Emmy award-winning ABC News correspondent John Quiñones received the Felix Varela Lifetime Achievement Award this past week here in Philadelphia. I looked around the room filled with community leaders, established journalists, aspiring journalists, educators, students, and many others and couldn’t help but feel the sense of inspiration, pride, appreciation, and hope as we gave him a standing ovation. His story is like many of our stories. It could be your story. He grew up in a poor bilingual hard-working family with little opportunity. His father lost his job and the family moved north looking to make ends meet as migrant workers. John was in his early teens, but everyone had to work and contribute. The days were long, the work was hard, the pay was little. John had dreams and his experience was the fuel he needed to follow his parents’ advice that education was the key to a better life. He didn’t see too many people who looked like him on TV, but he knew he needed to tell the stories of his community and he became a journalist after graduating from college. It hasn’t been easy, but through his journey he’s been able to tell the stories of everyday heroes through the lens of our community. Representation is key and through his quest for excellence and helping those in need, John’s helped open doors for other minority journalists and embodies the spirit of Felix Varela.
If you are like most people in the U.S., you may not be very familiar with Felix Varela. He was a Cuban immigrant, a Catholic priest, an educator, and a trailblazing entrepreneurial journalist. He was a source of esperanza as he helped thousands of poor immigrants who arrived in New York City in the 19th century. Before that though, he published El Habanero, what is said to be the first Spanish language newspapers in the United States, and he did this right here in Philadelphia. The pioneering newspaper emphasized human rights, issues of faith, collaboration between communities, and the importance of education among other things. Hernan Guaracao, founder and CEO of Al Dia News, established the Felix Varela Lifetime Achievement Award as well as the Felix Varela fellows program building upon Varela’s journalistic heritage and vision for helping the poor and the immigrant to honor trailblazers while inspiring and providing opportunity to the next generation.
While many in the room that night might not have been previously familiar with Felix Varela and his Philadelphia roots, the standing ovation showed that John Quiñones’ career embodies what Varela started almost 200 years ago not too far from where we were in Center City. As a media and technology educator at Esperanza College of Eastern University here in North Philadelphia, I was inspired by Varela, Quiñones, and the recipients of this years Varela’s Fellows program to continue to educate the next generation of students who seek to use media, technology, and the arts to make our community a better place. Our students have a similar background as Quiñones. They are seeking esperanza and opportunity, have a passion to make a positive difference, and have the role models, open doors, and resources to achieve it. That’s great news for our community.