This program helped women tell more nuanced, robust stories about Latin America

By Amaris Castillo | Originally published: Poynter.

IWMF’s Adelante program ran for five years. Here’s what journalists like me gained from it.

Nastassia Kantorowicz Torres, a 2019 Adelante fellow, shows her photos to a young girl while on a reporting trip in Cúcuta, Colombia. (Photo credit: Mariana Vincenti)

In July 2017, I found myself inside a modest cinder block home in Zambrano, a village roughly 35 minutes outside Honduras’ capital of Tegucigalpa. I was there to speak with a woman who in 2007 tried, but failed, to cross illegally into the United States. While en route to what she hoped would lead to the American dream, Mary Isabel Salgado Perez fell from a train known as “La Bestia” (“The Beast”) in Mexico. Her legs were cut off, and the course of her life was forever altered.

Salgado was deported back to Honduras, where she attempted to adjust to life without legs. In her kitchen, the mother of five shared her experience with me and a few other journalists. We jotted down notes and observed how she made coffee.

Later that evening, back in my hotel room in the capital, I thought about this woman’s story, and the experiences of other migrants like her. I thought about the privilege to be on my first international reporting trip, made possible with the support of the International Women’s Media Foundation. I looked forward to bringing this story — and a few others — to The Sun, a daily newspaper in Lowell, Massachusetts, where I was a reporter at the time.

That summer, I was part of a group of women journalists selected by IWMF to report on migration issues in Honduras for its Latin American reporting initiative, Adelante, which was launched in 2015 with a $5 million-dollar grant from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. Over the past five years, IWMF sent 171 grantees and 85 recipients of year-long fellowships for local journalists to report stories from different countries throughout Latin America.

The program ended this past February.

IWMF Executive Director Elisa Lees Muñoz said in an impact report that Adelante’s goal was two-fold: to give journalists a unique opportunity to safely cover underreported stories in a complex region and to create a squad of women with in-depth expertise on Latin America.

Claudia Bellante, a 2017 Adelante fellow, in Tijuana, Mexico. (Photo by Alexia Webster)

The fellows receive hostile environment and first aid training, and were also aided and guided by local journalists.

To reflect on the program’s end and understand more of its impact, I spoke to several women who, like me, went through the Adelante program.

Ileana Najarro, a reporter covering the military, Latino community and local business for the Tampa Bay Times, traveled to El Salvador last year with a few stories in mind. She reported on a Tampa company that happens to be one of the top employers in the Central American country.

Najarro, whose family is from El Salvador, grew up with stories of the Salvadoran civil war. She said she was always interested in learning more about the massacre at El Mozote, where approximately 1,000 men, women and children were killed by a Salvadoran battalion in December 1981. These soldiers were trained by the United States.

“It was an infamous tragedy from the Salvadoran civil war. My family was fully aware of it, and I had always been curious about the opportunity to write about it,” Najarro said. “Through talking with veteran sources that I had in St. Petersburg (Florida), one of these individuals just casually mentioned that they had actually been in El Salvador during the civil war, helping train military units El Salvador as part of U.S. Southern Command.”

Najarro followed up with that source and asked if he’d be willing to speak with her if she went to El Salvador and wrote about the massacre. She saw an opportunity to incorporate local voices into her reporting.

The pandemic was just beginning to spread when Najarro was in El Salvador with other Adelante fellows. Their trip was cut short because of looming shutdowns, but Najarro said she still had enough reporting material to see her stories to completion. Programs like Adelante puts reporters’ skills to the test in a different country, she added.

“Especially for local papers, where there’s an opportunity as in this case to find a global connection with their local municipality or area to another country. That’s part of the reason that I got into journalism — to introduce people to one another,” Najarro said. “To be able to do that at a global scale is incredible.”

