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From homelessness to the ESPN newsroom: Latina talks about the importance of education

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Charlene Riofrio with the NBA Championship Trophy. (Photo courtesy of Charlene Riofrio.)

By Charlene Riofrio:

On January 17, 1994, the Northridge Earthquake changed my life. My twin sister and I were sleeping together next to our parents’ bed in the one-bedroom apartment that we shared in Reseda, California.

Around 4:30 a.m., a 6.7-magnitude temblor woke us up by knocking a bureau onto our parents’ bed, nearly hitting their legs. A few minutes after we made it to safety, our apartment building collapsed. We had each other, but we had nowhere to go.

Our only option after that devastating experience was to sleep on the grass of our neighborhood’s local park, which went from being my playground to being my home. Eventually, we were able to find a temporary place to live, a friend’s garage.  For several months, the four of us slept on a concrete floor until we could afford a new home.  Throughout our time of adversity, my parents constantly reminded me, “When you least expect it, someone or something can take away your personal belongings like the earthquake did.  But no one can ever take away your education.”

As the daughter of Ecuadorian immigrants with a high school education, I learned to value the constant sacrifices they made to provide my sister and me with a private Catholic education.

After school, I would help my mother clean houses. The money went to my tuition and my parents’ citizen applications. When I finished sweeping the kitchens, my mother would have me study a new set of multiplication tables and read an article from National Geographic. I would then give her a written and oral summary of what I learned.  At the same time, I helped my parents prepare for their citizenship exams.  For months, I tested them in Spanish and helped them pronounce the answers in English.

Eventually, I realized that my mother did not understand the many articles she had me read. Neither of my parents knew what the answers to those 100 citizenship questions meant, unless I translated them.  This realization fueled my desire to not only educate myself and my family, but also others as well.  In college,  I discovered the perfect medium to do this: television journalism.

Television has played a pivotal role in my life since high school, when I landed my first internship at CNN. Television became my passion, but it was during my junior year at the University of Southern California that I first realized the lack of news stories about the Latino community covered by the student-run news station.

I decided to write, produce, and edit a story about Day Laborers, an issue that I only saw being covered by local Spanish news stations.  At six o’clock every morning for two weeks, I interviewed “Jornaleros” at a Home Depot in Los Angeles.  They were waiting for their raffle tickets to be called.  The first 10 called were the hired by drive-by-contractors to do anything from demolition to building stone fences, to gardening.  I learned that the majority of them had been at the center for weeks and had only found temporary work lasting three to four days.  For the short time they worked, many were underpaid, cheated of pay and abused.

I realized that many undocumented immigrants, including my mother, never defended themselves out of fear that they would be deported.  This experience rooted my commitment to effect some change in my community.

As a first generation college graduate, and former CCNMA scholarship recipient, I think it’s my social responsibility to dedicate some of my free time to mentoring Latinos that aspire to end their family history of lack of education.  I mentor students at Boys and Girls Clubs and at inner city high schools.  I guide them on how to fill out their college application, and I participate in workshops that explain to them how to apply for college scholarships, financial aid, etc.

Similarly, CCNMA was extremely helpful to me when I was in college.  I remember attending their job fair each year and learning how to make myself marketable when applying for a job in television journalism straight out of college.

I’m thankful for the mentors that I gained throughout my participation in CCNMA. If it weren’t for their guidance, I wouldn’t be working at ESPN with their international on-air promotions team.

Getting an education is what will define you in society and what will cause doors to open for you.  I have the responsibility to do for others what my parents did for me. I am not able to change my parents’ education, but I can help others who are unable to see that a better future is possible. Because when the world shakes apart, education is the key to putting it back together.  ¡Si se puede!

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