Cindy Carcamo

Cindy Carcamo of the Los Angeles Times talks about journalism, immigration, and her experience with the French-American Foundation

November 11, 2013

Cindy Carcamo, a 2013 Young Leader of the French-American Foundation, is Arizona Bureau Chief and a National Correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, where she covers the Southwestern United States, focusing on border and immigration issues.

Carcamo is a recipient of the French-American Foundation's 2012 Immigration Journalism Award for her Slake magazine narrative about the first 48 hours of a deportee’s life after his return to Guatemala on an Immigration and Customs Enforcement flight from the United States. She was a fellow of the 2012 "Bringing Home the World" Program of the International Center for Journalists, where she wrote a three-part series for the Orange County Register about how the Pacific Ocean has become the latest route for human smuggling into the United States from Mexico. She was also named finalist for the 2012 PEN Center USA Literary Award in Journalism, and the 2011 Livingston Award. Carcamo also reported as a correspondent in Argentina and Mexico during her time as an Inter American Press Association scholar.

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Cindy, you have already had a very impressive career, and we imagine there are many great things to come. The French-American Foundation has been very fortunate to have you involved in a number of our programs here in the last few years. Thank you for taking the time to share some of your experiences and insights with our Foundation Forum readers.  

You returned a few weeks ago from the 2013 Young Leaders Annual Meeting in Atlanta. What did you think of that experience? What were the significant takeaways from the program?
My time with the Young Leaders in Atlanta was unforgettable. The most important element was the people. It was a pleasure to be around so many individuals with great minds and engaging personalities from France and the United States. Everyone I met was extraordinarily smart and cultured, yet very easy to talk with and eager to learn from each other. While the events and dinners were really spectacular, I think the most important exchanges happened on the bus. All of the leaders have high-level professions, which is so impressive. While it was great to learn about their work, the conversations that really intrigued me revolved around getting to know each other on a basic and human level. Some of the those discussions were about sharing a favorite varietal of wine, getting to know about someone’s immigrant background, or hearing about the challenges with struggling work and family life.  At the end of the day, I think those are the conversations that forge relationships that will last a lifetime.

The Young Leaders engaged in a number of activities and were introduced to a number of leaders, organizations, and cultural institutions in Atlanta. Which of these was the most impactful for you and why?
My favorite activity was getting the chance to visit Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., shared his ministry. I was blown away by how powerful it was to simply sit in a pew, look out into the empty pulpit as I listened to King voice his sermon in the background. It was electrifying. 

You have worked quite a bit through your journalistic career in Latin America and with the U.S. debate, policy, and relationship surrounding its ever-growing Latino population. Had you previously had much contact with France or Europe? Were there striking differences between your interactions with peers from these two regions?
I’ve never written about immigration in the context of France or Europe. However, I do try to keep abreast of immigration matters outside of the United States, and it’s clear that migration is a global experience, especially in Europe. I spoke with a few Young Leaders about the topic and the discussions seemed relatively similar to those with my peers in the United States. I believe everyone recognizes the challenges posed by mass migration, especially refugees. The matter is as complicated and nuanced for my French counterparts as it is for the American people. Migration is a phenomenon that touches every aspect of society. Most importantly, it’s a very human issue.

Through the Young Leaders program, you came in contact with a relatively diverse group of professionals from various fields from both France and the United States. How much of an impact has this network had on your life, whether professionally or personally?
My relationship with the Young Leaders is just in its infancy, but I can already see how valuable this network will be in my life. Professionally, I’ve come away with so many story ideas from our Atlanta meeting. I can see myself tapping into the expertise of various Young Leaders on certain subjects I may report on in the future. I think this would give me a more holistic understanding of whatever subject I may be reporting on. 

On a personal level, I think it’s wonderful that we’re all scattered across the world. I can see myself visiting other fellows wherever they may be and getting the opportunity to see the place they reside in from their lens. I hope to reciprocate as well, sharing my current place of residence with each Young Leader who happens to be in town. 

