Local journalist wins the first American Mosaic Journalism Prize


TED SIMONS: A LOCAL FREELANCE JOURNALIST WAS RECENTLY HONORED AS A CO-WINNER OF THE 1ST AMERICAN MOSAIC JOURNALISM PRIZE. VALERIA FERNANDEZ WILL RECEIVE $100-THOUSAND DOLLARS FOR HER STORIES ON THE UNDER-AND-MIS-REPRESENTED. FERNANDEZ IS ALSO A FACULTY ASSOCIATE WITH CRONKITE NOTICIAS AT ASU'S CRONKITE SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM AND MASS COMMUNICATION. HERE NOW IS, VALERIA FERNANDEZ. CONGRATULATIONS.

VALERIA FERNANDEZ: THANK YOU VERY MUCH TED.

TED SIMONS: THIS MUST HAVE JUST BEEN REALLY SOMETHING WHEN YOU HEARD ABOUT THIS.

VALERIA FERNANDEZ: IT WAS A SHOCK BECAUSE YOU DON'T APPLY. YOU ARE NOMINATED. I WAS NOMINATED BY ANONYMOUS INDIVIDUALS PART OF THIS PROFESSION. I WAS SHOCKED. I DIDN'T EVEN HEAR THERE WAS A CASH AWARD. I FIRST HEARD THERE WAS A GROUP OF PEOPLE LOOKING AT MY WORK FOR A YEAR, AND I WAS IN SHOCK TO THINK, WOW, THEY WERE LOOKING AT THIS.

TED SIMONS: HONORED FOR YOUR COLLECTION OF WORK BETWEEN 2016-17. TALK ABOUT FAMILIES BROKEN APART BY IMMIGRATION, MENTAL HEALTH STRUGGLES WITH NEW IMMIGRANTS. THESE SORTS OF THINGS. TALK ABOUT YOUR FOCUS.

VALERIA FERNANDEZ: FOR THE PAST YEAR OR SO, I DECIDED TO DO MORE REPORTING THAT LOOKS AT THE IMPACT OF FAMILY DEPORTATION, FAMILY DETENTION, HAS ON IMMIGRANT COMMUNITIES AND THEIR MENTAL HEALTH. ONE OF THE STORIES I TRAVELED TO PENNSYLVANIA TO A FAMILY DETENTION CENTER. I INTERVIEWED A COUPLE OF SALVADOREN MOTHERS THAT WITH THEIR CHILDREN FOR OVER A YEAR. THEY WERE RELEASED SHORTLY AFTER THE STORY WAS PUBLISHED. ANOTHER STORY FOCUSES ON A YOUNG GIRL THAT CAME AS AN UNACCOMPANIED MINOR, UNDERAGE, AND SHE NEEDED MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES FOR THE TRAUMA SHE EXPERIENCED BACK IN EL SALVADOR. IT WAS HARD TO COME BY BECAUSE YOU ARE IN LIMBO WHEN APPLYING FOR ASYLUM.

TED SIMONS: THEY’RE IN A FORM OF LIMBO. YOU AS A REPORTER, THOUGH, HAD TO GAIN ACCESS TO THESE FOLKS. WAS IT DIFFICULT?

VALERIA FERNANDEZ: YES AND NO BECAUSE I HAVE BEEN WORKING IN ARIZONA FOR OVER 15 YEARS. I STARTED AT A SMALL COMMUNITY NEWSPAPER IN SPANISH SO I'M VERY CONNECTED AND GROUNDED IN THE COMMUNITY. I THINK IT'S TOUGH IN THE SENSE THAT YOU HAVE TO WORK WITH PEOPLE FOR A LONG TIME SO THEY ARE COMFORTABLE WITH WHAT THEY ARE TELLING YOU. IT TAKES A LOT OF COURAGE FOR PEOPLE TO TELL THE KIND OF STORIES THAT I PUT OUT, THAT THEY SHARE WITH ME. I THINK IT TAKES MORE COURAGE THAN BEING A FREELANCER.

TED SIMONS: I WAS GOING TO SAY. YOU MENTIONED THAT YOU STARTED LOCALLY. LA VOZ CORRECT?

VALERIA FERNANDEZ: YES. THAT PAPER IS NOW OWNED BY GANNETT NOW. AND I'M VERY PROUD OF THAT. EVERYTHING WE COVERED THERE HAD TO DO WITH IMMIGRATION. DIFFERENT ASPECTS, HEALTH, EDUCATION, HEALTH CARE FOR OUR COMMUNITY. WHETHER YOU HAVE PAPERS OR NOT, A LOT OF THE THINGS ARE DEFINED BY YOUR STATUS, THE TYPE OF JOB YOU GET, WHERE YOU LIVE, WHAT EDUCATION YOU HAVE ACCESS TO. IT’S AN ONGOING ISSUE. 15 YEARS INTO IT, WE ARE STILL TALKING ABOUT IT.

