Workshop Announcement: How to Report on Cuba

What started as Facebook venting about my frustration with the majority of reporting on/about Cuba has turned into what’s going to be a powerhouse workshop offered live in NYC on April 27 with my friend and colleague, Conner Gorry, who has lived in Cuba for more than a decade.

More details coming soon (we’ll post them all here), but for now, mark your calendars and spread the word. Space is going to be limited!Save the Date

Puerto Rico’s New Makers’ Movement

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photo: Francisco Collazo
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Ring made by a Puerto Rican artisan, on sale at Localista, a new design shop featuring all-local designs, located inside the recently reopened Condado Vanderbilt Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Ring made by a Puerto Rican artisan, on sale at Localista, a new design shop featuring all-local designs, located inside the recently reopened Condado Vanderbilt Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that over the past six months or so, I’ve been experimenting with the use of the platform Contributoria as a way of funding longform features I want to research, write, and have published, as well as a means of expanding my audience.

For the most part, this has been successful. While the site could improve in some significant ways, it has allowed me to work on projects I’d otherwise be hard-pressed to actualize with limited resources, including one about The New York Botanical Garden, one about the Blaschka glass collection at Harvard, and the most recent one about the enduring fascination with Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

Not every one of my proposals has been successful. A project about c-sections has proven to be challenging when it comes to attracting widespread support, and both times I’ve proposed it, I’ve failed to attain the backing needed to be able to pursue it. Yet each month opens with the opportunity to propose a new project, and my goal for 2015 is to do my part to propose a compelling project each month and then hustle as much as needed to round up the support to get each project fully backed.

If you’re a newer reader, I’ll explain again how Contributoria works. As I mentioned a couple months ago, “Contributoria is akin to crowdfunding, but supporters don’t pledge any of their own money to back a project. Instead, they use their monthly allotment of 50 points to ‘back’ projects they want to see funded by the site. You sign up for a free account at www.contributoria.com and allot your points as you wish. Contributoria doesn’t send out any spam and neither do I– just a monthly notification when I’ve listed a new project proposal and when I’ve published a project.”

My current project is about an emerging makers’ movement in Puerto Rico. As with my previous projects, this one requires quite a bit of backing– about 200 more supporters by the end of the month. I’d appreciate it if you’d take a look at my proposal and back it with your points if you feel so inclined. A full description of the project is on the same page where you have the option to back it.

You can sign up for an account on Contributoria’s main page.

And feel free to spread the word! I’m @collazoprojects on twitter.

Thank you.

Help Wanted: My March Contributoria Project

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photo: Francisco Collazo
**

A mural on a Head Start  preschool in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Photo: Francisco Collazo)
A mural on a Head Start preschool in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Photo: Francisco Collazo)

One of the most common challenges writers and journalists face is that of funding the research phase of their work. Unless you’re on staff (and even then, there’s no guarantee), it can be tough to cobble together the money that allows you to do the work that’s necessary to investigate and report a story responsibly and thoroughly. All too often, we pay out of pocket in the hope that our investment will pay off– that we’ll be able to sell the story once we’ve committed money and time into writing it.

It’s a gamble I’ve made time and again, but one that has become harder to make now that I have three children and more financial responsibilities. Investing money in a project that may not have a sure outcome isn’t the best business strategy when you’re a writer.

That’s why I’ve been very grateful for Contributoria, a platform that supports journalists and writers by funding their project proposals. I’ve been able to research and report two stories thanks to their support, one of which has been republished in The Guardian, which is a partner of the platform.

The way Contributoria works is akin to crowdfunding, but supporters don’t pledge any of their own money to back a project. Instead, they use their monthly allotment of 50 points to “back” projects they want to see funded by the site. You sign up for a free account at www.contributoria.com and allot your points as you wish. Contributoria doesn’t send out any spam and neither do I– just a monthly notification when I’ve listed a new project proposal and when I’ve published a project.

