Juanita Ramos first visited Newmark J-School three years ago for its annual Latino Media summit of more than 300 journalists. Although she had written for Colombia’s biggest newspaper, she then was supporting herself working in several New York City restaurants. She was eager to return to reporting.
During the introduction of a panel of editors at the event, Ramos recognized a name and grabbed her cellphone to look it up. She found that panelist, Roberto Lacayo, was the same news director to whom she had just sent her resume for a writing opening at NY1 Noticias. “I walked right up to him after [the session) and we talked for 20 minutes,” she says. “And that was it. He called me the next week and I got the job.”
Ramos has worked at the Spanish-language TV station ever since. She also came back to the J-School — now as a member of the fourth cohort of its pioneering bilingual master’s degree program in Spanish and English. Although she was an experienced reporter in Colombia, the 16-month program is boosting her English writing, as well as helping her master new skills such as building articles around data and through community engagement. She says she also has gotten a major gift — time to think and to think differently about journalism.
“As a journalist, you start to think you know everything,” she says, laughing. “Now in the classroom we get to debate and discuss. We talk about identity and race and how you apply that in journalism. There is time to get to know our community and think about its needs.”
Working in English has not been easy for her. But she says the support of her Newmark J-School professors and hearing from alums of the bilingual program — who return frequently to share their experiences at the best news outlets — have inspired her: “Oh, they are pushing me,” she says of her professors. “But they understand me, they say, ‘OK, we get you.’ “
After earning an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bogota’s El Rosario University, Ramos reported for multiple news outlets in the Colombian capital. At age 26, she came to New York to learn English, holding down multiple jobs simultaneously to support herself. She also established a website to serve Latinx immigrants like herself in New York and contributed to a Colombian radio show. At Noticias, she was promoted in just three years from writer to associate producer and then to producer.
“I’ve been sort of old school,” Ramos says, radiating an effervescence that comes right through the Zoom screen. “Take notes. Go to the story. Go on to the next one. Write a story every two hours.”
Although she appreciates the chance she has gotten at the J-School to be thoughtful, she is mastering the core journalistic skill of thinking while piling on the work. During the week, she starts at 4 a.m. producing the morning news and finishes after the noon show. She spends the rest of her waking hours on school work. While she could use a day off, she describes her classroom experiences (all virtual because of the pandemic) stimulating in ways she could not have imagined.
She has become more aware, for example, of misrepresentation of Latinxs in the news — how they are reduced to stereotypes that don’t fit the diverse backgrounds of the community she encountered after moving to New York, she says. While many Latinx people share a language and culture, there are rich differences in background and experiences that make the community, well, a great story, says Ramos.
“When you turn to the news, Latinos are just seen as poor people, struggling people,” she says. “Or the sexy Latina … In many outlets, even Latinos, they portray immigrants who are crying for their rights. We should be able to claim them with dignity.” The images have been harsh, she says, in the time of the Trump presidency, in both English and Spanish language media.
“I saw what a hard time they were having,” she says of the undocumented Mexican family from whom she rented a room in Sunset Park her first years in New York. But she was as struck by their courage, optimism, strength — and their stories. “We need a closer narrative about what it is to be Latina, a Latino artist, a Latino worker, a second-generation Latino from one country or another. We are a big population and we have so many narratives.”
For her Solutions Journalism class, Ramos this semester focused on the Mujeres en Movimiento, a sisterhood of mostly undocumented workers, mothers, and wives that for 13 years has come together to do everything from dance in Flushing Meadows Park to take exercise classes, create a community garden, and support each other. “I learned from experience in Colombia covering a peace process between the government and the FARC guerrillas that journalism isn’t always going to save the world,” she says. Journalism can affect the lives of people if it accurately and fully reflects them authentically, she adds.
Although the pandemic has denied her and others in the Class of 2021 the excitement of working at 219 W 40th St., meeting classmates, and hanging out in the newsroom, Ramos is not complaining. She has made fast friends with the nine others in the bilingual program: “Many are first generation people. They are family people. Even when we don’t see each other all the time, we are always connecting. If we have to work and study, we work and study. If we are in the pandemic, we are in the pandemic.” As immigrants, she says, “you learn to adapt, to be close with people who want to be close with you and make a family again.”
Growing up in Sopó, a small city 45-minutes outside of Bogota, Ramos had little contact with journalists. But she did know a master storyteller — her father, who drove a truck all over Colombia and would return home with stories of the people he met and the places he saw.
“The most important lesson I learned from my dad … is that he never talked about people within the narrative of good and bad, she says. “He always talked about people with humanity and that made me understand very well the political conflict in my country.”