Listening to writer and professor Teresa Puente talk about journalism is like a call to arms, both for journalists and the people they serve.
“I think there’s a greater need for journalism today than any other point in my lifetime,” she said. “And democracy is in peril if we don’t support quality journalism.” We talked over the phone in February, before COVID-19 took hold in the U.S. What she spoke about then has a new kind of urgency in the face of a global pandemic, when information and misinformation alike are wielded like weapons in some sort of social media war. “I often say, there’s always a need for farmers. The food doesn’t just show up at the market, right? People cultivate it, and then deliver it to the markets. It’s the same concept with journalism. Information doesn’t show up. It has to be reported and vetted and verified.”
“Democracy is in peril if we don’t support quality journalism.”
Now living in California, where she teaches journalism at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), Teresa got her start back in her hometown of Chicago. “In high school, I had a teacher who just encouraged me. He told me that I had a talent for writing, which I did not know I did.” She studied journalism and political science at Indiana University, becoming the first generation in her family to go to college.
After college she worked as a reporter, moving between California, Chicago, Mexico, and D.C. “One of my first jobs out of college was, I worked at Hispanic Link News Service in Washington, D.C.,” she said. “And my mentor was an amazing person named Charlie Ericksen,” who founded the newswire in 1979. “Working for Hispanic Link really shaped my values as a journalist,” she said. “Telling fair and accurate stories about the Latino community is a central part of what’s driven me as a journalist. And I learned those lessons really from Charlie.”
Teresa came back home to Chicago, where she went on to work at both of the city’s biggest newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times. “That was pretty cool, being a Chicana from Chicago, to have worked at both those places,” she said. She still remembers her first front-page story at the Tribune, about early Mexican migration to Illinois. “I was very proud of that story. You know, to show that the Mexican community had more than a century living in Illinois.” While at the Tribune she also earned an MFA in creative writing at Columbia College, the place where she’d later begin her teaching career.
Over the years, Teresa moved away and back to Chicago a few times. She’s been in California for about four years, and she thinks this move is going to stick. “One, I can’t handle winter anymore,” she laughed. “But two, I am working at a university now where literally, I am training the next generation of Latino journalists, of Latinx journalists. I’m in a program where around fifty percent of my students are Latinx, and that’s really meaningful to me,” she said. Teresa created the first bilingual journalism course at CSULB. She and the students of that course launched the first Spanish-language news magazine in Long Beach: Díg en Español. “I told my students, ‘We made history. We made history.’”
Nowadays, Teresa devotes most of her time to teaching. But it’s important to her that she doesn’t just teach–she’s still a working journalist, and has published work in Time, The Guardian, Vice, and more. “I still do it. But I put more of my energy now into training the next generation of journalists, who we need–especially bilingual, bicultural journalists.” In addition to teaching at CSULB, she’s a senior facilitator with the OpEd Project, a social venture started in 2008 that trains and supports underrepresented voices to become thought leaders. Through that work, she said, “I help under-represented voices, particularly women, people of color, LGBTQ voices who aren’t journalists, but maybe they’re professors or nonprofit leaders or activists.” Between her work at CSULB and the OpEd Project, she trains over 500 people a year to report or tell their own stories. “I see that as part of my mission, to train the next generation of journalists, and then amplify people who have powerful personal experience or expertise to tell their own stories.”
“The Studs Terkel Awards, it’s like the Oscars of journalism for Chicago.”
Teresa won the Studs Terkel Community Media Award in 2000, back when Studs was an active participant in the ceremony. Getting the award “was really one of the most meaningful moments of my life,” she said. “The Studs Terkel Awards, it’s like the Oscars of journalism for Chicago.” Recalling the moment Studs himself presented her with the award, Teresa said he referenced a saying from organizer and farmworker Jessie De La Cruz. “He said one of the things they used was, ‘hope dies last.’” A few years later, it would be the title of one of Studs’ books. “It stuck with me, this idea that hope dies last–you know, that we can’t give up hope. We can’t give up hope on people. We can’t give up hope on democracy. We can’t give up hope on the power of journalism.”
The 26th Annual Studs Terkel Community Media Awards will take place on September 24, 2020. Nominations are open now through May 31–go to bit.ly/Terkel2020 to review guidelines and nominate a community-driven Chicago journalist.
Voices of our Time is a series by blog editor Mareva Lindo, featuring interviews with past winners of the Studs Terkel Community Media Award. Previous pieces in the series have featured Tracy Baim and Dave Hoekstra.