TED SIMONS: WE ARE INDEED. YOU HAVE WRITTEN FOR PHOENIX NEWS TIMES. HAD SOME PIECES ON PUBLIC RADIO INTERNATIONAL, THE GUARDIAN. THIS AWARD IS FOR FREELANCE JOURNALISTS.

VALERIA FERNANDEZ: THAT'S VERY IMPORTANT. THERE IS A SPECIAL AWARD ASSOCIATED WITH THIS. I THINK IT REALLY SHEDS LIGHT ON JOURNALISTS THAT ARE FREELANCERS THAT ARE INDEPENDENT. THEY ARE THE LIFEBLOOD OF A LOT OF PUBLICATIONS. WE ARE WORKING OFTEN TIMES WITHOUT INSURANCE, I'M GETTING INSURANCE NOW THAT I HAVE THE REWARD. I'M GETTING RETIREMENT, HOPEFULLY. THESE ARE A LOT OF THINGS THAT INDEPENDENT JOURNALISTS DON'T HAVE AND IT'S IMPORTANT TO CAST A LIGHT ON IT. I HAVE TO SAY TED THAT I FEEL VERY HONORED. AS YOU CAN HEAR, I HAVE AN ACCENT. I'M IMMIGRANT FROM URUGUAY. THAT’S A SMALL COUNTRY, AND TODAY WAS BIG NEWS FOR THE PEOPLE THERE AND BIG NEWS DOE MY STUDENTS HERE, WHO ARE LATINA AND BILINGUAL AND WANT A CAREER IN JOURNALISM.

TED SIMONS: IT’S CERTAINLY BIG NEWS. YOU TALK ABOUT HOW IT’S GOING TO CHANGE YOUR LIFE GETTING INSURANCE AND OTHER THINGS. HOW WILL IT CHANGE WHAT YOU DO?

VALERIA FERNANDEZ: I'M GOING TO STAY THE COURSE. I’M GOING TO CONTINUE WORKING ON THE STORIES I THINK MATTER. I THINK ISSUES OF MENTAL HEALTH THAT INTERSECT WITH IMMIGRATION ARE EXTREMELY IMPORTANT AT THIS TIME. THERE IS A LOT OF ANXIETY IN OUR COMMUNITES BECAUSE OF THE LIMBO SITUATION WITH THINGS LIKE DACA. I THINK ABOUT ALL OF THE YOUTH RIGHT NOW THAT ARE 18 AND 19 YEARS OLD, STRUGGLING, NOT KNOWING WHAT WILL HAPPEN WITH THE FUTURE. I THINK ABOUT THE U.S. CITIZEN CHILDREN AND NONCITIZEN CHILDREN WHO ARE LIVING WITH THAT FEAR OF WHAT'S GOING TO HAPPEN TO MY DAD. WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN TO MY MOM? ARE THEY GOING TO BE NEXT? THAT HAS A REAL LIFE PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPACT ON THE CHILDREN. I’M NOT JUST SAYING THAT AS A JOURNALIST. I HAVE DONE RESEARCH ON IT AND I THINK THAT OFTEN TIMES, IT'S INVISIBLE AND WE NEED TO GO BENEATH THE SURFACE AND START LOOKING AT THE REAL IMPACT.

TED SIMONS: WELL IT’S OBVIOUS YOU ARE PASSIONATE ABOUT YOUR WORK. YOU HAVE DONE A GREAT JOB. CONGRATULATIONS ON THIS. FORGET THE HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS. IT'S HARD TO DO, BUT IT'S QUITE AN HONOR. CONGRATULATIONS, THANK YOU FOR JOINING US.

VALERIA FERNANDEZ: THANK YOU VERY MUCH TED.

Valeria Fernandez, a local freelance journalist, won the first American Mosaic Journalism Prize, taking home $100,000 for her work with immigration and diversity stories.

According to the Heising-Simons Foundation, “The American Mosaic Journalism Prize is awarded for excellence in long-form, narrative, or deep reporting on stories about underrepresented and/or misrepresented groups in the present American landscape.” A journalist has to be nominated in order to win the award. Fernandez says she had people following her work closely for the last year as they were making the decision on who will win.

The stories Fernandez is known for chasing typically have something to do with immigration. She’s worked into finding the effects of deportation – how it effects the individual, family, community. She also has written how immigration can have effects on mental illness.

Fernandez says she has stayed very connected and grounded in the community since writing for Arizona’s Spanish paper, La Voz. It takes courage to tell personal stories dealing with immigration, the Uruguay immigrant says. In her experience, she says she spends a lot of time talking and getting to know the people because that will help them feel more comfortable about opening up.

The spotlight on freelancers and independent journalists is also something worth applauding, according to Fernandez. She says freelancers are what make up the majority of newsrooms, and they are people worthy of recognition.

Fernandez says she will continue working on stories that she thinks matter. For more information about Fernandez, read her bio on the Heising-Simons website.

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Valeria Fernandez: American Mosaic Award Winner

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