Reporting from Mexico City
“I think it’s really crucial that you always keep somewhere in your imagination a place for your dreams and you never forget them. You always spend a little bit of time each day daydreaming and imagining yourself doing your dream job.” -- Franc G. Contreras
Being an independent journalist has its pluses and minuses, but freelancing during a global pandemic can add a ton of pressure to an already tough job. Just ask ALMA member Franc Contreras.
Contreras is a freelance broadcast correspondent based in Mexico City, who currently works as a Correspondent for China Global Television Network (CGTN). His main responsibility is covering top news stories for television viewers across the globe who tune into the network. Since 1996 he has worked as a freelance broadcast correspondent covering Mexico and Central America.
Contreras, 57, covers a wide range of stories including politics, borderlands and immigration reform. He now is working on covering how the immigration issue occurring in Arizona will play into the 2020 election and its aftermath. Some of his most recent work also covers how CDMX street vendors are trying to survive the pandemic.
“A lot of my work is about translating the story of Mexico, with all of its amazing complexities, to foreign audiences that speak English,” said Contreras.
Contreras has learned that most of his CGTN audience members are Chinese who are learning to speak English as a second language, but he has always thought that people who are of Mexican American descent and other U.S. Latinos as his real audience -- the audience that is in his heart. These are the viewers he tries to inform of the news events and issues that are taking place in Mexico.
COVID and covering the news
After 24 years of serving as a freelancer in Mexico, Contreras recently created his own small television production company that covers the country. Going out to get interviews in Mexico City, he said, has been different and “presents all sorts of risks.”
“There’s a growing number of security risks due to possible robberies that could take place in some parts of the city, but more than anything it’s the threat of COVID itself. We are now avoiding any places where large numbers of people are gathering,” Contreras said.
Contreras now has focused on covering stories about people who are struggling with the pandemic themselves, how it’s affecting their jobs and personal lives. Mexico City, with more than 21 million inhabitants, is known for its thriving street vendors, but the pandemic has changed that system. You can watch his video on street vendors here.
When Contreras is on assignment he is armed with hand sanitizer and a face mask because “how we protect ourselves when we go out into the streets, that’s changed; (and) techniques to capture sound have changed.” He no longer uses a lavalier mic; instead, he uses a boom mic to grab sound from interviews.
Yet these current differences and challenges are part of being a freelance correspondent, a career he believes is about “reinventing yourself.” He believes moving to Mexico in 1996 was one of the best decisions he ever made.
Originally he had planned to stay in Mexico for 10 years, but realized he was just getting in the groove after a full decade of work. He was then able to engage in video and create visual aides to tell the complex stories of Mexico to the people south of the United States.
"The amazing relationship between the United States and Mexico -- I think that is the real story that I’m always trying to tell.”
Contreras said coming to Mexico allowed him to reconnect with the
land of his grandparents. Plus, while working in Mexico he became fluent in Spanish.
“Now I try to explain the land of Mexico to a global audience, as I say, in real time,” he said.
Contreras advises journalists new to the independent field to “trust yourself as a storyteller.”
“Find the voice that you want and the story that you want to tell,” Contreras said. “Make sure they’re stories that you love. That way you can put all of yourself into them: your heart, your soul, your mind and energy.”
Contreras is working on a documentary film, working title “The Plume,” in which the freelancer attempts to uncover the truth behind Tucson’s superfund site, a location where the U.S. military started building missiles and dumping carcinogenic chemicals at night into the desert, which then leached into the community’s only source of groundwater. Nearly two decades later the government named it a contaminated area too dangerous for humans to live in or around.
As a child growing up in that neighborhood, Contreras had no idea of what was going on around him or his family’s neighbors. Many people started dying at a young age due to cancer. Unfortunately, Contreras’ mom, Ana Cicilia, died of cancer in 1974 at the age of 34.
“It seemed to me like a great injustice took place, but I had no way of articulating what it was,” he said.
Contreras learned decades later there were other sites around the country where military manufacturing has led to major cancer outbreaks. Known commonly as “cancer clusters,” these sites often are found around Air Force bases or around locations where war weapons are manufactured.
“The Plume” will focus on answering the question of what really happened in the Tucson neighborhood. In the film he will strive to explain the concept of environmental justice, in which communities of color are most often the locations of toxic waste dumping.
For Contreras, it’s always about telling a story.
“I think as a journalist I’ve always covered the news and …. I’ve always felt like there was a much deeper story to tell. I think the turn towards documentary filmmaking is an effort to go to that deeper place where I can use longer format storytelling techniques.”
Aim for great media channels
As a freelance reporter, Contreras credits working in newsrooms and producing sets for radio stations for developing his reporting chops, as it helped him to learn how to fill out a newscast and what it takes to bring a story to life. He worked closely with editors to cover the types of stories they wanted.
He also said independent journalists need to build those connections, to share with editors how much effort you have put into an assignment. He also suggests freelancers read published stories that grab your attention, and to take notice of how these stories are being told. He said it’s about bringing in your perspective and telling a story that no one else has told.
“I think that’s what will eventually make you valuable to news organizations," Contreras said. “Always aim for that media channel that you respect most. Try to get on that channel. Make it your goal if you can,” said Contreras.
Written by Sthefany Rosales, ALMA Intern