By June Carolyn Erlick
I always assumed Róbinson Rojas was Dominican. For decades now, I’ve been carrying around his words or posting them on my walls. I was given these inspiring words by my dear friend, the photojournalist Ramón DeJesús Lora, then a Dominican exile, when I entered Columbia School of Journalism in 1969.
“A la pequeña legión de periodistas latinoamericanos y norteamericanos, anónimos en su mayoría, que cada día son humillados, son ofendidos y hasta torturados moralmente, porque están empeñados en una tarea peligrosa: descubrir la verdad.” That translates as, “To the small legion of Latin American and North American journalists, anonymous for the most part, who every day are humiliated, insulted and even morally tortured because they are bent on carrying out a dangerous task: to discover the truth.”
I went to journalism school before Watergate, which for many was a watershed in journalistic truth seeking. But my neighbors in a Dominican neighborhood of New York, including Ramón, had already taught me the value and perils of truth seeking in journalism; they had experienced the Trujillo dictatorship and the U.S. invasion of Santo Domingo. Journalism was their lifeline.
Rojas’ words served as a model for my life as a foreign correspondent—whether in Bogotá, Managua or even eventually Berlin. The part about danger became more and more painfully personal. My friend Richard Cross and our colleague Dial Torgerson were blown up by a land mine in northern Nicaragua; Linda Frazier, a reporter for the Tico Times in Costa Rica, who had planted roses in my San José garden, was killed by a bomb intended for contra leader Eden Pastora; other reporters met their fate in Central American crossfire.
Yes, there were risks, as the courageous journalists in Mexico are experiencing now. Journalism can be scary, but the truth is, it’s also fun and exciting. We journalists like to tell stories; we like to figure out sources, and, yes, we like to ferret out the truth.
That’s why practicing journalism in Latin America is both enriching and challenging. It’s a continent of story tellers. It’s a continent where truth is often hidden, but where reporters, through digging, can bring down governments or put into motion international indignation about human rights abuses. It was, after all, the death of a courageous editor, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, that brought down the decades-long Somoza dictatorship in Managua.
Gabriel García Márquez called journalism the best job in the world. I couldn’t agree more. “Journalism,” he said in a 1996 speech to the Inter American Press Association, “is an unappeasable passion that can be assimilated and humanized only through stark confrontation with reality.”
In addition to my job as editor-in-chief of ReVista, I teach journalism at Harvard Extension School. Sometimes my students confront me and ask me if journalism is dead, and why am I not teaching them tweeting and social media and blogs. And I insist that those are the new tools of journalism, and very valuable tools, but to practice journalism, one must understand how to report and write and search for the truth.
Many of the journalists in this issue are involved with new ways of story telling; all of them are committed to truth seeking. With still relatively low but growing Internet penetration, Latin American journalism has the advantage of time to prepare in a creative way for a digital future.
As I began to write this editor’s letter, I realized that after a recent move, I had Róbinson Rojas’ words tucked inside some unpacked box. I resort to Google, thinking that I will never be able to find the quote. It pops up immediately. And after 42 years, I discover that Róbinson Rojas was not Dominican, but Chilean.