Wednesday, June 28, 2023

What makes you special?

Reading Time: 13m 15s

I am a journalist. My job is to talk to people from all walks of life, all over the world. Today, I want to tell you why I decided to do this with my life and what I've learned. 

My story begins in Caracas, Venezuela, in South America, where I grew up. A place that to me was, and always will be, filled with magic and wonder. From a very young age, my parents wanted me to have a wider view of the world. I remember one time when I was around seven years old, my dad came up to me and said, "Mariana, I'm going to send you and your little sister..." - who was six at the time - " a place where nobody speaks Spanish.

I want you to experience different cultures." He went on and on about the benefits of spending an entire summer in this summer camp in the United States, stressing a little phrase that I didn't pay too much attention to at the time: "You never know what the future holds. Meanwhile, in my seven-year-old mind, I was thinking, "we were going to get to summer camp in Miami. Maybe it was going to be even better, and we were going to go a little further north, to Orlando, where Mickey Mouse lived." I got really excited. My dad, however, had a slightly different plan. Frоm Caracas, he sent us to Brainerd, Minnesota.

Mickey Mouse was not up there, and with no cell phone, no Snapchat, or Instagram, I couldn't look up any information. We got there, and one of the first things I noticed was that the other kids' hair was several shades of blonde, and most of them had blue eyes. Meanwhile, we look totally different. The first night, the camp director gathered everyone around the campfire and said, "Kids, we have a very international camp this year; the Atencios are here from Venezuela." The other kids looked at us as if we were from another planet.

They would ask us things like, "Do you know what a hamburger is?" Or, "Do you go to school on a donkey or a canoe?" I would try to answer in my broken English, and they would just laugh. I know they were not trying to be mean; they were just trying to understand who we were, and make a correlation with the world they knew. We could either be like them, or like characters out of a book filled with adventures, like Aladdin or the Jungle Book.

We certainly didn't look like them, we didn't speak their language, we were different. When you're seven years old, that hurts. But I had my little sister to take care of, and she cried every day at summer camp. So I decided to put on a brave face, and embrace everything I could about the American way of life. We later did what we called, "The Summer Camp Experiment," for eight years in different cities that many Americans haven't even heard of.

What I remember most about these moments was when I finally clicked with someone. Making a friend was a special reward. Everybody wants to feel valued and accepted, and we think it should happen spontaneously, but it doesn't. When you're different, you have to work at belonging. You have to be either really helpful, smart, funny, anything to be cool for the crowd you want to hang out with.

Later on, when I was in high school, my dad expanded on his summer plan, and from Caracas he sent me to Wallingford, Connecticut, for the senior year of high school. This time, I remember daydreaming on the plane about "The American High School Experience" - with a locker. It was going to be perfect, just like in my favorite TV show: "Saved by the Bell." I get there, and they tell me that my assigned roommate is eagerly waiting. I opened the door, and there she was, sitting on the bed, with a headscarf.

Her name was Fatima, and she was Muslim from Bahrain, and she was not what I expected. She probably sensed my disappointment when I looked at her because I didn't do too much to hide it. See, as a teenager, I wanted to fit in even more, I wanted to be popular, maybe have a boyfriend for prom, and I felt that Fatima just got in the way with her shyness and her strict dress code. I didn't realize that I was making her feel like the kids at summer camp made me feel. This was the high school equivalent of asking her, "Do you know what a hamburger is?"

I was consumed by my own selfishness and unable to put myself in her shoes. I have to be honest with you, we only lasted a couple of months together, because she was later sent to live with a counselor instead of other students. I remember thinking, "Ah, she'll be okay. She's just different." You see, when we label someone as different, it dehumanizes them in a way.

They become "the other." They're not worthy of our time, not our problem, and in fact, they, "the other," are probably the cause of our problems. So, how do we recognize our blind spots? It begins by understanding what makes you different, by embracing those traits.NOnly then can you begin to appreciate what makes others special.

I remember when this hit me. It was a couple months after that. I had found that boyfriend for prom, made a group of friends, and practically forgot about Fatima, until everybody signed on to participate in this talent show for charity. You needed to offer a talent for auction. It seemed like everybody had something special to offer. Some kids were going to play the violin, others were going to recite a theater monologue, and I remember thinking, "We don't practice talents like these back home." But I was determined to find something of value. 

The day of the talent show comes, and I get up on stage with my little boom box, and put it on the side and press "Play," and a song by my favorite emerging artist, Shakira, comes up. And I go, "Whenever, wherever, we're meant to be together," and I said, "My name is Mariana, and I'm going to auction a dance class." It seemed like the whole school raised their hand to bid.

My dance class really stood out from, like, the 10th violin class offered that day. Going back to my dorm room, I didn't feel different. I felt really special. That's when I started thinking about Fatima, a person that I had failed to see as special, when I first met her. She was from the Middle East, just like Shakira's family was from the Middle East. She could have probably taught me a thing or two about belly dancing, had I been open to it. 

Now, I want you to write down what makes you special, and I want you to look at it. Take a piece of paper, and write down what makes you different. You may feel guarded when you look at it, maybe even a little ashamed, maybe even proud. But you need to begin to embrace it. Remember, it is the first step in appreciating what makes others special. When I went back home to Venezuela, I began to understand how these experiences were changing me.

Being able to speak different languages, to navigate all these different people and places, it gave me a unique sensibility. I was finally beginning to understand the importance of putting myself in other people's shoes. That is a big part of the reason why I decided to become a journalist. Especially being from a part of the world that is often labeled "the backyard," "the illegal aliens," "third-world," "the others," I wanted to do something to change that. 

