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How I overcame fear and mistrust to tell immigrants’ stories of crippling back pain

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Craft: Lessons From The Field

How I overcame fear and mistrust to tell immigrants’ stories of crippling back pain

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You can’t live in California and travel between its most well-known cities — Los Angeles, Fresno, Carmel, Napa, Sacramento or San Francisco to name a few, without passing through the fields that have given our state the title of the country’s salad bowl. Lettuce, broccoli, strawberry and almond plantations line the road to Yosemite, or Lake Tahoe, and if you are not on your phone or chatting with fellow passengers, you get to appreciate the scenery and consider yourself blessed to witness such beauty.

Yet as reporters, the first commandment I believe we should live by is: “There’s more than meets the eye.” Dig deep enough, and you may discover realities that change the way you see, feel, and even taste things. You may end up working on a story that refuses to leave your mind.

I had never given back pain much thought until I felt it myself. It crept up on me during a month that I had to travel long distances in different directions to cover breaking news in Northern California. My chiropractor said it’s a common ailment of people who spend long periods of time in the same position, and advised me to exercise, walk around where I could, and get a standing desk if possible to mitigate the time spent sitting in a car crunched over an iPad.

Having worked for close to 10 years in the area, I already had contacts in most farmworker organizations and trade unions. I also had the phone numbers of people I had interviewed for other stories with different angles that I knew would be good candidates for my project. My greatest surprise was the uncomfortable silence at the other end of the line, or the perplexed looks on their faces, when I told them I wanted to talk about back pain. It often felt like they were either having an “aha moment,” thank you for finally bringing it up. I had struck a nerve. Yes, back pain. I wanted to talk about Hispanics who live with back pain.

“I fight all day to survive the pain, and all night trying to forget it,” said a hotel janitor who later refused to be interviewed on camera. “Do you see all the cases of beer in the trash in front of working class Hispanic homes?” asked Armando Morales, a construction worker and food distributor who works two jobs to make ends meet. “Pain management,” he explained. And farmworker leaders told me they had never met a single field labourer who didn’t complain about pain. The condition was prevalent, everyone suffers from it, so the project should be easy right? It wasn’t.

Immigrants overwhelmed by climate of fear

In over 25 years of covering the Hispanic community, I had never witnessed as much fear and mistrust in the community as there is now. Even as a Spanish speaking reporter from Telemundo, getting people to talk on camera was difficult. The anti-immigrant rhetoric that took place during the campaign and the policies of the current administration have Latinos trying to survive “under the radar.” They don’t want to be seen, heard, much less identified as people with vulnerabilities who could at some point need help. Enlisting the help of organizers or local leaders helps, but it is ultimately up to us as reporters to establish connections and gain trust. Offering not to use their last names, avoiding identifying the area where they live, or as a last resort, or not showing their faces helps with some immigrants.

Make your interviewees comfortable

Showing up in the fields, a work site, or at somebody’s house with a truckload of lights, cables, a huge camera with a wide lens, and then expecting the interviewees to open up to us about their lives and vulnerabilities is no easy feat. Here are some things that have worked for me:

1) When I went to the fields, a community, or a place where people didn’t know I was coming, I would walk in without my photographer or camera gear. I would ask for permission, and explain what we were doing and why. “I am working on a story about back pain, that shows how you guys work bent over at the waist for eight hours a day and still manage to put food on our plates. It is a national health crisis, and it has to be identified if we want things to get better — at least for the next generation of workers.” I’d ask if anybody doesn’t want to be seen. As in any other situation, respect goes a long way.

2) Once they have agreed to be interviewed or showcased, the next big challenge is making them comfortable. I try to help them forget the camera, lights, recorder or notepad. I usually tell them who I am, why I got interested in the topic, how important this is for me and how grateful I am for their help. I remind them it’s not a live speech. They can rephrase or repeat any sentence or experience they get tangled in. I remind them it will be edited, and I let them see how the video is framed. If they have kids in the house, we show them the equipment — anything that helps them see us more as regular people and less as a concert crew. When I encountered someone who was especially nervous, I would ask the same questions with different words, something I learned from a woman I interviewed once who said to me, “Let me practice, and prepare my words and thoughts. You do this every day, and this is my first try.”

3) The most important piece of advice I can ever give a fellow reporter who is interviewing immigrants is to not treat them as victims. Whatever the story or the angle, have a clear understanding of the person who is sitting in front of you. Vulnerable, yes. Yet more courageous and determined than many of us will ever be. Immigrants are the ultimate dream-chasers; they have left their homes, risked their lives, and sacrifice every waking moment for a chance at a better future for their children. They are fighters, survivors, and a force to be reckoned with. However precarious the situation they may be in, they are aware of the battles they have won to be here, and are ready to take on more. If treated with dignity and not looked down upon, they are both willing and proud to share their stories.

Staying open to the reporter’s god

Call it a God, angel, spiritual force, luck, fate, serendipity or call me crazy, but I have unwavering faith that there is a certain magic that shrouds reporters who put themselves “out there.” I am not saying that I don’t use official channels and contacts. I do “Google” information, call organizations, and get names from PR contacts at hospitals and universities. But I got a few of the best elements in my project on “stolen time” — by visiting the fields without prior interviews set up, or from conversations that had nothing to do with this story, or from unrelated news coverage.

Although I can happily report that my back feels healthy with the adjustments I learned, I haven’t been able to eat strawberries since — they make my heart ache.

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