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Perfectly You

A Latina immigrant triumphs.

Linda: Mariana Atencio is an immigrant to the United States from Caracas, Venezuela. She comes from an upper-middle-class, tight-knit, happy family, close to both her parents, her sister, and brother. At 7 years old, her father arranged for her and her sister to the United States for summer camp in Minnesota. It was a culture shock at the camp where the kids were blond with blue eyes, a sharp contrast to Marianna’s darker skin and brown eyes. She and her sister went to that camp for eight years, which allowed her to master English.

Mariana had grown up in the times when Venezuela’s economic well-being flourished for generations. During her college years, the oil boom created the prosperity that was undermined by the corrupt government. Frustrated with the government’s wrongdoing, she had been relentlessly participating, with her fellow college friends, in protests against human rights violations by the Venezuelan government, yet no gains were made. She experienced tear gas, which is chemical warfare, while participating in a peaceful march against the Hugo Chavez government.

At 24 years old, she was hiking Airla Mountain, not far from her home, where she was mugged at gunpoint. Terrified that she might die that day, she made up her mind to leave her family and friends to live and work in the United States. She attended Columbia University School of Journalism on a full scholarship. After graduating from Columbia, she got a job with El Diario, the oldest Spanish newspaper in the U.S. But after working there for a year, she was laid off, and had only 30 days to find another job, or face being deported. Although she did not want to go back to school and preferred to work, she was determined to stay in the states, so she returned to Columbia.

When she lost her job, she intimately learned what it feels like to be threatened with deportation. Even with her Ivy League degree, she was just as at-risk as everyone else. Mariana understood personally the anguish of being threatened with being forced to go back home. She had a career path, new friends, and a life vision that she fiercely wanted to continue building on that what she had begun. For her life dream to be threatened, she was fearful and enraged. Even though she’d done everything right, she was just like the other 11 million undocumented people in America fearing banishment to their original countries.

She and her sister Graciela were in their New York apartment 6 miles north of the World Trade Center when the twin towers went down in 2001. She says, “I couldn’t fight terror with political or military might, but I could do it with stories.” She moved to Miami to take a job there with Univision where she found a strong mentor in Maria Elena Salmas, who told her: “Say yes to everything that comes your way. Later in life, you’ll learn the power of no, but for now, say yes to every opportunity.” Mariana went on to win a Peabody award, the most prestigious award in journalism, for her piece called Fast and Furious: Arming the Enemy. The piece is about the U.S. government allowing illegal guns to be sold in order to track them in Mexico. These guns were used by drug lords to kill hundreds of people.

In her memoir, Perfectly Me, Mariana eloquently describes how hard she tried to fit in and to be accepted in an unfamiliar culture. Her identity crisis peaked when she was invited to the White House Correspondents dinner in 2017. She was ecstatic at coming this far in her career. A female manager from her network called her to check out what she is planning to wear and said, “Please don’t look too... Latina.” Mariana was deeply offended by the remark because the woman is giving her advice telling her to fit in, rather than to be her true Latina self. This incident was formative in making a fierce commitment to becoming her genuine self.

Presently, Mariana has manifested her dream to become a TV journalist, now able to give a voice to those who need it the most. Her stories demonstrate connection and how we are all more alike than not. She frequently covers stories about immigration and uses her personal experience journey of valiantly fighting to move past the imposture syndrome, to finally become an authentic self, which allows her news stories to come passionately alive.