Julie Schwietert Collazo is a
Upon her return from Mexico, Schweitert Collazo took time to talk with All Digitocracy over the weekend about the challenges she and other journalists faced covering last week’s protest in Mexico and how she used Facebook and Instagram during the protest march to assure her U.S.-based husband about her safety, but also to give readers a feel for what went into her reporting. It’s important for people to understand the process, Schweitert Collazo said. She also shared what journalists and protesters who are in Ferguson, Missouri awaiting the grand jury decision in Michael Brown’s shooting death by officer Darren Wilson might learn from their counterparts in Mexico City.
Schweitert Collazo’s stories about the Mexican protest are being carried by Al Jazeera America, Foreign Policy and Remezcla. She lives with her husband, Cuban-born photographer Francisco Collazo, and their three children in New York City.
All Digitocracy: How, as a freelancer, did you land this assignment?
Julie Schwietert Collazo: It’s always a freelancer’s dream to stack multiple assignments on a single subject, especially when it requires travel, and I was fortunate to have four assignments related to the protest and to the situation with the disappeared students in Mexico generally. The assignment with Al-Jazeera America came as the result of a pitch I’d sent out a couple weeks earlier to an editor in which I had expressed interest in covering Mexico and Latin America for them on an ongoing basis. She had replied to say she’d be interested, and could I cover this particular situation first? The assignment with Foreign Policy resulted from a last-minute query I sent to the editor with whom I worked on a previous assignment related to Mexico. I mentioned that I was going to be in Mexico City for the protest– did he want any on-the-ground coverage? It turns out that yes, he did. And the piece for Remezcla was cold-pitched; I didn’t have an existing editorial relationship there. But I knew that website really well and felt that I had a story and an angle that was really spot-on for them, and it turns out, it was. Finally, I’m a regular contributor to Latin Correspondent, so I knew I’d be able to provide some coverage for that outlet as well.
AD: Have you covered protests before? In the U.S.? In Mexico? Elsewhere?
JSC: The topical scope of my work is pretty broad–from arts, culture, and food to tech, the environment, science, and politics, but geographically speaking, it almost always involves Latin America. I speak Spanish fluently, am married to a Cuban, have lived in Puerto Rico and in Mexico, and have traveled (and continue to travel) extensively in the region throughout the past 20 years, so my life is deeply entwined and aligned with Latin America. I have covered protests before, but I was never immersed in the midst of one in the way I was last week.
AD: How did you prepare for the assignment in advance?
JSC: The assignments all came together in less than 24 hours, really, so there wasn’t much time to prepare. I’d been following the situation in Mexico regarding the missing students since it first made news, and I’d been reporting about it for various outlets, too, so I didn’t necessarily need to do a lot of prep work, topically speaking.
The greatest amount of preparation was logistic in nature: buying a plane ticket, booking a room close to the protest site, and making sure all my gear–cameras, lenses, laptop, batteries, memory cards, USB cords, adapters, etc.–was organized and ready to pack. The other prep work involved my family; my husband and I have three children, so anytime I’m leaving for work, it requires a bit more preparation than it might for a journalist who doesn’t have those considerations. We contacted a couple neighbors who could drop our oldest daughter off at school and pick her up; I also wrote a note to the school to let her teacher know that the neighbors were authorized to pick her up. I reminded my husband about where he could find a copy of my passport should something happen to me, and printed out my flight and lodging information for him so he’d have it at hand.
AD: Did you have a handler or bodyguard to help you cover the protest? Did you feel like you needed one?
JSC: I had neither a handler nor bodyguard with me to cover the protest. I did not feel like I needed one. For one thing, the protest was expected to be peaceful, and for the most part, it was. Also, I had lived in Mexico City for two years and I’m there frequently for work and because I love it and miss it and need it, so I knew the physical/geographical areas the protest was covering.
AD: Were the protests what you expected? Were they peaceful?
JSC: It seems strange, in retrospect, to say this, but I don’t think I had formed any expectations about what the protests would be like, probably because the trajectory from pitch to assignment to actually being on the ground and doing the work was so short. Mexico has a long, fascinating tradition of public protest; I knew there would be lots of people and I knew they’d be carrying posters and signs and banners representing different political, social, and ideological factions. I had no idea, though, that there would be as many people as there were; one local media outlet reported that 30,000 people showed up.
