautiful to me, two wonderful human beings. Dr. Michael Bishop was one; I never thought I could be a journalist until he told me I could be. I met [Dr. Bishop] through Round Up, and he was a total believer in me. I felt so understood once I met him. One of my other professors was Dr. [W.R.] Wortman, who retired. He was an English professor. He was the one who got me to go to Europe to study C.S. Lewis. He opened my eyes to a whole other world." 
Q: You came back to campus last spring to speak at a journalism banquet, which turned out to be the night before The New York Times/Jayson Blair story broke. What was that like? 
A: "I felt like I had completely healed. I drove into Waco and I even saw it as a prettier town. [Baylor] didn't feel as foreign to me as it did when I was a student, probably because I had learned a lot about life. And I've learned a lot more about myself, which gives me more confidence in who I am.
"I didn't know how big the story was going to get, but I knew it was definitely going to get the attention of people for different reasons. Of course, I didn't know it was going to last this long and that so many innocent people were going to be affected by it." 
Q: What were some of the other things you talked about with the students? 
A: "I told them the key in this field was to be patient, that this is the kind of job you learn from every day. I also told them that they needed to be persistent, because this business is as much about luck as it is about talent. I told them to be open to things, especially those things that scare you, because those are the ones you end up learning from the most." 
Q: Do you have an example of a story assignment that was like that for you? 
A: "After September 11, I was reading a lot about the local [San Antonio] Muslim community, but I felt like the stories I was reading weren't humanizing the community. We had a doctor, a radiologist in San Antonio, who was one of the first people arrested, and he was kind of accused of aiding the hijackers. He was in custody for 12 days before he was cleared by the FBI.
"I knew nothing about Islam, but I wanted to learn because I wanted to understand the Muslim community and be able to write about them in a more accurate way. When the doctor came back, he gave me the exclusive interview because his friends told him, 'Out of all the reporters who have been covering this, this is the one who was always more open to our comments.' 
"The doctor was completely cleared by the FBI, but the local media had basically convicted him. That's how much power we have in the media. We shape people's opinions and views about other people, about issues, about the world."
Q: It's been pretty widely reported that you knew Jayson Blair from the summer of 1998 when you both were participants in an internship program at The New York Times. Both of you were offered the opportunity to stay on, but your father was killed in an accident, forcing you to choose between advancing your career or moving back home to Texas to be with your mother. You chose the latter. How did you make that decision? 
A: "The thought of my mother, who had depended so much on my father, sleeping in this house, all alone, just broke my heart. And I thought, I can't leave her. I became a journalist because I thought I could change the world with my writing. What kind of a human being would I be if I couldn't even make my mother's life easier? I was just staying; there was no doubt in my mind. I knew it was going to be hard, and I knew there were going to be moments when I felt that life was so unfair. But I knew that was the right thing to do, and I knew I would never regret it. 
"And I would tell myself -- I talked to myself a lot during that period -- 'You know, Macarena, this will all make sense soon. You just need to have faith and know that you're doing the right thing.'"
Q: What would like to do in the future? 
A: "My graduate degree [a master's of journalism from the University of California-Berkeley] was in documentary filmmaking, and I did some TV production work. In the end, I can't tell whether I'll be doing TV or print five or 10 years from now or whether I'll be making films. What I want to do is tell stories. As long as I feel like where I'm at, I'm telling the stories that need to be told, that's all that matters to me. I've learned through my brief life that you can't really plan things, that there's already a plan in place for you. It's just a matter of praying and asking for you to be able to see it when the opportunity comes by."