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John Quiñones speaks to the AL DÍA Staff
John Quiñones speaks to an audience of AL DÍA Félix Varela fellows and AL DÍA staff during his visit to the newsroom on Aug. 31, 2022. Photo: Nigel Thompson/AL DÍA.

Latino TV legend John Quiñones visits AL DÍA, tells the story of his career to its 2022 Félix Varela fellows

Quiñones stopped by for a talk on Aug. 31, 2022, before being honored as the first-ever Félix Varela Lifetime Achievement winner.

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It doesn’t take much for longtime ABC News correspondent and host John Quiñones to captivate an audience with stories of his life and career.

That’s exactly what happened when Quiñones visited the AL DÍA newsroom on Aug. 31, 2022. Ahead of being honored later that night as the AL DÍA Foundation’s first-ever Félix Varela Lifetime Achievement award winner, the Latino icon of U.S. news had a more intimate discussion with AL DÍA’s 2022 Félix Varela fellows.

He started where he starts every story about his early life, in the “barrio,” specifically that of San Antonio, where Quiñones grew up in a Mexican-American, Spanish-speaking household and didn’t learn English until he started school at age six.

After his dad was let go from his janitorial job, the family joined the thousands of others on the migrant farmworker caravan throughout the Heartland of the U.S., picking crops by the season. 

During one early morning in the tomato fields, Quiñones was helping his father when he was asked a question that would stick for the rest of his life.

“Do you want to do this work for the rest of your life, or do you want a college education?” his father said.

A journalist since 13

For a young Quiñones, the key to that future with a college education and all, came while he was a sophomore in high school. That year, his high school English teacher took an interest in his writing and suggested he try his hand writing for the school newspaper. He did, and fell in love with the practice.

“I’ve been a reporter since I was 13,” he told the AL DÍA newsroom.

However, beyond his own passion, Quiñones said there was really no one beyond Puerto Rican journalist Geraldo Rivera to look up to as an aspiring Latino journalist in the 1970s.

Through Upward Bound, Quiñones set himself on track to go to college, and he did so at St. Mary’s University in his hometown of San Antonio, where he graduated with a degree in speech communication.

One step at a time

The job market he entered was still very averse to hiring Latino talent, especially in broadcast journalism, so he took his first job at a country music station.

There, Quiñones told AL DÍA he would practice line reading in English in the bathroom with the Latino janitor providing feedback. Eventually, the station let him do an ad read.

“The first words I ever said on the radio were: ‘Now available at Walgreens,’” he said.

When talking about this early stage of his career at AL DÍA, Quiñones cited both Martin Luther King Jr. and poet Maya Angelou.

“One step at a time,” he said, citing King. 

“We all marvel at the beauty of a butterfly, but seldom do we consider all they have to go through to become a butterfly,” he said, citing Angelou. I’m not a butterfly, but I went through a lot of changes.”

However, his time at the country music radio station was not his favorite and Quiñones left to potentially pursue a law degree before the Brown Berets entered his life.

At the time, the Brown Berets were the Mexican-American equivalent of the Black Panthers and Young Lords. They fought for specifically Mexican-American representation and power across all sectors, starting in Los Angeles and spreading across the Southwest.

Quiñones was still in the early stages of his career when the Brown Berets turned their attention to news stations across the Southwest, demanding they hire more on-air Latino talent to represent the exploding demographic. Many stations, including the NBC affiliate in Houston, obliged by hiring more Latino talent, and so Quiñones got his start in TV news.

An Emmy

His first major recognition in TV news came at his time at the ABC affiliate in Chicago, when he convinced his producer to allow him to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border and attempt to cross over with a group of immigrants from Mexico. The entire trip would be documented with hidden cameras and recording devices.

It was greenlit, and soon Quiñones found himself in a church just across the border in Mexico paying a coyote to transport him back into the U.S. The whole thing was filmed by a hidden camera positioned out of sight in another part of the church. 

Not long after, Quiñones narrated his journey across the Rio Grande in a raft and once stateside, made the journey north to Chicago alongside other migrants. Once in the Windy City, Quiñones posed as an undocumented immigrant worker and was hired at a restaurant that the station received a tip about for its hiring of immigrant workers and mistreating them. 

When he started work there, he discovered the majority-immigrant staff wasn’t paid and lived in the basement of the establishment under threat of the owner reporting them to immigration services should they report the poor conditions. After the first day, Quiñones spent the night with the other workers in the basement and interviewed them about the work conditions. The next day, he came back with a camera crew and confronted the owner, who tried to flee.

When the final piece aired, the owner went to jail, his restaurant shut down, and the immigrant workers were all granted temporary work visas by the U.S. government. The reporting also brought Quiñones his first Emmy, which he still cherishes.

“Journalism is the candle in the darkness. The journalist is the person with the flashlight or candle that shines a light on injustice,” he told the AL DÍA newsroom.

John Quiñones, national correspondent

Not long after, Quiñones would be elevated to the national level at ABC, getting his start in Miami and reporting on Latin America. His legend would build over the 40 years.

He would go on to co-anchor Primetime, and host What Would You Do?, a TV program that was an homage to his hidden-camera reporting that put everyday people in extraneous situations to see how they would react. But what’s meant most to Quiñones is being able to tell stories similar to that which won him accolades in Chicago, with Latinos at the center, driving the narrative forward. It’s a narrative that now encompasses all of the U.S.

“I’ve always wanted to tell the story of my people,” Quiñones said.

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