One thing I didn’t expect and that was definitely notable was the total absence of uniformed police officers along the three march routes. I didn’t see a single one. I wasn’t so naive as to think police weren’t there in plain clothes, but the absence of uniformed officers was certainly interesting. In Mexico, police officers can’t carry weapons when they are policing protests–unless those protests become violent. Still, the history of police abuses during mass protests is well-known, and I was very aware of the fact that the site Tlatelolco, where student protesters were killed by police and military in 1968, was just a couple miles away.
The protest was incredibly moving to me. I started out in the Zócalo at 4:30 pm to check out the “before” scene; the Zócalo, Mexico City’s main plaza, is where the protesters were intending to end up at the end of their march. From there, I walked up to the Monument of the Revolution and throngs of people were already en route to the Zócalo, more than 90 minutes before the march was even scheduled to start. From there, I headed up to the statue of the Angel of Independence, where the second wave of marchers was to step off; they were already streaming down Reforma, one of the city’s main avenues, too. There were people from every walk of life, every background, every age: grandmas and grandpas, babies and kids, people with disabilities. People carrying candles and signs that said “Non-violent March” and those who wore bandanas covering three-fourths of their faces, a couple of them carrying spray paint cans and tagging messages of anger and resistance on newsstands, walls, and sidewalks. There were people who brought drums and guitars and horns, playing music. There wasn’t pushing or anger or discord among the marchers, even when they came upon a roadblock that was intended to impede their progress toward the Zócalo. There was just this intense sensation of solidarity.
Upon arriving to the Zócalo, which was packed, that feeling was even stronger, but there was also tension; on the far end of the plaza, in front of the National Palace, the symbolic seat of the president, a very small faction, which would come to be dubbed by local press as “anarchists” were hurling insults, garbage, bottles, and Molotov cocktails at riot police who were posted in front of the palace. Over the course of about an hour, that tension escalated and finally culminated in riot police swarming into the crowd, pushing us back across the plaza and blocking off escape routes.
AD: Based on the reports we received about protests in Ferguson, were journalists arrested or impeded in doing their job in Mexico?
JSC: It’s a well-known fact that being a journalist in Mexico is a very dangerous profession. If you’re a journalist who is also documenting events with a camera, it’s even more so. At least four journalists were injured, according to a report in local media and at least one had his cameras confiscated. Journalists aren’t only in danger because of riot police; they’re in danger, at times, with respect to protesters, who may view them as spokespeople for/representatives of the government.After the protest, Mexico-based journalist Shannon Young tweeted two observations about journalists in the protests that I thought were poignant:
- “For the last couple of years, photojournalists covering marches have been the most at-risk category of journalists working in Mexico City,” and
- “When police target photojournalists, they are effectively slapping blinders on a population that didn’t or couldn’t attend a demonstration.”
AD: Were journalists subjected to harassment from police patrolling the protest march?
JSC: As I mentioned, there weren’t any police patrolling the march– at least not in uniform– and I’m not aware of any harassment in this context, nor did I experience any personally.
JSC: I definitely see similarities. For one thing, there’s the sense that “The People” are being sold a bill of goods about a situation and a story, and that bill of goods is just one of many that their respective communities have been handed. And in both places, these particular episodes represented a “We can’t and won’t take this anymore” tipping point. There’s also, I think, a growing (and, in my opinion, absolutely justifiable) rage about the privilege of the powers that be. Privilege not only economically and in terms of decision-making power, but also in terms of controlling narratives, and I think the utter exasperation and persistence of protests we’re seeing is an attempt to contest that privilege. Then there’s the similarity regarding the use of social media. This isn’t unique to Ferguson and Mexico, as the Arab Spring and other recent movements have used social media to their advantage as well, but that doesn’t mean they are unimportant. In particular, social media’s power to disperse information and in-the-moment happenings from the ground–and, crucially, spread it beyond the immediate area so that it gets picked up by a more global audience–are really unrivaled when it comes to a protest.
AD: What isn’t getting reported about what’s happening in Mexico in terms of the missing students and other reasons behind the protest?
JSC: My immediate answer is “So much,” but this applies to our U.S. coverage of Mexico news generally. Our coverage of Mexico is, for the most part, terribly lacking in context. Our media do a very poor job of providing the historical, social, and cultural contexts that are needed to really understand what’s going on. Again, I don’t think this is unique to our coverage of Mexico–look at our coverage of Africa (I mean, the very treatment of an entire continent as a single place, for one thing, presents problems) and the Middle East (ditto- a whole, complex region presented as one entity)–but because Mexico is my particular wheelhouse, I’m especially sensitive to noticing what’s lacking in our coverage.
