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Author and journalist Alfredo Corchado delivers the 37th Joe Alex Morris Jr. Memorial Lecture Lisa Abitbol

Joe Alex Morris Jr. Lecture

Transcript: 37th Joe Alex Morris Jr. Memorial Lecture

Alfredo Corchado, Author and journalist

Thank you, Ann Marie, and everyone at the Nieman foundation for the kind invitation Thank you, friends, colleagues, class of 2019 for this wonderful and humbling tribute. I bring you greetings from El Paso and Mexico City, the two places – other than Lippmann House – that I’ve had the privilege of calling home. These are the places that have shaped me as a person and as a reporter.

First, let me say what an honor it is to stand before you, and not just on a program named in honor of Joe Alex Morris Jr., but on the shoulders of one of the most respected and courageous foreign correspondents – a colleague killed in the line of duty in Iran in 1979 for the Los Angeles Times.

To the family of Joe Alex, I’m grateful and incredibly humbled. I hope to honor his memory tonight. Thank you.

This tribute is not just about my work, or me, but about the people who shared their stories. It’s about giving voice to the voiceless on both sides of the border. And it’s about those who report in zones of conflict, in Mexico and around the world, but especially in the forgotten, misunderstood region I call home, the border.

So, Ann Marie, from the bottom of my heart, thank you because I can’t think of a more important time than today to bring attention to the border.

I was asked to talk about the challenges – crazy times, I might add – of covering what I consider to be the epicenter of my homelands. Just to give you an example, in the last 10 days, I’ve worked on stories about Central American families overwhelming shelters in El Paso, the building of a fence that federal authorities now conveniently refer to as a wall, a city heartbroken over their hometown hero – Beto O’Rourke – losing the U.S. senate race. I also just returned from Mexico City where I interviewed people in the migrant caravan making its way to the U.S. border, where more than 5,000 U.S. troops await them.

First, let me dispel some myths and offer some fundamental truths about me and the story I cover:

The border is not just a geographical place, but a mindset. The border is not a no-man’s land overrun by hordes of criminals in need of a wall to separate us from them. Undocumented immigration is at a historic low, although we’re seeing a spike in Central American families arriving at the border seeking asylum.

The border is a vibrant, booming region.  Every day 1.7 billion in trade crosses between Mexico and the United States. This means the two sides have never been so intertwined, yet so misunderstood and divided.

In my years as a correspondent, my job has mostly revolved around two things, both long-standing vices for Americans: America’s insatiable demand for drugs and undocumented workers who serve as cheap labor. Mexicans are the enablers for America’s charade.

I’m also an immigrant who arrived in this country at the age of six, the eldest of nine, a son of farmworkers who were once part of the United Farm Workers union. We were part of a new wave of immigrants who benefited from the Immigration Nationality Act signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966, in the backdrop of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

We came through a neighborhood known as Chihuahuita in El Paso, the city that is the Ellis Island of the Southwest. Like my parents, I too came of age in the fields. It was there that I first began to dream of a career as a journalist. I was 13 and California had an ordinance that you had to be at least 15 to work the fields. But we needed money for school supplies, clothing. We needed to work. My mother would make sure I had a large shirt, hat, anything to make me look older. Never tell anyone you’re 13, she’d remind me.

One day, a TV crew came and, I don’t know, I still think reporters are pretty smart. They took one look at me and probably thought to themselves, this kid isn’t 15. They made a beeline for me and much to my surprise I answered every question beginning with the most obvious one, yep, the one my mother told me never to answer: How old are you? 13, I said. And just like that they found what they were looking for. An underage kid faced with questions that ranged from what’s it like working in the fields without sanitation, or enough drinking water? I answered every question and as they left I remember being impressed, overwhelmed that anyone was curious enough to ask me anything. Someone actually cared about how I felt about this, or that. Someone wanted to give me a voice.

I was intrigued. I was inspired by this thing called journalism.

My father had once been enticed to the U.S. by famers who envisioned him picking every cotton field in West Texas, Arizona, California. My mother picked endless rows of tomatoes, melons and oranges.

I, on the other hand, was lured by an editor, Frank Allen, at The Wall Street Journal in Philadelphia. He saw a changing America and the need for a more diverse newsroom. He recruited me, a bilingual and bicultural reporter, to go out and tell the story of my parents. Our story. The story of millions on both sides of the border. It’s editors from Frank Allen, Ray Chavez, Kerry Gunnels, Tim Connolly, Keith Campbell and Dave Hiott who’ve helped me navigate the line.

