There’s a romanticized notion of the roving reporter traversing the globe seeking that one story that turns into a Pulitzer-winning epic or at least a novel. I often think of one of my favorite writers, Ernest Hemingway, who started his life as a reporter. Heck, throw another of my favorites in there, Mark Twain.
This reporter lives out of a bag of clothes, a typewriter (because that’s more romantic an idea), and possibly a camera. That’s it. Nothing more.
I met such a person years ago. While working at WGCU as the host of a program called Gulf Coast Live, someone told me about a student at the college, FGCU, who had a great spring break. I met Alex Pena a few weeks later, and I knew he had to be on the show.
When Alex was a junior, he decided to take his Spring Break in Juarez, Mexico. Now, understand this was the late 2000s, and Juarez, at the time, was considered one of the most dangerous cities on the planet. Alex wanted to go on a reporting mission, and mind you, he wasn’t working for any news organization. He was a freelancer. That launched him into a decade-long journey through places like Kenya, Sudan, Afghanistan, Cuba, and Haiti, just to name some of the many places he’s reported from.
We spoke in The Reporter’s Studio to get an inside look at the life of a war-correspondent and world-traveling reporter.
Alex Pena – It’s interesting to reflect on that now because perhaps some people would have done that story and moved on. I haven’t been back to that city every year since, probably multiple times. Some of my best friends still live in that city. I have taught classes back in that same city, so I almost don’t want to reflect on what I said at that time because my friends have a kick over probably how terribly I misinterpreted the story and situation at the time and have such a better understanding of it now. But the idea was it had essentially become the most dangerous city in the world at the time. It dealt with eight to 10 murders a day for over a year. So I remember thinking, I’ve got a camera, I’ll go. I reached out to some local students, and these are the ones I ended up becoming friends with. So I documented it. We sort of rode along with some police. We went to some crime scenes, ended up selling the footage to CNN at the time, and sort of spiraled from there in terms of like talking to you and where it was published. That still is the most dangerous and violent time in the city’s history to date, sort of how the city got there. It’s been really fascinating. So it sort of was this like climax of me being ready to get out into the world and what was happening there. And it all sort of unraveled and happened at once. But it’s a story that I live with.
TRS – I remember you telling me that at one point you were meeting with somebody at a restaurant, and you had missed – like by a day – a shooting at that restaurant.
Alex Pena – Yeah. At this point, that’s happened multiple times in my trips back there. Not to say that it’s no longer violent. It’s just not as violent as it used to be. But, yeah, that was a common occurrence, especially what would happen more often is that you would end up in a neighborhood, that there was a shooting, and you would leave or get there earlier before the police, and there would be another shooting. Or sometimes, you would hear the gunfire go off. I think that specific incident was a shooting in a nightclub in that area. I mean, it’s sort of like you don’t see the violence until you do. And sort of as your time goes on in these dangerous areas, you go, Oh, you know, that was five hours ago, that was two days ago. Had I been there six hours earlier, three hours later? And you sort of try not to think about all those things, but that’s sort of daily life for people who live under these circumstances.
TRS – When you finished school, where did you go?
Alex Pena – Right after I graduated, I freelanced in Nairobi, Kenya, for several organizations, mainly for Voice of America news, television, and radio. I continued trying to build on what I had experienced in Juarez, Mexico, and using some of those contacts. With just a camera and a backpack, I learned that you can do a lot. You didn’t need all the gear, crews, and technology that I had thought you might need to do the work. And so I just sort of went for it.
TRS – How did you end up in Nairobi?
Alex Pena – One-way ticket. I just found it fascinating at the time. It was the height of the war on terror, which defined my generation in terms of our international news and our consumption of what was happening globally. So I was going to go straight to Iraq or Afghanistan, where all of the action was happening. But there was this younger brother group to Al Qaeda operating out of Somalia, who actually I learned through one of my favorite rappers. His name was K’naan. He was a Somali refugee who lived in Kenya and made his way to the United States and became sort of like an underground hip hop artist where I started learning about what was happening in East Africa. So my thought process was, I can’t just sort of roll into Kabul and embed myself with the military, but I can move myself to Nairobi, Kenya, and get on to the leading edge of what was going to happen, where the war on terror was going to go, and eventually, it did. Our war sort of shifted to this drone warfare, technological warfare that was playing out across Yemen and East Africa at the time, as opposed to the Middle East and Central Asia. So that was my thought try and go there, see what I can pull off. I lived there for six, seven months, embedded myself in Somalia, made my way to South Sudan and was selling radio and T.V., really anything. I was a yes man, but it worked out and I just sort of made my way around from there.
TRS – In all of these places you’ve been in and all the travels you’ve had, how often did you find yourself in a situation where you thought, I don’t want to be here, or this is too dangerous, or maybe you didn’t?
