“I look at bilingualism as an asset, nothing less”

News Anchor Vanessa Ruiz gave a lecture about her role in shaping the news, and sometimes appearing in it.

By ZEKE HODKIN

COURTESY PHOTO
Vanessa Ruiz gave a lecture, “Speak American: How A News Anchor Became the News,” on Monday, Nov. 4 in the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs.

Arizona PBS news anchor Vanessa Ruiz, who made national headlines in 2015 for her accented pronunciation of words in Spanish while serving as broadcast anchor, visited Middlebury this week to share her unique experience as a reporter. Ruiz gave a lecture, “Speak American: How A News Anchor Became the News,” on Monday, Nov. 4. She also visited with students interested in media and communications careers at the Center for Careers and Internships, and ate with a cohort of students and faculty members from the Luso-Hispanic Studies Department.

In her lecture, held in the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs, Ruiz recounted her ascent to a nightly co-anchor position in the major television market of Phoenix. It was there that Ruiz faced racially-charged attacks for her on-air pronunciation of Spanish words, including the names of nearby towns, like “Mesa” and “Casa Grande.” The packed audience on a Monday afternoon included Spanish majors, professors and students interested in journalism.

Ruiz was born in Miami and raised in Colombia until the age of five. She entered the field of journalism in college in 2001, taking an internship with Telemundo, a global Spanish-language television network based in Miami. From there, Ruiz worked as a foreign correspondent in Nicaragua and Venezuela, where she covered Hugo Chavez’s last presidential election. She returned to the United States as a reporter for the local NBC news station in Los Angeles.

Ruiz noted that in each site with a large Hispanic population, she was able to speak in her native accent without question.

“Growing up and living in cities like Los Angeles and Miami, you really are in a bubble – a multicultural bubble,” she said.

It was only once Ruiz arrived at KPNX or 12 News, the local NBC affiliate in Phoenix, that she faced criticism for her pronunciation of certain words. After just one month on the job, local viewers hurled insults at Ruiz on Twitter. One user wrote, “I turn in to watch a newscaster, not a mariachi.” Another viewer suggested in the tweet that Ruiz be deported, adding, “She isn’t American she has no right to be here no matter how much some corporation paid for her.”

Ruiz was offered the chance, by her bosses and co-anchor, to respond on-air to the acerbic commentary about her. On live television, Ruiz offered a rebuke of her critics. 

“Some of you have noticed that I pronounce a couple of things maybe a little differently than you’re used to,” Ruiz said. “I do like to pronounce certain things the way they are meant to be pronounced.”

Following her response, Ruiz received support from local and national political figures, including Phoenix-area State Senator Martin Quezada. Quezada tweeted that “our news is now more mature, culturally accepting and accurate. How is that a bad thing?” The New York Times and BuzzFeed picked up the story and ran articles on Ruiz’s response to the contention she received.

The Phoenix community was also grateful that Ruiz decided not just to respond to backlash, but to stay at the news station too: they thanked her for not leaving. 

“What does that say about a community, when they have to tell you ‘thanks’ for not leaving?” She answered her own rhetorical question at the talk: “They had been feeling repressed, antagonized, attacked for so long.”

During her lecture, Ruiz attributed her desire to respond and her upstanding demeanor to the pride she has for her identity. Acknowledging the privilege she experiences as a “fair-skinned” Latina, Ruiz told students that she felt the need to stand up for Hispanics in the Phoenix area, a city whose population is roughly three-quarters white, according to Census data.

Ruiz now reports for the PBS NewsHour West, based out of Phoenix, as well as Arizona’s PBS station, which is owned by ASU. She is also a professor at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, where she directs their Borderlands program.

Ruiz says she tries to do news “the good way,” by aiming to diversify the newsroom and encourage more bilingual students in the classroom to follow their professional goals. 

“I look at bilingualism as an asset, nothing less,” Ruiz said.

Attendee Lila Sternberg-Schur ’21.5 read about Ruiz in professor Brandon Baird’s Hispanic Linguistics class last year. “Having the opportunity to hear Vanessa talk about what she’d experienced in person really brought the story to life and made it more tangible,” she said. 

In a hearty question-and-answer session at the end of Monday’s lecture, Ruiz answered questions about her identity and her experience in journalism. 

At one point in the Q&A, Ruiz spoke about the role journalists play in 2019, and how to write with one’s identity in mind.

“I still believe that I’m not the news – I shouldn’t be the news. At the end of the day, facts are facts,” she said. 

However, she said that having diverse journalists engaged in the newsroom is essential. 

“It’s up to us to bridge those gaps, and bring people together who may come from different backgrounds, different perspectives, and different experiences,” she said. “It’s not an easy muscle to flex, because it takes courage to be that person always raising your hand. But if we don’t do it, who will?”

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