It was right around the time, however, when the Venezuelan government shut down the biggest television station in our country. Censorship was growing, and my dad came up to me once again and said, "How are you going to be a journalist here? You have to leave." That's when it hit me. That's what he had been preparing me for. That is what the future held for me.

So in 2008, I packed my bags, and I came to the United States, without a return ticket this time. I was painfully aware that, at 24 years old, I was becoming a refugee of sorts, an immigrant, the other, once again, and now for good. I was able to come on a scholarship to study journalism. I remember when they gave me my first assignment to cover the historic election of President Barack Obama. I felt so lucky, so hopeful. I was, like, "Yes, this is it. I've come to post-racial America, where the notion of us and them is being eroded, and will probably be eradicated in my lifetime." Boy, was I wrong, right?

Why didn't Barack Obama's presidency alleviate racial tensions in our country? Why do some people still feel threatened by immigrants, LGBTQ, and minority groups who are just trying to find a space in this United States that should be for all of us? I didn't have the answers back then, but on November 8th, 2016, when Donald Trump became our president, it became clear that a large part of the electorate sees them as "the others." Some see people coming to take their jobs, or potential terrorists who speak a different language.

Meanwhile, minority groups oftentimes just see hatred, intolerance, and narrow-mindedness on the other side. It's like we're stuck in these bubbles that nobody wants to burst. The only way to do it, the only way to get out of it is to realize that being different also means thinking differently. It takes courage to show respect. In the words of Voltaire: "I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will fight to the death to defend your right to say it." Failing to see anything good on the other side makes a dialogue impossible.

Without a dialogue, we will keep repeating the same mistakes, because we will not learn anything new. I covered the 2016 election for NBC News. It was my first big assignment in this mainstream network, where I had crossed over from Spanish television. And I wanted to do something different. I watched election results with undocumented families. Few thought of sharing that moment with people who weren't citizens, but actually stood the most to lose that night. 

When it became apparent that Donald Trump was winning, this eight-year-old girl named Angelina rushed up to me in tears. She sobbed, and she asked me if her mom was going to be deported now. I hugged her back and I said, "It's going to be okay," but I really didn't know. This was the photo we took that night, forever ingrained in my heart.  She already knows she is "the other." She walks home from school in fear, every day, that her mom can be taken away. So, how do we put ourselves in Angelina's shoes? How do we make her understand she is special, and not simply unworthy of having her family together?

By giving camera time to her and families like hers, I tried to make people see them as human beings, and not simply "illegal aliens." Yes, they broke a law, and they should pay a penalty for it, but they've also given everything for this country, like many other immigrants before them have. I've already told you how my path to personal growth started.

To end, I want to tell you how I hit the worst bump in the road yet, one that shook me to my very core. The day, April 10th, 2014, I was driving to the studio, and I got a call from my parents. "Are you on the air?" they asked. I immediately knew something was wrong. "What happened?" I said. "It's your sister; she's been in a car accident." It was as if my heart stopped. My hands gripped the steering wheel, and I remember hearing the words: "It is unlikely she will ever walk again." They say your life can change in a split second. Mine did at that moment.

My sister went from being my successful other half, only a year apart in age, to not being able to move her legs, sit up, or get dressed by herself. This wasn't like summer camp, where I could magically make it better. This was terrifying. Throughout the course of two years, my sister underwent 15 surgeries, and she spent the most of that time in a wheelchair. But that wasn't even the worst of it.

The worst was something so painful, it's hard to put into words, even now. It was the way people looked at her, looked at us, changed. People were unable to see a successful lawyer or a millennial with a sharp wit and a kind heart. Everywhere we went, I realized that people just saw a poor girl in a wheelchair. They were unable to see anything beyond that.

After fighting like a warrior, I can thankfully tell you that today my sister is walking, and has recovered beyond anyone's expectations. Thank you. But during that traumatic ordeal, I learned there are differences that simply suck, and it's hard to find positive in them. My sister's not better off because of what happened. But she taught me: you can't let those differences define you.

Being able to reimagine yourself beyond what other people see, that is the toughest task of all, but it's also the most beautiful. You see, we all come to this world in a body. People with physical or neurological difficulties, environmentally impacted communities, immigrants, boys, girls, boys who want to dress as girls, girls with veils, women who have been sexually assaulted, athletes who bend their knee as a sign of protest, black, white, Asian, Native American, my sister, you, or me.

We all want what everyone wants: to dream and to achieve. But sometimes, society tells us, and we tell ourselves, we don't fit the mold.

Well, if you look at my story, from being born somewhere different, to belly dancing in high school, to telling stories you wouldn't normally see on TV, what makes me different is what has made me stand out and be successful. I have traveled the world, and talked to people from all walks of life. You know what I've learned? The single thing every one of us has in common is being human. So take a stand to defend your race, the human race.

Let's appeal to it. Let's be humanists, before and after everything else. To end, I want you to take that sticker, that piece of paper where you wrote down what makes you different, and I want you to celebrate it today and every day, shout it from the rooftops. I also encourage you to be curious and ask, "What is on other people's pieces of paper?" "What makes them different?"

Let's celebrate those imperfections that make us special. I hope that it teaches you that nobody has a claim on the word "normal." We are all different. We are all quirky, and unique, and that is what makes us wonderfully human. Thank you so much.

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