Alex Pena – I feel like we journalists suffer from this a lot, which is we sort of constantly comparing ourselves to what other journalists are doing or what other journalists are uncovering. I would find myself, let’s say, living in Nairobi, Kenya, covering a water crisis. But the next journalist over was under fire in southern Somalia. And so, there was always this sort of degree of separation from what the danger level could be. And I never felt like I was this war correspondent. In a sense, I just felt like I was trying to make my way through these sort of like uniquely challenging places and then in retrospect going, yeah, actually, I had been under fire, or I had dealt with these dangerous people. So it’s hard to process; was it ever too dangerous? Was it not too dangerous? Probably. But we are also very mission-driven, mission-oriented people, and that sort of always comes in retrospect. But it’s one of those things that you sort of decide early on, are you willing to pay the ultimate price for this job? And if you are, that becomes a part of it. A well-known journalist war correspondent who I started following said that there were three phases that war correspondents go through, and the first one was like the Superman phase, where it’s like I can do anything, and I’ll never be harmed. And then the second one was, I can do most things, maybe I’ll be harmed. And then the third one was, something will happen to me if I stay here any longer. I think probably throughout the last 10 years, I’ve been through all of those phases now, which has brought an onset and change in my career and how I want to sort of do things. But maybe you need those different phases to get things done because if you approach everything very objectively, it’s actually maybe this is not worth it for me to be here right now, but we need people to do that, right?
TRS – You lived with your backpack and gear, traveling around and embedding yourself in all kinds of locations. Obviously, there’s a romantic version of this story, but I mean, what was life like for you those five years?
Alex Pena – There’s is no doubt that there was absolutely a romanticized version of what war correspondent life would be like, or even just foreign correspondents and journalism in general, whether it’s abroad or domestic, that goes away very quickly. The plane touches down in the new sites and the smells and the new foods, and then it’s like, well, where am I going to get my next paycheck? Where am I going to sleep tonight? Suddenly, this idea of traversing the globe with your backpack and a camera and meeting fascinating people becomes a job. You have to figure out how to do it. When I moved to Kenya, I moved into a Kenyan Boys Youth Hostel in a slum in Nairobi because it was eight dollars a night to stay there, and they gave you free breakfast and tea. So it was only up to me to eat dinner. So little tricks like that. And that’s where my saving grace if you embedded with any sort of military, whether it was Kenyan U.S. military eventually, I ended up doing 13 months with the U.S. military in Afghanistan, free housing, free food. That was a freelancer’s dream, really. I loved what I was doing. I was happy, but it was very much a struggle.
TRS. – What’s the scariest moment you had?
Alex Pena – Up until recently, I was embedded with CBS correspondent Manuel Bojorquez, and we were crossing into the Darien Gap, which is run by the cartel del Golfo in Colombia, and they’re essentially trafficking all of the Haitian migrants from Colombia to Panama through the jungle. And it sounds so silly, but we had a terrifying moment when the boat we were on in the middle ocean started taking on water. And I remember thinking out of all of the places and things – a boat in Colombia – I would not have guessed that. Luckily, we had two engines, and we were able to sort of, our guy, I don’t know what he was doing. I’m a boater for life, and he had put some plastic bags in rubber bands into that engine. I don’t know how he made it work, but he did, and we kept going, and we just sort of looked at each other like, man, you know, if you would’ve told us how we’d go, we wouldn’t have guessed this situation. So, people think the war and the bullets and the bombs, yes, absolutely, but it’s not always that. It’s maybe a car ride somewhere, a crazy taxi driver, it can be anything like that. I mean, that’s not to downplay the dangers that we face while embedded in Afghanistan. There are times when shelling was a big issue. Insider attacks. Sometimes the fear of what’s your most dangerous moment is worse than actually being in one. I was there in 2013-to-2014 when the Afghan soldiers were turning on the U.S. soldiers on their bases. And you just didn’t know who to trust, which was so sad because these were the people they were arming and training to secure the country. You know, that was really scary.
TRS – Is there a moment or person you were talking to that you found most fascinating?
Alex Pena – I think I cried interviewing a young girl crossing the border in the Rio Grande, like three or four months ago. I think people want to hear; that I spoke with this drug cartel. I’ve interviewed sicarios, and I’ve interviewed militants and all that. It’s almost less fascinating to me than just the raw human emotion of somebody that wouldn’t have had a voice. There are these moments where I feel like if I wasn’t here, nobody would hear what these people have to say, and that is so powerful to me. Those are like, they’re really moving interviews that I really live for. If I can secure an interview with the president, great, but I’m not the only one who can do that. But when you find yourself in these places where you’re pretty confident that this person’s story would have been told had you not been there. I think that, to me, is journalism, right? That’s why we do it.
TRS – You see how journalists are treated here, in the U.S. What are journalists treated like beyond our borders?
