From farm to fame

John Quinones, ABC Correspondent and host of “What Would You Do?” shared his journey into the field of journalism in the MSC Oval Theater on Wednesday night. ORACLE PHOTO/JACKIE BENITEZ

In the midst of cheers, ABC host John Quinones made his way on stage as he waved at the crowd of about 50 people.

The man from San Antonio, Texas has worked at ABC for over 30 years as a correspondent. For the past 10 years he has produced the show “What Would You Do?” that focuses on ethical dilemmas ranging from a hairdresser berating a customer for being in an interracial relationship to seeing somebody in front of you collapse.

“These are scenarios that really happen in real life,” he said. “All of these really do happen, they just happen in the shadows, when nobody’s watching, when there’s no hidden-camera rolling. Everything is based on true incidents.”

Quinones’ visit was part of the University Lecture Series (ULS) and was paid $27,000
for the appearance.

However, he didn’t start out in the big time. Quinones grew up in an area of San Antonio that was largely comprised of people of Mexican descent and was ripe with poverty.

“We knew we were poor,” he said. “We had an old black and white television set in the back of the house and we saw how the other side lives.”

Quinones talked about how his family had been living in Texas for seven generations, back when the area was part of the United States but rather was part of Mexico.

“I love it today when people come up to me and go ‘John Quinones, you’re Mexican. When did you cross the boarder and come to America?’ We were always there,” Quinones said. “I didn’t cross the border, the boarder crossed me.”

His father dropped out of school in third-grade to pick cotton and his mother cleaned houses in the rich neighborhoods, but they didn’t speak English at home. Quinones said that most of the area spoke Spanish and he didn’t start learning English until he started school.

“I was sitting there, twittling my thumbs because I didn’t speak English and my teacher didn’t speak Spanish,” he said. “At ten o’clock in the morning, the bell rings. So what do all the other six-year-old kids do? It was recess, they go out to the playground to play. I walk home. I lived two blocks from the school.

“My mother goes ‘What happened?’ I said ‘It’s over, mom, I like school. Two hours and you’re done. I think this is going to work out.’ She grabbed me by the ear and dragged me back to school because they knew education was so important. They wanted us to do better than they had done. They didn’t want us to struggle the way they had.”

Quinones said he and his siblings had always helped out the family. He used to shine shoes down at the bars charging ten cents a pair because “They didn’t realize how much they were tipping you.” His shoe shining career ended when he was jumped by a gang that stole all his supplies and his profits from the night.

When he was 13, Quinones’ father was laid off from his job as a janitor at the high school, which led the family to start traveling to find work. They became migrant farm workers. They picked cherries in Michigan and tomatoes in Ohio.

“That stuff builds character,” he said. “We learned how important it was to come together and help each other.”

His parents still pushed to get Quinones and his siblings an education. He said he wanted a college education, but nobody believed in him. When he would try to talk to his teachers about studying for the SAT and ACT or taking advanced placement classes, they’d tell him that his dream of being in broadcast news was great, but that maybe he should be taking woodshop or auto mechanics.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with those trades, a lot of my relatives make a good hard living working in that,” Quinones said. “But I wanted to go to school and my own teachers … they judged me on the color of my skin and the accent in my voice.”

He said that he knew if he wanted to be in broadcast news, he’d have to get rid of his accent. Quinones played Romeo in high school in an attempt to work on his speech. During college he would practice into a voice recorder and play it back to hear how he sounded, and when he got his first job at a radio station caring for the reporters’ show horses he would do the same and ask the janitor how he sounded.

Quinones said he got into college largely because of the government program Upward Bound. He was encouraged by a friend who’d just recently come from Mexico and wanted to be a lawyer to interview with the program.

“I don’t know what they saw in me because my grades weren’t that great,” he said. “But they saw a spark, these people interviewing me, and they picked me.”

He worked three jobs during college — the cafeteria, sorting rocks for the geology department and a pharmacy delivery man — before getting an internship at the local radio station. When he eventually got to do something on the air, he had the chance to say four words at the end of a segment, “Now available at Walgreens.”

After college, Quinones struggled to make it to where he wanted to go in journalism. He worked as a radio reporter, but despite applying to dozens of TV stations, he wasn’t able to get a job at one.

“Everyone had their one Hispanic reporter,” he said. “It was almost as if ‘oh we’ve got one, we don’t need another one.’ It was like the quota had been met.”

His break came when he met a woman who was an alumna from Columbia University in New York City who offered to write a letter of recommendation. He ended up getting a fellowship to do the one-year masters program.

After graduating, he landed a job as a reporter in Chicago. He said this gave him the chance to do a story that he’d always wanted to do about undocumented immigration from Mexico.

Quinones went into Mexico to pose as a citizen looking to immigrate to the U.S. illegally. He visited villages that were all women because the workingmen had traveled to the U.S. to work. Eventually he found somebody who would sell him a fake social security card and birth certificate for $300, and help him cross the Rio Grand River.

“I put my clothes in a plastic bag and this guy puts me in an inner tube,” he said. “And I floated across the Rio Grand into Texas, all captured on camera.”

He continued his journey up to Chicago and got a job at a Greek restaurant that he and seven undocumented immigrants worked, but hadn’t been paid in 16 weeks. He said when the workers would complain, the owner threatened to deport them.

Quinones got a job as a dishwasher there and would interview the other workers at night.

“I still wonder what they must have thought,” he said. “By day they saw me washing dishes and at night when we were going to bed next to the boxes of food … I pulled out a camera and started interviewing them in Spanish about their lives. They told me about how they were being held there as virtual slaves.”

One day, he came to work in his suit with a camera crew. Quinones recalled having to chase the owner around the parking lot because he didn’t want to talk. He said the day after that segment aired, the U.S. government shut down the restaurant, arrested the owner and got the workers their pay along with visas so they could stay in the country.

The segment won Quinones an Emmy.

Quinones first got a job with ABC reporting, on civil unrest in Central America because of his ability to speak Spanish. When he was in the capital of Columbia, he noticed a group of kids who were sniffing glue off their sleeves and sleeping in the sewers.

“They were homeless children, castaways that nobody wanted,” he said. “We later learned that that’s how they would deaden the pain of hunger, by getting high off on sniffing glue.”

He found a man who was a wealthy business owner who would go down into the sewers at night and bring these children food since he was the only one they trusted. Meanwhile, police would pour gasoline into the sewers and light it in attempts to burn the children out. 

Quinones interviewed the man about how he wanted to build an orphanage for these children and Quinones spent weeks down in the sewers talking to the kids.

That was his first piece to get on Primetime Live and the segment inspired Americans to donate a million dollars to the man so he could build an orphanage that pulled all of the kids out of the sewers.

“The power of that camera, that light, when you shine it on stories that need to be exposed,” Quinones said. “I loved it. I wanted to do more stories like that. I got to do a story in Haiti about the children who cut sugar cane. I then got to go to the Amazon to do a story on the Indian tribe that had never been visited by the outside world.

YouTuber Laci Green will give the next ULS speech on Nov. 15.