Home » Mariana Atencio: What Makes You Special? at TEDxUniversityofNevada (Transcript)

Mariana Atencio: What Makes You Special? at TEDxUniversityofNevada (Transcript)

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 a 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 and I remember when they gave me my first assignment to cover the historic election of President Barack Obama, and 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 8, 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 often times 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. And 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 note. 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.

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When it became apparent that Donald Trump was winning, this eight-year-old girl named Angelina rushed up to me in tears. She saw 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 OK. But I really didn’t know.

This was the photo that we took that night forever ingrained in my heart. Here was this little girl who was around the same age I was when I went to camp in Brainerd. She already knows she is the other. She walks home from school in fear every day her mom can be taken away.

So how do we put ourselves in Angelina 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 10, 2014, I was driving to the studio and I got a call from my parents: or you want 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 to 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. And this wasn’t like summer camp where I could magically make it better. This was terrifying.

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Throughout the course of two years, my sister underwent 15 surgeries and she spent 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 poor girl in a wheelchair. They were unable to see anything beyond that.

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