Latinx Heritage Month underscores the value of inclusivity as it provides a time for reflection and celebration

By Beth Hatcher

Growing up in Clinton, North Carolina, Nayeli Jaramillo-Plata ’24 often translated for her Mexican immigrant parents. She remembers those as some of the first experiences in which she really felt like a storyteller. 

The experiences also reminded her of the responsibility and challenges of being a first-generation kid, as she balanced not only two languages but two distinct cultures as well.

Helping her find that balance at UNC Hussman is the student chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) at UNC-Chapel Hill, for which she serves as vice president.

At right, students in UNC's NAHJ chapter attend a recent social at Epilogue Books Chocolate Brews in Chapel Hill. Photo courtesy of Heidi Pérez-Moreno.

Established in 1984, NAHJ is a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to the advancement of Latinx journalists in the United States and Puerto Rico. Hussman students Angelica Edwards ’22 and Julian Berger ’22 co-founded UNC Hussman’s NAHJ student chapter in August 2020. 

“It is important to establish a school culture that is welcoming and inclusive to students from all backgrounds and perspectives,” said Raul Reis, dean of the school. “The work of student organizations like our NAHJ chapter — and a faculty and staff committed to supporting that work — are essential elements to our culture. Student learning experiences are vastly enhanced, leading to stronger, more diverse professional and academic communities.”

“NAHJ gives me a space to meet other Latinx students interested in journalism,” said Jaramillo-Plata, who hopes to pursue a career in business journalism. “Not only are the students a source of support, but then we bring in all these great professional speakers who can talk to us about the Latinx experience.”

Hussman NAHJ students will moderate a discussion with Olympic gold medalist Laurie Hernandez, who will be the keynote speaker on Oct. 5, 2022, for Latinx Heritage Month activities put on by the Carolina Latinx Center. Hernandez won gold with the U.S. women’s gymnastics team at the 2016 Rio Olympics. 

“I’m excited to hear what she has to say,” Jaramillo-Plata said. “I’m excited to learn more about what made her a success.”

Celebrated between Sept. 15 and Oct. 15, Latinx Heritage Month recognizes the achievements and contributions of Latinx Americans who have inspired others to achieve success. 

Below, people take part in various Latinx Heritage Month activities around the UNC campus organized by the Carolina Latinx Center. Photos courtesy of the Carolina Latinx Center.

UNC Hussman Associate Professor Paul Cuadros — who advises the school’s student NAHJ chapter — spoke to the value of observing Latinx Heritage Month and of the speakers and events that NAHJ organizes. “If you see it, you can be it,” he said. “It’s important that our students see people who look like them being successful.” 

Cuadros, an investigative reporter whose work has focused on race and class in America, including the burgeoning Latinx communities of the South, didn’t see a lot of people who looked like him as he grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where his family had immigrated from Peru. As his family eked out a living, Cuadros worked to assimilate, which wasn’t always easy.

“It could be a very isolating and alienating way to grow up,” said Cuadros, alluding to Ann Arbor’s relatively small Latinx population. “It made me who I am and is a big reason much of my work has focused on social justice issues surrounding marginalized communities.”

Cuadros, who joined UNC Hussman in 2006, is the co-founder of the Carolina Latinx Center. He also won a UNC Diversity Award in 2012 for his work opening doors for minority students, faculty and staff on campus.

His book, “A Home on the Field: How One Championship Team Inspires Hope for the Revival of Small Town America,” tells the story of Siler City’s struggles with immigration through the lives of a predominantly Latinx high school soccer team that he coached. Entertainer Jennifer Lopez later produced the “Los Jets” television documentary series NUVOtv based on the book.

The players on that soccer team found the kind of comradery that the NAHJ chapter at UNC seeks to enable among Latinx students.

The chapter also brings inspirational speakers and guests to campus. For its inaugural event in February 2021, the NAHJ UNC chapter hosted award-winning Mexican American journalist Maria Hinojosa for a campus-wide event. 

Since then, the NAHJ chapter at UNC has hosted numerous guest speakers, such as Sylvia Obén of Telemundo Charlotte and Nicole Acevedo of NBC News, as well as conducted numerous workshops on summer internships and career preparation.  

“It’s important to have a space where you feel like you can be yourself and you feel like people understand you — NAHJ gives students that. I know it’s given me that,” said Heidi Pérez-Moreno '23, president of the UNC NAHJ chapter. It’s a space that has been especially important for Perez at Chapel Hill, a far different place than Miami, Florida, where she grew up around a large and diverse Latinx community. Perez’s mother immigrated from Nicaragua; her father immigrated from Cuba.

Below, Heidi Perez addresses students in UNC's NAHJ chapter who attended a recent social at Epilogue Books Chocolate Brews in Chapel Hill. Photo courtesy of Heidi Pérez-Moreno.

However, North Carolina’s Latinx population is growing quickly.

According to U.S. Census Bureau information gathered by Carolina Demography housed in the Carolina Population Center at the University, North Carolina’s Latinx population is now greater than 1 million people. Statewide, the Latinx population grew by 40% between 2010 and 2020, faster than the national average.

“We’re only going to see the presence of Latinx student populations more and more on campus,” Cuadros said.

The presence of those students is an essential part of creating greater inclusivity and diversity of perspectives in the school and in the media industry, Cuadros said.

In a 2022 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 52% of journalists said their media organizations did not have enough racial or ethnic diversity.

Aspiring journalists like Perez hope to change those numbers. Perez remarked how her ability to speak Spanish and English helped at her internship with the Los Angeles Times over the summer where most of her interviews were conducted in Spanish. “I was able to really connect to my interview subjects,” she said.

“Latinx reporters face many unique challenges in this industry. With NAHJ, we want to continue to give our members opportunities to develop their skills while hearing how other students and professional reporters are navigating journalism,” Perez said. “Our goals for this year include expanding on career development for members, as well as hosting more events this year that would allow us to connect and ensure that Latinx students at UNC have a voice and space to connect.”

Diversity of all kinds, including the presence of Latinx journalists, serves media organizations and their audiences in numerous ways, said Erica Perel, director of the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media (CISLM). CISLM is currently in the process of conducting an audit of newsroom diversity.

“When your newsroom reflects the community, your coverage better reflects the fullness of that community,” Perel said. “Journalists are members of the community too. Minority journalists are going to understand nuances of the community in a different way.”