As a young journalist I dreamed of becoming a foreign correspondent because, yes, I too wanted to shine the light on issues that mattered for both countries, and maybe even help build bridges of understanding between two peoples. But as I look back now I realize that my job as a foreign correspondent is really nothing more than my love affair with Mexico, my attempt to reconnect with my roots, my language.

I am not complete unless I’m telling stories with a foot in each country … even though who I am and what I represent – the native and outsider – is often met with as much rejection in Mexico as it is in the United States. I have spent years trying to shake the feeling that I am hopelessly American in Mexico and Mexican in America, never fully Mexican, never fully American, often feeling less than one, sometimes more than two, depending on the moment.

I have reported from a range of places, Cuba under the rule of the Castro brothers and over the years witnessed the exodus of more than one million people. Central America, where people are still trying to recuperate from past U.S.-led conflicts, ongoing drug wars driven by U.S. demand, and U.S.-bred gangs, and I’ve traveled to the cocoa fields of South America, and other parts of the world.

I’ve seen firsthand societies fall apart, and let me tell you, it doesn’t take much for the institutions and the values that you believe are solid to begin to crumble. It happens suddenly before anyone really realizes. I’ve seen leaders manipulate and magnify divisions. Become cult figures. Question election results. Cry vote fraud. Question the electoral system. Manipulate the public through media at the behest of a government. Lies become truth. Truths become lies. The media is weaponized. Reporters are suspect. I’m speaking about what I have seen throughout Latin America.

Attack the press. Imprison journalists. And when that’s not enough, kill journalists. In Mexico, journalists are threatened and killed by both drug cartels and corrupt government officials, sometimes working together.

It’s hard to get answers or justice for my fallen Mexican colleagues. They’re among the more than 240,000 Mexicans killed since 2007, 98 percent of those killings are unsolved, unpunished.

What makes me different from my Mexican colleagues? My U.S. passport, I’ve long believed.

On July 2007, I got a call from a trusted U.S. source asking me, “Where are you?”

“In Mexico City, in La Condesa,” I replied. Why?

“We have information that the Zetas plan to kill an American journalist within 24 hours and I think it’ s you. Get out.”

At the time, the Zetas were the most vicious of the cartels, paramilitary men, some of them trained by U.S. special forces.

I felt the ground under me collapse, my legs weaken, the life in me sucked away. I ended up leaving and found a safe haven as a 2009 Nieman Fellow. I came here to try and clear my head, figure things out. I took a class in classical music, narrative storytelling and was inspired to write a book by Anne Bernays and Connie Hale, and a community of support led by Bob Giles, June Erlick, Kalpana Jain, Margie Mason, Tommy Tomlinson, Julie Reynolds, Monica Almeida and too many others. But particularly three other Niemans: One Swedish and two Argentinians, Karin, Graciela and Gabriel, club de los secretos.

In the post-Nieman life I returned to Mexico. Three years later the man who had threatened me, the leader of the Zetas, a man known as 40, Muerte, Death, was captured. I got a call from the same U.S. source who said 40 has been nabbed. But hours later nothing is official yet. You need to break the story, or he might buy his way out again.

I mulled that over for a minute, or so, and thought of Bob Giles and his words, ‘No story is worth your life, Freddy.’ I also wondered:  Do I want to open old wounds again?  Do I want to rattle the feathers of the man who put a hit on my source and later tried to go after me, the messenger? I wrestled with the question as I thought of my colleagues who probably had the same information and couldn’t do a thing about it. I thought about the privilege I have and the fact that whatever danger I may face I’ll simply head to airport and return to Texas.

I broke the story and it went viral. That night I got a tweet from one woman who said simply: this evening you have moved Mexico.

The message was clear, reinforced, underscored: Truth matters, truth is our best defense, our most important protection; Truth, is our best weapon.

I tell that story because I want to make one thing very clear:  I am by no means more courageous than any of my Mexican colleagues. As bad as my situation may sound, the danger I face really pales in comparison to what my Mexican colleagues confront.

And I’ve always wanted to believe that if something happens to me, a U.S. citizen, someone, somewhere, someone in this room, will seek justice. I won’t be just another number, a faceless victim.

These days, I’m not so sure anymore. Today, the president of the United States calls the press the enemy of the people. Facts have become fake news. Journalism is the target. Accountability, which is needed to maintain the core of our institution, weakens, and gives rise to tribalism. Given the response from the administration following the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. legal permanent resident, I also worry about what has been the beacon of light for journalists all over the world, now fading.

Never in a million years did I expect to find myself as an American journalist at the Nieman Foundation appealing for the freedom and safety of American journalists at home. To stand here with CPJ and countless news organizations in support of Jim Acosta of CNN and to ask for justice for so many Mexican journalists, including Javier Valdez, is surreal.