Alex Pena – Unfortunately, you don’t have to go far to find the most dangerous country in the world for journalists, which is Mexico, quite literally right across the border. I think about it almost every day because I still have friends that operate in and cover scary stories. There is a level of privilege for Americans and foreign journalists operating in these locally dangerous countries, say Somalia or Afghanistan. There is a level of geopolitics, a sort of spear of coverage that you have that people don’t want to involve themself in. That’s not to say that American journalists, let’s say in Mexico, are not in danger, but we are far safer than local journalists ever will be. I’ve experienced it myself where people want to go with me on stories if they’re local because they think it gives them extra protection. Now, of course, American journalists have been killed across the globe, but it pales in comparison to the number of local journalists who are jailed, killed, and kidnapped. It is deplorable, and unfortunately, that number is going up across the globe.
TRS – What do you think about what you’re seeing these last few years here?
Alex Pena – I never really worried about my safety as a journalist in the United States; that was never an issue. Over the past four or five years, CBS has hired security for us in specific assignments domestically. Considering the political violence that we’ve seen, we have been arrested, and we still get attacked for the protesting side on both sides of that aisle. The level of respect for journalism and people will come up with their own conclusions of where that came from. Definitely has deteriorated, and that to me is just like a sentient feeling that I’ve had over the last few years where I felt like we were very respected in the field and people wanted to talk to us. To now, that level of disrespect has actually become violent at times.
TRS – You’re working on documentaries. And that’s a massive shift. You’re working on these huge projects that take time. Why the shift? Why did you want to do that?
Alex Pena – It’s been roughly a little over a decade in the daily news. And I’m sure I will miss that rush. I mean, that feeling of watching that sort of headline drop and then you go, I’m going, or who am I going to call next? That’s a really vivid way to live life. It’s exhilarating. But after sort of reflecting back on the last years in journalism, I sort of wanted to find what’s a way to dive deeper into certain narratives. They make this joke about journalists. We can talk a bit about a lot of things. And that’s probably very true. So perhaps as I enter this new phase of my life, I’d like to become more hyper-focused on one thing or choose one issue and take a deeper dove and help people really understand it. I absolutely understand the nuances of television and what I work for, and how much information we can give in a one-minute and 30-second television piece. I’ve always felt television is very important to show people what’s happening, but it doesn’t necessarily always do the best job in helping people understand why or contextualize what’s happening. So me moving into documentaries, the T.V. version of context, right, is to take an issue that perhaps I’ve been working on for the last 10 years but only talked a bit of a lot of times and really bring the viewer into those moments and help them sort of understanding. It’s a different beast. I’ve been seeing these headlines and breaking news come across, and my first reaction is to grab the bag. And I’m like, wait, no, I can’t go. I’m working on something else that’s also important. So that part’s been sort of complicated, but I’m happy to try it. CBS is investing a lot right now in streaming and documentary. It’s undoubtedly where the future of television is going. So, a part of it is me trying to get involved in that as well. And we’ll see. I mean, I think journalism is reinventing itself right now, and this is my sort of trying to be a part of it.
TRS – Do you think you’re going to go back to that life? That wandering life? Or is that done?
Alex Pena – It’s not done. I don’t know that that ever goes away. Again, as you have known it for longer than I have, journalism is a lifestyle. There are a lot of other ways to make a lot more money. That’s for sure. And if that was the case, we probably both be doing that. But once you’re in this? It’s for life.
TRS – What do you think people get wrong about what we do? And is that on us to try to help them understand it?
Alex Pena – If they do not understand it, perhaps it is on us. I’m absolutely a believer that if we’ve lost the faith of the American public, then it’s perhaps something we’re not doing right. What I think is lost, and people don’t understand, is that we are trained to do what we do. For the most part, most of us. Most of us wanted to be journalists, a trade, and we studied how to do it properly. We learned the correct methods, and we implemented them. And so I feel like what gets lost in this really politically divisive world is, let’s say, in the blue and white world, take a carpenter, for example, who may like blue and squares, but he’s a trained carpenter, and if he has to make a red circular table, he absolutely can. Nothing would stop him from or make him do it inaccurately. And I feel like because people have all of these assumptions of us as journalists and where we come from and what we do in our backgrounds -you and I are both Latino journalists – there is no doubt that when we step into a room, people make assumptions about who we are and where we come from and what we believe. But we’re journalists at the end of the day, so we have learned to approach stories as unbiasedly as possible. We have learned how to craft stories and tell voices to people we agree with and disagree with; it makes no difference to me whether I agree with you. And I think that’s been lost in the really politically divisive world, the social media world, where people feel like they’re getting raw news from live feeds on Twitter and live feeds on Facebook. But those people have a
This is a production of City of Dreamz Media Inc.