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ABC News Host John Quiñones Favors Bridges Over Walls in Diversity Forum Keynote

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John Quiñones speaks to the UW Diversity Forum. Photo by Robert Chappell.

“Don’t worry about talking to the movers and the shakers. Talk to the moved and the shaken.”

That’s the advice a young John Quiñones got from legendary anchor Peter Jennings back in the 1980s. Quiñones, a young ABC News reporter covering Central America, on his first big assignment had been very excited to land an exclusive interview with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, only to have Ortega cancel. Quiñones called back to New York, fully expecting to be excoriated, maybe even fired. He got quite the opposite, as Jennings, already famous as ABC’s primary news anchor, told Quiñones not to worry about losing the interview, and instead focus on ordinary people and how the unrest in the region affected them.

Quiñones later spent two weeks in the sewers of Bogota, Colombia, among hundreds of homeless children forced to live underground. His story, which aired on Primetime Live, prompted $1 million in donations that allowed a caretaker to free the children from the sewers and build them a group home.

This was one of many anecdotes Quiñones shared with about 1,000 people at the UW Diversity Forum on Tuesday morning, kicking off the two-day event which features panel discussions and workshops on a variety of topics around diversity and inclusion at UW and throughout the community.

Quiñones recounted growing up in Texas, where his family had been settled for seven generations.

“We didn’t cross the border. The border crossed us,” he quipped.

He started school at the age of six, speaking only Spanish. At age 13, when his father was laid off from his job as a janitor, Quiñones spent months traveling the US with other Latino migrant workers, picking cherries and tomatoes for just cents per bushel.

That experience galvanized his desire to get an education, he said.

“I’ll never forget being on my knees on the cold, hard ground at six in the morning looking at a row of tomato plants. To the very young 13 year old boy’s eyes it seemed to go on for miles and miles,” he recalled. “That’s what I had to look forward to that day and my father Bruno looking down and saying, ‘Juanito, do you want to do this kind of work for the rest of your life or do you want to get a college education someday?’ It was a no brainer.”

He said by then he’d already decided he wanted to be a television reporter, thanks in large part to Geraldo Rivera, the only TV reporter with a Latino-sounding name.

“I thought he was Latino. Later I find out he’s only half,” Quiñones said with a laugh.

But, he said, to achieve that dream he’d have to get rid of his accent — and defy high school counselors who thought maybe wood shop or metal shop would suit him better.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with those great trades. A lot of my relatives make a good hard living doing that kind of work, but I wanted to go to college and my own teachers and my own counters that was going to my public school would do what people do on that show, ‘What Would You Do,’ every Friday night — they judged me by the color of my skin and the accent in my voice,” Quiñones said, referring to the show he now hosts, which has just been renews for its 13th season. The show sets up tense situations with actors to see how people react. Sometimes the situations test whether people will step in to defend victims of overt racism or sexism.

Quiñones recounted getting his first radio station internship, at a country music station where one of his main duties was feeding and cleaning up after the DJ’s horses. (“You have to be from Texas to understand that,” he joked.) He recalled obsessively recording his voice and making the station’s janitor, who spoke only Spanish, listen and critique his diction.

Eventually he got on the air, only to voice the words, “Now available at Walgreens,” and then finally to read the news between 1 and 4 am. 

Through hard work and chance meetings — as well as a penchant for seeing and grabbing opportunities when they arose — Quiñones went to Columbia University’s one-year graduate program in journalism, funded by an NBC News fellowship. He then landed a job in the CBS News Chicago bureau, where a story on undocumented workers got a restaurant owner arrested and won Quiñones his first Emmy Award.

“I knew then that those are the kinds of stories that as a Hispanic reporter — talk about the value of diversity — those are the kinds of stories that I could tell better than anyone,” he said.

He moved on to ABC News, where he covered Central America, much of which was embroiled in civil war, corruption and poverty at that time. He succeeded Bill Stewart, who had been shot and killed by soldiers, at least in part because he couldn’t explain himself in Spanish.

“The irony of all this did not escape me,” Quiñones said. “Here was a kid who used to get punished for speaking Spanish in class and I wind up getting my dream job in network television precisely because I spoke Spanish.”

It was in that job that he landed the interview with the president of Nicaragua, who then cancelled just two hours before the nightly newscast, when the great Peter Jennings (who, Quiñones said, “scared the hell out of me”) gently told the young reporter not to focus on the movers and the shakers — “those people can call a press conference any time,” Quiñones recalled Jennings saying — but instead focus on the moved and the shaken.

“And that’s all I did for the next 15 years, traipsing around Latin America, trying to do just that,” Quiñones said.

Referencing recent incidents in the news — including an acid attack on a Milwaukee man — Quiñones expressed dismay at the current political climate.

“Hate crimes in this country are up by 20% over the last two years,” he said. “Politicians keep talking about building higher and higher walls around this country, when in my humble opinion, we should be building stronger and stronger bridges between the beautiful mosaic of people in this country.”