Journalist to Give Centennial Lecture on Dangers of Reporting in Mexico

By Lisa Y. Garibay

UTEP News Service

Alfredo Corchado has known for a long time about the dangers of being a working journalist in Mexico. But he keeps going back.

The Dallas Morning News Mexico Bureau Chief is “one of the leading voices in journalism on issues of Mexican politics and the relationship between Mexico and the U.S.,” said Richard Pineda, Ph.D., associate professor of communication and director of the Sam Donaldson Center for Communication Studies.Journalist and UTEP alum Alfredo Corchado, author of Midnight in Mexico, will present the final Centennial Lecture of the academic year on May 9. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News ServiceJournalist and UTEP alum Alfredo Corchado, author of Midnight in Mexico, will present the final Centennial Lecture of the academic year on May 9. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service

It is this loyalty to his beat that has won Corchado accolades including the Maria Moors Cabot award from Columbia Journalism School and the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award for courageous journalism. This same loyalty leads Corchado back across the border despite crime, corruption, the deaths of colleagues, and even threats made on his own life.

In the May issue of Texas Monthly, Corchado describes the tug of war he faces daily.

“It was the fourth threat I’d received but the first that [I heard about through] someone I knew, someone I trusted. From that moment on, something changed. I began to ask the internal question, ‘Where did I go wrong in thinking that democracy and change in Mexico would lead to a better country?’ And that’s when it hit me: it was midnight in Mexico.”

But it is also something much more personal that drives Corchado, which he explains in his new book, Midnight in Mexico — A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness, published this month by Penguin. The book won’t be officially available until May 30, but those who attend Corchado’s Centennial Lecture at 5 p.m. on Thursday, May 9, in the Undergraduate Learning Center, room 106, will get a sneak peak. The lecture is free and open to the public, with a reception following in the UGLC atrium.

Thanks to Corchado’s longtime association with UTEP – he is a 1987 graduate of the College of Liberal Arts and a 2009 recipient of the college’s Gold Nugget Award – the University is being gifted with the special opportunity for students, faculty, staff, and other lecture attendees to hear and ask for more detail about Corchado’s experiences. Given the University’s unique role on the border, the reporter’s visit could not be more relevant. And the story he has to share is unforgettable.

In 2007, Corchado received a tip that he could be the next target of the violent Zetas cartel and had only 24 hours to find out if the threat was true. Rather than leave Mexico, Corchado went out to investigate the threat. Working every source at his disposal to find out the truth, Corchado couldn’t help but wonder whether the threat was fate for returning to Mexico against his mother’s wishes. When he was a small child, his parents had left the country after the death of Corchado’s sister. But he returned to Mexico as a journalist in 1994, convinced that Mexico would one day soon right its wrongs. He hasn’t given up hope, despite what he’s had to face.

Such outstanding dedication to his craft continues to motivate younger journalists working to shed light south of the U.S. border.

“Alfredo broke out and told stories that no other journalist was putting to print, whether he was working on the border or working in Mexico,” said UTEP alumna Mónica Ortiz Uribe, senior field correspondent for Fronteras Desk, a public radio collaboration based in the Southwest that feeds stories to NPR, PBS Newshour, and the BBC. “He was the first to write about injustices against braceros, the murders of women in Juárez, drug trafficking, well before anyone else — and he did it so well, he got threats on his life. In journalism, you know you’re doing a good job if you’ve hit a nerve, and that’s what Alfredo has done with most of his work.

“He also tells these stories with a touch of personal perspective because of his history on both sides of the border,” Ortiz Uribe continued. “He’s a great friend and mentor who inspired and taught me what I know and what I know practice as working journalist.”

For Pineda, Corchado’s “homecoming” is a celebration of his success as a world-class journalist and the publication of his first book about his work as a reporter in Mexico.

“I am honored that Alfredo has chosen his alma mater as the locale to share his work and to continue to serve as a role model for our journalism students,” Pineda said.

Born in Mexico and raised in California, Corchado wasn’t a willing immigrant at first.

“I came to the United States kicking and screaming, wondering why I had to leave Mexico,” he said. He worked alongside his parents in the fields of Central California and vividly recalls a day when a reporter asked him and his family about conditions for migrant workers.

“I was impressed that somebody wanted to ask me those questions … It marked me and left me thinking, ‘What would it be like to give others a voice?’”

Although he was initially a high school drop-out, Corchado’s mother bribed him to continue his education, offering a down payment for any car he wanted if he would promise to leave California, never work in the fields again, and not get married. He took the car, moved to El Paso, and enrolled at El Paso Community College.

Corchado’s working life began as a reporter for EPCC’s El Conquistador; he continued as a journalist for The Prospector upon transferring to UTEP.

“As a student journalist, I had the opportunity to use the border as a laboratory, and for a journalist it doesn’t get better than that,” he said. “I knew then that would be my way not just to give others a voice, but to someday, somehow, return to Mexico.”

After graduation, he worked for the El Paso Herald Post and the Wall Street Journal before arriving at the Dallas Morning News. Midnight in Mexico has provided an opportunity for Corchado to switch his point of view and, through this differing perspective, give readers the opportunity to learn more about both Mexico and the art of journalism.

“I’ve spent much of my life on the sidelines as a reporter, watching things happen, reporting things,” Corchado said. “When the opportunity came to write a book, the idea was to try to take my life and the lives of people I’ve known for the last 50 years and, as an eyewitness, try to make sense of that. Where is Mexico? What’s happened to Mexico?”

Asked whether it’s worth it to be putting himself out there as a journalist and face the possibility of even more sleepness nights, Corchado instantly responded, “Dying for the truth isn’t worth it. A journalist isn’t worth anything six feet under. But I do think we have a responsibility, especially as American journalists.

“I continue to believe that that the reason why some of us are still alive is because we are foreign correspondents and have a U.S. passport. It allows us a freedom that our Mexican colleagues don’t have. Our situation pales in comparison to theirs. They write a story and they are threatened, they are killed, or they have to flee the country as a political refugee. As a U.S. journalist, even though I was born in Mexico, I have the freedom to come across and say, ‘You know what? There’s something not right here.’ As long as we have that kind of freedom — and that doesn’t mean you do reckless things — with that comes a lot more responsibility to try to keep people informed. Otherwise, you’re only adding to the silence in Mexico.”