My March 2015 project is about c-section rates in Puerto Rico and requires quite a bit of backing– about 200 more supporters by the end of the month… which is just a few days away. I’d appreciate it if you’d take a look at my proposal and back it if you feel so inclined. You can sign up for an account on Contributoria’s main page.

And feel free to spread the word! I’m @collazoprojects on twitter.

Thank you.

Reporter-and mother-in Mexico

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**
Note: This was the essay I submitted to The New York Times’ Motherlode blog before covering the NYC protests on the night of the Ferguson verdict. After consulting with the editor, I used only a small part of this piece in a reworked essay about covering protests, which was published by Motherlode last week. You can read that essay here.
**
The assignment email arrived on Wednesday morning. Could I cover the planned march in Mexico City the following day? Thousands were expected to turn out for a march demanding justice for 43 students who were kidnapped by police in late September, their fates still unknown. I’d been reporting various aspects of the case for several outlets from afar. Could I, the editor asked, cover it on the ground? I read the message to my husband. “When are you flying out?” he asked.

Mexico City's Monument to the Revolution is visible in the background as thousands of protesters march towards the city's main plaza. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)
Mexico City’s Monument to the Revolution is visible in the background as thousands of protesters march towards the city’s main plaza. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

It’s not as if we sit around wringing our hands, wondering whether I should take on assignment that involves leaving him and our three children—a five year old, a 13 month old, and a three month old—at home. As a generalist freelancer specializing in Latin America and working in a publication climate where the calculus of effort and work versus financial reward never seems to become less challenging, I don’t have the luxury of turning down many assignments, especially as my family’s breadwinner.

But as I stood under the flag flying over the Zócalo, Mexico City’s main plaza and the end point for the march that had brought thousands to the street in a peaceful demonstration, I knew that this was entirely different. Across the plaza, I could hear small explosions. A man with a bullhorn was warning those of us in the middle of the plaza to move back; a confrontation was inevitable, he said. I was about to make the decision to advance toward a group of protesters throwing Molotov cocktails at police standing in front of the National Palace, decked out in full riot gear. Should I beat a retreat to my hotel, just a couple blocks away or stay and see this protest through, reporting the full trajectory of events?

A small group of protesters threw Molotov cocktails at riot police, who were posted in front of the National Palace. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)
A small group of protesters threw Molotov cocktails at riot police, who were posted in front of the National Palace. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

I advanced. I’d take common-sense precautions. I’d leave if things escalated to the point where I felt my life was in danger. I knew the area well—my husband and I had lived in Mexico City before we had kids and I’m there frequently for work—and as I surveyed the scene, I evaluated possible escape routes.

Then, I took out my camera and started shooting.

Every few minutes, I’d update my Facebook status. Each time I did, the joyous face of my five year old looked back at me from the screen. My husband, too busy with our three energetic kids to keep an eye on my social media feeds, wouldn’t be reading my posts, but I knew close friends would alert him if they had urgent concerns about me. He knew where I was staying and where he could find a copy of my passport if he needed to contact the Embassy. We had even talked about the possibility of teargas at 3:30 that morning as he helped me out the door for my 5:45 AM flight.

Protesters shouted insults and profanities, threw bottles and garbage, and rattled and rocked the barricades separating them from the riot police at whom they were directing their rage. I was standing on the barricade, shooting photos as Molotov cocktails exploded at the feet of police, who were putting out the small bursts of fire with extinguishers. I was alert but not overly worried– the Mexican Constitution prohibits police from carrying arms at and during peaceful protests. On the other hand, the 1968 massacre of unarmed students at Tlatelolco, the site of which was less than a mile away, came to mind, and the striking absence of uniformed police along the entire march route had already put me on edge. I wasn’t naïve: the shit could hit the fan without warning.