This was the first year the French-American Foundation invited program alumni to join the Young Leaders for part of the meeting. Did you benefit from meeting with former Young Leaders who have continued to advance in their career since being selected for the program?
Yes, it was great to meet and hear from Young Leader alumni, such as Bertrand Badré, CFO of the World Bank. I think it made for a richer experience, and it was inspiring to hear how the program has been a part of their lives throughout their careers.   

What drew you to journalism as a profession? What would you say is the most significant role a journalist and the media play within the greater society? More specifically, what made you want to cover issues pertaining to immigration?
I was attracted to journalism because of its role as watchdog, to hold authorities and others in high positions accountable. Good journalism should reflect the community and give those who live in the margins an opportunity to be heard in a democratic society. I became interested in journalism at an early age. I remember watching television nightly newscasts as a child, mesmerized by the events taking place across the world outside of my community. I recall wanting to be there, reporting it all and bringing it home to the public. At the same time, I remember listening and watching newscasts about immigration and thinking that there was so much more to what was reported at the time. What I read didn’t necessarily reflect the immigrant experience that I had been exposed to as a child. I wanted to tell a fuller, more nuanced story about the dynamics of immigration, the people impacted by the phenomenon, and, most importantly, the humanity.

You were among the first class of recipients of the Foundation’s Immigration Journalism Award in 2012. We are preparing to award the second class on November 13 at an Awards Ceremony here in New York. What did the Award and the Foundation’s Immigration Journalism program mean to you? What impact does such an award have on the field of journalism?
Becoming a recipient of the Foundation’s Immigration Journalism Award in 2012 was a tremendous honor because it is the only one, which I know of, which recognizes good journalism on this specific issue. It validates the importance of quality journalism on such a controversial subject, which touches every aspect of our society. Also, the award is quite important because it sends a message to newsrooms across the world that excellence in immigration reporting is imperative as we go forward into the digital future. Personally, while I already had a strong passion for reporting and writing stories about immigration, the award galvanized me to do more of the same. It also allowed me to become more familiar with the French-American Foundation, introducing me to the brilliant people who run the organization and its wonderful programs, such as the Young Leaders program.

Your article in Slake Los Angeles that earned you the award was a narrative that covered the first 48 hours of a Guatemalan deportee’s life after being deported from the United States. As the Foundation’s work on immigration and media has explored, there are many approaches to covering immigration – from the personal narrative to editorial commentary on policy and debate to strict news coverage of the policies being enacted and the trends being seen worldwide. Would you advocate any of these approaches to this very complex issue over the others? 
I think it’s important to have different methods of telling the immigration story. While my story for Slake cried out to be written as a narrative, others are sometimes best told as strict news pieces. At times just still pictures are more powerful than the written word. I think it’s important for journalists to ask themselves: “What is the most powerful way to tell this story? What is the best method to make this understandable and reach the audience?” I think there is room for all kinds of storytelling, especially when it comes to such a complex issue as immigration.

As a last question, could you share with us your reading recommendations? What books or journalistic works have had a particular impact on you in your personal or professional life?
There are so many fantastic pieces of work that I’ve read over the last few years, but it’s sort of a blur. One that has left a lasting impression is Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala by Stephen C. Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer (David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies 2005). The story allowed me to understand where my parents came from and why Guatemala became the country it is today.  

I’ll mention a few books that I’ve recently finished and very much enjoyed reading. First, is Alfredo Corchado’s new book Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter's Journey Through a Country's Descent into Darkness (Penguin Press 2013). Corchado, Mexico bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News and a friend, is an intrepid reporter with a keen eye for detail, which shows in this read—a true story that starts off with a threat against his life, but it’s really a beautifully told story about his deep love for a conflicted country. It’s a must-read for those who want to understand how Mexico got to this point in its history.

Also, I just finished reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead Trade 2008) by Junot Diaz. He is a master wordsmith who pulls together a beautiful tale with vibrant prose about a family in the United States with Dominican roots. 

As you can tell, I really enjoy reading books that say something about a place, giving me history as characters develop.