Sep 3, 2004 in UNITY 2004

Watch Yourself!

by Lena-Nsomeka Gomes

Elbert Garcia is a reporter for the Manhattan Times, and also is co-owner and founder of the Latino News Network, at He has also worked at the New York Times Online Edition as weekend editor and overnight producer.
Can you tell me about an event in your life that may have encouraged you to write about racial and ethnic communities?

I remember the first day of kindergarten. When I came back home and cuddled up to my mom, she asked me how my day was. I told her that another student thought that I was black. And my mother told me not to worry, that I wasnít that dark. And I just instantly thought, "Yes, Iím lighter than dad, but we're kind of black. I think from that point on, I became more aware of the politics of skin color in my own family, which comes from a long line of different shades. Most of the men in my family are light skinned and the women are dark skinned. I realized that my color had something to do with how I was experiencing the world, both in Spanish and in English. In some ways, Iím still that boy who is still trying to figure things out.

One of your tips was to "watch yourself" and how you either negatively or positively contribute to covering stories about diversity. Can you give an example of this?

In one of my pieces I did a story about Columbia University and one of their scholarship programs, which they give to the local students in the community. I was also a kid from the neighborhood who was a recipient of a college scholarship. I felt like it was my duty to counteract the stereotypes that say if you make it out of the neighborhood youíre gone forever because you donít ever want to return. I think I may not have written from that balanced perspective if I wasnít so close to the issue. But I was also aware that I had to be very careful. I had to separate the personal from the professional. While there may be similarities between my experiences and the experiences of people in my community, I am also conscious of the fact that things change.

Another one of your tips suggested getting a map and familiarizing yourself with the neighborhoods and communities you are covering. Why is this important?

Many times immigrants settle into communities that remind them of home. Sometimes if we are not aware of this as journalists, we can miss out on important stories about how immigrants are resettling in. If you know where people are from, like what city or town in Santo Domingo they grew up in, you automatically build trust with them. Look: in a community like mine, the two things you are brought up not to trust are the police and the reporter. Part of building trust with communities is by letting them know that you actually took time to learn about their culture and their histories because you value and respect them.

Is this tip for just a beat reporter who is going to cover a particular community or is this for every reporter?

It is essential for a reporter doing the beat in a specific community and I would go as far as to say that I think it is important in general. A reporter really needs to have a sense of what the landscape of a community is and all of its physical and historical variations.

This map is not only physical; it's not only a map about where they are now but where they were and how they got here.

Yes. It's a historical map. You have to know the geographical differences between these communities in order to understand why people are reacting to a situation. Our personal geographies really influence where we choose to live and how we choose to interact with others.

As a journalist of color working in a predominately Latino community, do you think your careful cultivation of your craft can be taken anywhere, that youíre a better reporter for it?

Definitely. I think in communities of color definitely hold you accountable for the work you do that they see in print. When an article comes out on Friday and someone doesnít like it, Iím going to get a phone call or an email. As a young journalist I have been told that I should go out to outlying communities in the suburbs, to hone my craft in a small town that no one has ever heard of before. I feel like that's what I am doing working in a Latino community. Because these communities are like small towns, they are full of traditions.

Lets talk about accountability. How about being too close to that community in some ways where you may not want to write something that you should report on?

The tip I spoke about watching yourself speaks to that. My editor is a white guy from Oakland and he helps me with that. He is the counter balance. That's what leadership in diversity is all about. He's a natural sounding board just like the other staff is. I think this is an important part of the value of diversity.

How about holding secrets for the community as a Latino reporter? Does this ever happen?

Look: when youíre in any community and you have to walk from the office to your house, or when you know that when you go to a community board meeting someone knows where you live and where your mama lives, and theyíre going to complain to you or to her, you know youíre in a sensitive situation. I have had people complain to my parents about something I wrote. Sometimes there are difficult stories to tell that the community may not be pleased about. That's why I have an editor to hide behind. I make no bones about the fact that I am a reporter. That is at the core of who I am. While there might be a temptation to hold a certain piece of information, there are people who want to see that information get out. They want to see justice done and my job is to report as much as the truth as I can.