One of the gates separating riot police from protesters was wrested free and thrown toward the police. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)
One of the gates separating riot police from protesters was wrested free and thrown toward the police. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

Suddenly, some protesters managed to wrest one of the barriers free of the others, hurling it towards the riot police. The breach of the barrier flipped the switch. Cops swarmed toward protesters, sending them running in retreat. The crowd seemed divided. The majority had come as peaceful protesters, drawn closer to the conflict because of curiosity and, in some cases, the hope that their presence and their chants of “No violencia, no violencia” (“No violence, no violence”) could deescalate a confrontation. Others wanted to stand their ground and shouted “Ni un paso atrás” (“Not one step back”). Riot police pulled back. But then, another provocation. This time, they surged forward with full speed, pushing the crowd across the plaza. Once on the other side of the plaza, they broke into files, closing off side streets and trapping protesters—and me—in a box they made with their bodies. Tear gas was released, sending some people into a panic. I pulled my scarf up over my mouth and thought about my husband’s warnings.

Riot police, moments before they begin to swarm across the Zócalo. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)
Riot police, moments before they begin to swarm across the Zócalo. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

It was time to make another decision. As a mass of people heaved forward, pressing into my back and pushing me along, I thought of my kids, a picture of each of them flashing across my mind. “They died doing what they loved” has always seemed the most pathetic of epitaphs, no matter how true. I was face to face with a riot cop, my body pressed against his shield. I didn’t want to get trampled by the crowd or beaten by the cop. I knew that no matter what, I couldn’t let myself fall down. I inched along the wall I was pressed against, looking for an out.

And it was just then when a gap opened between two cops. I knew I had to get there and I knew I had to do it fast. A man beside me, his face bloodied and his expression of confusion transitioning to shock, was the last thing I saw as I dove around a riot shield and out onto Calle Madero, where a constellation of glass lay shattered on the sidewalk. Gulping deep breaths of air, I kept moving forward, dodging what looked like a road block by ducking onto a side street and winding my way back to my hotel.

"Cursed be the soldier who takes up arms against his people." (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)
“Cursed be the soldier who takes up arms against his people.” (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

It is easy, perhaps, for you to think I’m some irresponsible adrenaline junkie, a charge, it’s worth noting, I’ve never heard leveled at a male journalist who happens to also be a father. I am not. I am, instead, a writer who believes in the power and responsibility of being a witness to other people’s stories and telling them because I have the privilege of access to outlets that let me use my voice to do so. Earlier in the evening, my attention had been drawn repeatedly to women, mothers, grandmothers, and children in the protest. “What if your son was #44?” read a handmade poster carried by a woman who looked worn by life’s trials. I couldn’t bear to take her photo. Instead, I looked deeply into her eyes and nodded, a quiet gesture of recognition between two mothers.

"The homeland isn't the narco-politicians. The homeland isn't narco-businessmen. The homeland is its people, its culture, its natural resources, itrs traditions. In the end, we are one people, you and I." (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)
“The homeland isn’t the narco-politicians. The homeland isn’t narco-businessmen. The homeland is its people, its culture, its natural resources, itrs traditions. In the end, we are one people, you and I.” (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

My identity as a mother informs my identity as a reporter and writer, and vice versa. How could they not? I noticed the child lying on the ground in front of the Benito Juárez memorial, drawing a picture to carry in the march. I noticed the dad who carried his daughter in his arms for the two miles between the Angel of Independence statue and the Zócalo. I wanted to be here as their witness, to say that I won’t be complicit in the silence of media who don’t think these stories and lives are important. I wanted to be here because maybe, just maybe, the thousands of people marching might make their country—a place that had once been my home, too—a safer one.

Her sign reads, "I don't want to grow up in fear." (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)
Her sign reads, “I don’t want to grow up in fear.” (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

Many friends and colleagues who are women and who have reached their mid 30s struggle with “the kid question.” “How can I have kids and still do this work?” some have asked me. “How can I not?” might be the better question. I wanted to be here because I want, someday, to say to my children—my two daughters, especially—that they don’t have to choose between their family and their work. That it’s all important.