Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Venezuelan-American journalist brings climate change awareness to both Spanish- and English-speaking audiences » Yale Climate Connections

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Mariana Atencio was only 14 when President Hugo Chávez came to power in Venezuela. Her family was distraught as they watched his victory together on the television.“It was a pretty doomsday environment at home,” she remembered.

The military officer entered office with promises to alleviate poverty after decades of poor oil investments and policies left the country reeling. In Chávez’s first year, he instead moved to dismantle the country’s Supreme Court and Congress, setting in motion the government infrastructure for Nicolás Maduro to continue to encage Venezuela in a dictatorship.

“As someone who hoped to work and live there and raise a family there, it was also this realization that this may not be possible in the future,” said Atencio, an award-winning independent journalist now based in Miami. Her approach to reporting is guided by her upbringing in Venezuela.

A decision to flee

Atencio saw Caracas, the capital city where she grew up on the country’s northern Caribbean coast, devolve into chaos during the years it was under Chávez’s leadership. After the government shutdown one of the country’s biggest television stations, she saw the importance of news in a functioning democracy and participated in student demonstrations that sometimes turned violent or even deadly.

“Student activism was the foundation for me to become a journalist,” said Atencio, who was in her undergraduate journalism studies during the protests.

Some months into her activism, she survived an unrelated attack by a man while hiking through the Ávila mountains above Caracas. The attacker held her at gunpoint and asked her to kneel and count to 100. He let her go unhurt after robbing her. The attack was indicative of how quickly her home was changing and becoming dangerous.

“I literally thought that I was going to die,” Atencio said.

She decided to flee — one of the over 7 million who have fled the country’s political and economic unrest — and pursue her career somewhere safe. She secured a scholarship to keep studying journalism at Columbia University and has since built a global audience that values her authenticity and on-the-ground reporting methods. In an era where disinformation and autocracy are a growing threat, especially among Spanish-speaking communities, trust is perhaps the most valuable currency among media makers.

‘Everything is connected to climate’

Though Atencio has had stints at Telemundo and NBC News, today she works for herself through the production company she founded in 2020, GoLike. Now 40, she’s built a brand and presence that is uniquely hers and unapologetically Latina. She’s at once serious and inspiring yet playful and vulnerable. At the heart of her approach is authenticity — showing emotion and “being real,” as she calls it.

A woman in a bright pink vest walking toward a man working a camera in a flooded street.
Mariana Atencio reporting on the after effects of a storm. (Image credit: Peter Shaw)

Atencio uses her platform to engage readers on a variety of news topics — and climate change is one of them. Not many reporters on the energy and environment beat look like the communities of those most affected by climate. It remains the whitest beat out there, according to a 2023 survey by the Pew Research Center, making Atencio a rare Latina voice on the issue.

In Venezuela, Atencio didn’t grow up hearing about climate change and carbon emissions, but she was raised to appreciate the land. “The richness of Venezuela’s biodiversity constantly reminded us of the importance of protecting our planet and its ecosystems, influencing our attitudes toward environmental stewardship,” said Graciela Atencio, Mariana’s sister and business partner.

Destruction felt nonstop in 2017 when she witnessed the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Irma in Florida where she lives, Maria in Puerto Rico, and then the Puebla earthquake in Mexico.

“That summer was horrible,” she said. “These communities were not being covered by the mainstream media. At that point, the mainstream media had left.”

In her reporting, Atencio often makes the connection between climate and migration. During Harvey, she interviewed under documented immigrants who were scared to go to shelters and ask for help. In 2018, Atencio walked with migrant caravans where she heard from families who were fleeing El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala after drought pushed them out. She then went on to cover the youth climate movement that took to the streets around the world to demand climate action in 2019.

“As societal awareness of environmental issues has grown, so has her dedication to shedding light on these critical matters,” said her sister Graciela.

Peter Shaw, a field producer with MSNBC and NBC News, was often with Atencio during those days. They were in the field during the Donald Trump presidency, when environmental issues began to take center stage.

“It’s hard to do a story without climate change being part of the story now,” he said during a phone interview. “Everything is connected to climate.”

Shaw saw how Atencio succeeded in adding “a human element or a human feel,” as he put it.

“So many of these stories are very politicized — there’s stats, there’s numbers, there’s back and forth,” Shaw said. “What gets lost in the middle is the people impacted by that. She has a real gift of finding those characters to give our audience the big picture.”

He vividly remembers how hurricane survivors would open up to Mariana despite their recent trauma. She handled them with care. She didn’t reduce them to a stereotype or sob story and Atencio would often translate people’s stories live, giving viewers an immediate sense of a situation.

“She was their voice in that moment, and that’s why it was so critical,” Shaw said.

A woman in a brown suede dress talking with her right hand raised. A woman in a brown suede dress talking with her right hand raised.
Mariana Atencio speaking at the 2024 Aspen Ideas: Climate summit in Miami.

Shedding light on the realities of a hotter planet

When Atencio isn’t reporting on the ground or talking to her audience on social media, she’s moderating conversations with big names such as actor Eva Longoria or political donor Kathryn Murdoch. In March 2024, she hosted the Aspen Ideas: Climate summit in Miami, where her role involved creating Spanish content and presenting on the main stage.

She has a distinct opportunity to connect with both Spanish and English speakers as she often posts to social media in both languages to her nearly half a million followers on Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram. As researchers at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University have found, 64% of the Latine and Hispanic population in the U.S. surveyed report they are alarmed or concerned about climate change — higher than their white or Black peers.* A global survey last year on Meta users, which owns Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, highlighted that across Latin America, particularly in Puerto Rico, respondents attributed extreme weather and extreme heat to climate change.

Meanwhile, Spanish speakers have become a growing target for climate denial and conspiracy theories on TikTok, according to an investigation from Media Matters for America last year. A 2023 report from several environmental and disinformation organizations found that false information also spreads after extreme weather events in Latin American countries like Brazil, Peru, and Chile that divert attention away from the role of rising temperatures in disasters.

Atencio remains dedicated to shedding light on the realities of a hotter planet, especially in her homeland of Venezuela. The country holds the world’s largest oil reserves, yet the pursuit of that dirty money has cost Venezuela tremendously. The oil industry has collapsed, leaving pollution and health issues in its wake, but recent U.S. policy shifts may soon reopen the decrepit industry. She worries now that her people’s farming methods and logging activities may be jeopardizing their long-term well-being.

“It’s a country where people are still fighting for electricity and water and food and medicine,” she said. “People are struggling for food in a country that’s so rich — where the soil is rich.”

She wants them to see how those issues connect back to climate. And that’s where her storytelling comes in. “The power of our collective stories — that’s what makes up our history as human beings,” Atencio said. She wants to see a Venezuela that’s free and safe — where she can return to walk through the green mountains again without fearing for her life — a Venezuela where glaciers recrystallize, and her people have enough food, water, and electricity to stay for good.

*Editor’s note: The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication is the publisher of this site.

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