What’s challenging, too, about reporting this particular protest and the situation of the missing students is how confusing it all seems, especially as an “outsider.” On November 7, Mexico’s attorney general held a press conference in which he reported that three men had been arrested and had subsequently confessed to kidnapping, killing, and burning the bodies of all 43 students. The attorney general then said that the human remains were beyond analysis; that’s how badly they had been incinerated. I think the impulse of a reporter who was covering this story would be to report exactly what the AG said as “fact.” But Mexicans were totally skeptical. The parents of the disappeared students said they wouldn’t believe their sons were dead unless the AG presented indisputable physical proof. There was a general sense that these three guys had been scapegoated to distract the public from the government’s own complicity in the case. Now how in the world do you report that succinctly and within context? How do you do it so that American readers don’t just dismiss these stories as political buffoonery?
AD: Can you think of ways to get more US news consumers interested in international news, especially major news developments happening in neighboring countries?
JSC: Well, for one thing, we have to get news outlets reinterested in international news, by which I mean getting them to staff and fund international desks. The other thing is that editors and publishers have to start resisting this idea that the question “What makes this timely and relevant NOW?” is the principal criteria driving whether a story needs/deserves to be told. Traditionally, we’ve framed news–all news, but international news especially–as being a reporting of events that are primarily dramatic and traumatic in nature: think Ebola, for instance. Obviously, these are important stories and I’m not arguing against reporting them. What I am arguing is that we shouldn’t just care and report about other places when they’re in the midst of some crisis. When we do that, we lack the context that’s so crucial to understanding those crises, as I mentioned earlier, but we also have no sense of who/how people and places are outside of crisis. In my work, I’m always looking to humanize people and places by publishing stories that are what I often refer to as “quiet” stories– pieces that don’t necessarily have a “Why NOW?” hook, but that get at some essential sense of who people are, what’s important to them, what they’re capable of.
I also think that journalists can do a better job of using social media to tell micro-stories as they’re reporting a larger story. During the protest, I was continually updating my Facebook status, partly because I wanted my husband to know I was ok, but also, in no small part, because I wanted to give friends and followers a sense of what was happening as it was happening. I wanted to give them literal pictures of what the scene around me looked like, so I used Instagram. When a article is finished and published, it’s almost entirely lacking in process; the reader has no idea how it was made, what inputs went into it, and, often, what the writer’s own position (I mean that literally, not philosophically or politically) was: Was he or she there in the thick of things, or was he or she reporting from a desk in another country? Social media provides really valuable and diverse tools to fill in those gaps, and I saw that friends and followers were grateful for that. It made people who weren’t necessarily interested in Mexico or keeping up with events there much more engaged.
AD: What can U.S. journalists learn about covering protests from your experience in Mexico? Vice versa?
JSC: This is pretty basic, but it bears repeating: Know what conditions are like on the ground and in the protest zone. I specifically walked over to the Zócalo several hours before protesters were scheduled to arrive there to see what was going on: Were there lots of police? (No). Were streets closed? (No). What other observations could I make? (The Cathedral was closed and many businesses appeared to be closing early. Some businesses along other parts of the march route had boarded up or erected temporary walls around themselves. Had I not been familiar with the area, I would have been paying attention to possible escape routes. When the riot police swarmed, pushing us up against a wall and boxing us in, I was very glad that I knew the area well enough to know where to run once I escaped.
AD: Can you describe the relationship between journalists and government officials/law enforcement in Mexico?
JSC: The relationship is one that’s quite complicated, particularly right now, and it’s one that’s scrutinized by the general public in Mexico and was even referenced during the protest on the 20th. Televisa, one of the television stations, has a very close relationship with the current administration and tends to present the president and his cohorts in a favorable light. There’s a joke–not so funny–that Televisa is what got the Peña Nieto elected.
At other outlets–and this varies to greater and lesser degrees in other parts of the country outside the capital–journalists are often threatened and coerced, not only by the government, but by cartels. Journalists have been killed for refusing to remain silent, they’ve been kidnapped, their reputations have been impugned. For female reporters, not surprisingly, the difficulties are compounded. For readers who have an interest in the subject, I recommend this interview with Laura Castellanos, a journalist who has been enduring death threats; though it’s several years old, the situations she describes are by no means dated. I also recommend Alfredo Corchado’s English-language Midnight in Mexico, which is his memoir about reporting on the drug war. And, of course, the website Reporters Without Borders is an excellent resource.
All photos, except for the Ferguson image, belong to Julie Schwietert Collazo and are used here with permission from the rights holder. Ferguson photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.