These are moments of deep, self-reflection.

As I look back today, I realize I have never been so unsatisfied with my ability to truly convey the importance of two countries to one another. I’ve spent my career trying to be a bridge of understanding. These days I feel like a broken bridge forced to fight lies masquerading as “alternative facts,” fear mongering, race-baiting.

Not long ago, there was the startling news that ISIS was on the border. I’m not making this up.

Yes, my mother said, it’s all over the news. This must be serious, I thought, especially if the news has hit the Spanish language media. I watched that evening as the border was front and center on Fox News. ISIS was in Anapra, a suburb of Ciudad Juarez. The next day, my colleague and partner Angela Kocherga and I crossed the border and we went straight to Anapra to look for ISIS. We walked into a store and there on the front page of the Diario de Juarez: ISIS in Anapra.

The kind shopkeeper assured me they were nowhere in sight.

He said I can tell if newcomers are from Zacatecas, or Durango, or Jalisco just based on their accent. I would know immediately if they’re from the Middle East. They stand no chance here. He added I’ve called my relatives back in El Paso and told them, don’t worry, we have your back.

I called the people responsible for spreading the fear, the rumor really, Judicial Watch, and said: hi, this is Alfredo Corchado of The Dallas Morning News. I’m currently in Anapra with a colleague. Can you give us the address where ISIS is hiding?

Are you crazy? He responded.

No, I’m just trying to verify the information. You’ve scared the crap out of people here. What is your information based on? No one takes a threat of terrorism more serious than border residents. It’s home to them. Where’s your information coming from?

Intelligence, he said.

So you must know. Can you elaborate? Did you even come here?

I’ve spent much time on the border, he said.

The Mexican side? Anapra.

The border, he said.

The story ran. Judicial Watch threatened to sue us. They haven’t to this day.

Yes, these are dark days on the border. We’ve gone from the “Pass of the North” to a punching bag.

We are the passage for people who traveled through filled with hope on their way north. Some leave behind pieces of themselves, from mementos to bones in the desert. Some die on their way to a better life, drowned in the Rio Grande, succumbed to sweltering desert heat, suffocated in eighteen-wheeler trucks in railroad boxcars. Others suffer unimaginable heartache. PTSD. Parents separated from children, children separated from parents. Tornillo, just south of El Paso, has become Tent City, a temporary detention center, for Central American teenagers.

These scenes of separation, detention and death haunt us. Their memories are a heaviness we carry on the border, which has become the perfect piñata for politicians.

Hit it and the sweet rewards are rising fear and poll numbers that go up and up. Hit it and watch the algorithms respond in kind. More clicks. More likes. More shares.

Sometimes I wonder to what extend do we in the media play in whipping people into a frenzy as we report on a manufactured “crisis” on the border.

I struggle with that question at a time of dwindling international coverage. When budgets are smaller. Newsrooms are tiny. At one point, The Dallas Morning News had the largest bureau of any U.S. newspaper. We had 12, 13 people that included drivers, translators, a security consultant, Television and print reporters. We’re now down to one, me. And I cover both countries.

So, what do we do? The answer is simple: We PRESS ON. We dig deeper for truth. We do more reporting, seek more facts, more humanity to aim not just for the minds, but for the soul of readers and viewers.

I’m obviously not the first, or the last person to say this, but I believe it with all I have, all my heart, now more than ever. There is truth. There are lies. There is fiction and deceptions, crooked lies and it is our job to point that out, even when it seems some don’t care about facts, others refuse to listen, or acknowledge when they’re wrong.

Over the weekend, I was at a sports complex in Mexico City with some 5,000 Central American migrants, preparing to head north.

I interviewed a Honduran man, Edwin Edgardo Hernandez, who talked about the reasons why he was making the journey – the same reasons Germans, Irish, Italians, my own parents talked about decades ago: Jobs. Poverty, a search for opportunity. Possibility. Safety.

Weeks ago, Edwin said, his former boss sent word to his community via recruiters that construction jobs await him and others to build stores like Walmarts and Home Depots – the kind of construction work he once did here in the U.S., the very work that once helped him earn enough money to build a home back in Honduras. I thought of my own father who once worked as a seasonal laborer when Americans needed people to pick crops and were so desperate for them that they made sure he got a green card. Because they wanted to make sure he’d come back and work in a fickle country. A cruel irony.

My father’s story, right before me, was repeating itself. Edwin was headed north where troops awaited him and a wall is supposed to stop him. He is the latest immigrant.

When I asked what do you want Americans to know, he thought for a second, and responded: Just tell them the truth.

Thank you.