Oakland, CA — Sayre Quevedo has become a bit of an expert in Central American affairs, driven in part by his quest to understand his own Salvadoran identity. Through his work with Latino USA on "The Quevedos," he tackled the issue of finding his own long-lost family in El Salvador. In "The Return," he told the story of Javier Zamora, a Salvadoran poet forced to return to a country that’s become foreign to him. His stories intertwine important social issues with powerful storytelling.
Quevedo was a keynote speaker at a conference hosted by YR Media that brought together almost 100 young journalists, many with backgrounds similar to Quevedo, who himself was a youth journalist at YR not that many years ago. They represented diverse ethnic communities from across California, from Del Norte to the Central Valley to San Diego.
YR Media reporter Emiliano Villa sat down with Quevedo before his keynote to break down some of today’s most pressing headlines, and discuss Trump, TPS and other issues related to immigrant communities.
EV: Trump refers to MS-13 to justify the wall. Do you think people have misconceptions of El Salvador?
SQ: People have the misconception that it's a war zone, which is a complete falsity because there’s a spectrum like in any country. The landscape is more reflective of what life looks like in the U.S. than I feel most people would be comfortable admitting. It’s not just an impoverished country that had a civil war, it's also a country that has trade relationships with China. It's much more complex than I think Western media often gives it credit for.
EV: Trump recently declared a national emergency in an attempt to fund the wall. What do you make of this?
SQ: There are these very simple ideas about why people leave and what causes that, so the wall is just a simple answer to what they think is a simple question. What we need is complicated answers to a very complicated question, as in: why do folks leave?
I personally think that it's related to the history of U.S. intervention in Central America. That's not something that is being addressed by any politician. Western media also plays its role in really simplifying stuff down without giving proper historical context. Trump sees people as these very simplified versions of themselves, whereas in real life they're actually way more complicated.
Our job as journalists is to add layers of complexity and to show that there are many different narratives behind what we may think of as one large story. Our job is to help them all individually tell these stories, so that we can recognize that it's a mosaic of motivations and life experiences, not like a singular life that's just being repeated over and over again.
EV: What’s it been like watching the debate over TPS unfold?
SQ: It's difficult because you have this situation where people have built their entire lives in the U.S. TPS has been around since the 90’s, so think about someone who was 3 years old [when they immigrated], they’re like 23 now. Their whole life has been in the U.S. They’re not taking into account that some people don't have lives or family members in their countries of origin. There’s also the complication that TPS holders — and DACA recipients — are either being ignored or used as political pawns for both parties, and not being treated empathetically by politicians in any shape or form.
EV: You told Salvadoran poet Javier Zamora’s story in “The Return.” What challenges did you face telling such a personal story?
SQ: One of the biggest issues was the amount of time it took to produce. We did like eight hours of interviews, so it’s hard when you're sharing people's life experiences to whittle it down to one thing because that's not how we live. Your feelings about certain things that happen in your life may be way more complicated than a single thought or emotion you could say in a sentence... That was hard. In Javier's story, he brought up issues of misogyny, of homophobia and transphobia. Every single one of those issues is important and should be talked about, but unfortunately — especially in audio – the audience has such a limited attention span that it can be hard to delve into stuff.
EV: In your work, you focus on a lot of hot-button issues like racism and immigration that may incite some people. How do you deal with any backlash you get?
SQ: I haven't gotten much backlash, but it's normal at Latino USA. We’ll put something on Twitter and of course there are MAGA trolls. You just have to ignore it, because it’s not like those people are making a sincere effort to begin a conversation. They don't want a response, they want a reaction and I don't have the energy or time to give anyone a reaction.
EV: Most of your work chronicles your roots in El Salvador, but would you ever do a piece on growing up in the Bay Area?
SQ: I'd like to eventually come back here, and I do feel like there are a lot of really interesting stories. A piece of advice that I got was to focus on one thing and then become an expert at it, because that's how you get a job.
I feel like I've taken that pretty seriously and it's worked out really well. There are lots of people who can skip around different issues and learn very quickly what they're about, but it gives you a certain amount of depth to do bigger picture things like “The Return” when you have the historical context of a place and what it's been through. I also feel like a more confident reporter going into a story like that. You can speak with a certain amount of confidence about things. Like I've been studying this for five years, I think I know what I'm talking about.
To see more of Sayre Quevedo’s work, check out his website.