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Language Matters: Estrella’s Story

This article first appeared in The Racism Issue of Change Agent.

The year was 2017 when immigration officers apprehended an undocumented woman in El Paso. In Trump’s America, such an event would not be newsworthy.

But the plainclothes officers apprehended the woman in a courtroom, then lied about doing so, despite the courthouse videotape that shows them doing what they claimed not to do.

I traveled to Texas this past spring to interview the detained woman, Estrella Gonzalez. Estrella’s case caught our attention at Futuro Media because up until that point, it had been unusual, even advised against, for immigration officers to detain people in “sensitive locations” such as churches, or hospitals, or in Estrella’s case, the courtroom where she sought a protective order against an abusive boyfriend. In addition, Estrella is a trans woman and faces persecution because of her gender identity.

Local news covered Estrella’s story. So did The New Yorker. But it wasn’t until journalist Jonathan Hirsch and I interviewed her in prison that we heard her voice. Her own voice. Telling her own story. Our report “Estrella” aired on NPR’s Latino USA in April 2018. For many, she was just a headline. But with us, Estrella shared what it was like growing up in Acapulco, Mexico, when her mother cried because she feared Estella would be murdered for having relationships with men.

Estrella grew emotional with me in our jailhouse interview: “I’m a trans woman,” said Estrella. “I am who I am. And no law or society can take that away from me.” Yet Mexico was too dangerous—so Estrella fled to the United States.

In California, Estrella married a woman and had children. But tensions grew between them, and Estrella served time for assaulting her wife. Estrella was deported and came back. She fell for a man who ran a prostitution ring and pushed her to prostitute herself and cash hot checks. This led to time in a Texas prison. There, Estrella became involved with Mario, who she now calls her “big mistake.” Once released, Estrella wanted to live a clean life. But Mario wouldn’t have it. Estrella accused Mario of threatening to call immigration if she didn’t keep cashing hot checks. Mario was apparently violent with her. When Estrella went to an El Paso courtroom for a protective order, Mario’s threat came true: Immigration agents detained her.

By now it’s probably clear that Estrella Gonzalez is a complicated person. She arrived in the U.S. without documentation. She’s charged with fraud and forgery, and her accused accomplice was also her abuser. She’s convicted of 249 counts, sentenced to nine years of imprisonment. She faces deportation upon release. But despite her crimes, Estrella is still a human being at the center of this story. A human being that in some quarters of our society, in Mexico and the United States, would not be seen as a whole person worthy of respect and protection.

Too many of these quarters are newsrooms.

Estrella is potentially the least “desirable” person in the United States by being a trans woman without papers, accused and convicted of crimes. She represents what too many of us will turn away from. Without empathy and understanding, we’ll convict her in our own minds and declare she got what was coming to her—if not for being a trans woman, then for breaking our laws.

But the role of the journalist is to always see the humanity in people, regardless of widespread societal opinion. We also must tell the truth. To do this, we must possess and practice cultural competency in our journalism. I founded Futuro Media in 2010 as an independent, nonprofit newsroom so we could be free of any force that might interfere with our ability to pursue humane journalism that holds the powerful accountable.

If we only used terms the U.S. government chooses for people like Estrella, we’d be dishonest. Estrella is not an “illegal.” As I’ve said many times before, “illegal” is not a noun. Estrella is not “sexually confused.” Estrella has identified as a woman as early as her teens. If we use language that misnames, we cannot tell her story properly.

Language in the newsroom matters. Please don’t refer to undocumented people as “illegal.” Human beings can’t be illegal. Only an act can be illegal. It’s an insult to their dignity and to ours as a society, and it is grammatically incorrect. Be aware of gender pronoun preferences as well. Calling a person who identifies as male a “she” is erasure. Respect is good journalism—for the story and for your audience.

Estrella said she trusted us at Latino USA with her story because of my years reporting immigration issues fairly. Trust cannot be bought. It’s built up, and you can’t create it overnight. It is our concept of who we’re reporting about and why. It’s about giving voice to Estrella’s story but also educating all of our listeners and viewers. I’m proud to say we can do this well because we have a profoundly diverse team. Currently, our newsroom composition is 73% people of color, 85% multilingual, 85% women, and 77% immigrants or first-generation Americans. Our leadership composition is 78% women, 67% persons of color, 56% multilingual, and 44% immigrants or first-generation Americans.

There is work to be done in educating members of the media. Increasingly, they turn to us at Futuro Media for research and guidance. We understand that the media is forming narratives that affect how we live in this country. Increasingly, with our journalism, we’re saying that we’re not going to play in your narrative. We’re going to create our own.

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