Erika Aguilar, a 2017 Adelante fellow, in Tijuana, Mexico. (Photo by Alexia Webster)

A few of the fellows I spoke to said Adelante helped fuel collaboration between fellows. The photographs for Najarro’s stories were captured by Danielle Villasana, an independent photojournalist based in Istanbul whose works focus primarily on human rights issues, gender, and health, with a focus on Latin America. Villasana also partnered with another journalist, Danielle Mackey, for a story about a 16-year-old Honduran teenage boy who was deported back to his country.

Since becoming a fellow, Villasana said she became more involved in the initiative, even co-leading several reporting trips. She said the security training received at the beginning of each fellowship is beneficial and that Adelante had an impact on the network she formed with other fellows.

“Even just in terms of strengthening those bonds that you have with women journalists and being able to relate to certain shared frustrations with the industry… creating that sisterhood and camaraderie was really impactful for me,” she said.

Eileen Guo, senior reporter on tech policy, ethics, and social issues at MIT Technology Review, was starting her career as a journalist when she applied to Adelante a few years ago. The Los Angeles-based journalist said she was treating her 2017 fellowship at the U.S.-Mexico border as a “crash course” into the field and ended up learning a lot from other fellows with more experience.

“I think I’m naturally interested in poking at the dominant narratives that we have about places, and there were certainly a lot of dominant narratives about the U.S.-Mexico border,” Guo said. “I had a background of reporting on tech and innovation and I was really interested in understanding that side and understanding the business angle, so that’s what I wanted to explore with my story.”

For, Guo profiled a few of the thousands of people who line up at the U.S.-Mexico border to get work. She later received a sizable grant from IWMF for a deep dive into Guatemala’s efforts to fight rosewood trafficking. “It gave me the confidence to do more reporting in Guatemala and Mexico, to do field work more generally, and it helped me get some really good bylines that I don’t think I would have gotten otherwise because I didn’t need to charge expenses,” she said.

Laura C. Morel, who covers immigration for Reveal, said she found out about Adelante through the images and posts I shared on social media from my 2017 trip to Honduras. At the time, Morel was working for the Tampa Bay Times covering mostly criminal justice but wanted to do more immigration reporting. With the support of her editors, she applied to the program and was chosen for an Adelante fellowship to the U.S.-Mexico border.

While Morel and other fellows were reporting from the border, the story of family separations through former President Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance policy became a major story and moved to the forefront of the country’s consciousness.

“I think for a lot of us, this huge news story shifted our work there at the border,” Morel recalled.

For her first story, Morel visited a few shelters on the Mexico side that worked to take in migrants as they finished their journey to the U.S. and asked for asylum at the port of entry. “I talked to families that were there, that were sort of grappling with this choice of, ‘Do I finish this journey but risk being separated from my child? Or do I stay in this shelter for now?’ And it was just a lot of really hard decisions that families were making.”

Morel also reported a story about Cubans who did their best to build their lives in Mexico after the Obama administration eliminated a policy known as “wet foot, dry foot” — which previously allowed Cubans to enter the U.S. without a visa.

Morel described the local journalists who helped fellows during their reporting trips, as knowledgeable and understanding of the local nuances. Shortly after she returned to Florida, she was hired by Reveal for an immigration reporting fellowship.

“It was perfect timing because I had all of these ideas and experiences fresh in my mind. I think the biggest takeaway, for me: These were all things I knew and had read about, either on the news or through books or talking to other reporters who had been at the border, but just the vulnerability that migrants face from all different angles,” she said. “There’s the vulnerability of the violence and uncertainty that they face making this journey, there’s the vulnerability that they face back home, which is why they leave in the first place — whether it’s poverty or gang violence, or a myriad of other really legitimate reasons. And then there’s the vulnerability of coming to Mexico and making this decision to come to the U.S.”

In correlation to the end of the program, IWMF partnered with the PHmuseum for a photo exhibition that features work from Adelante fellows. Titled El Otro Lado (The Other Side), the multimedia exhibition curated by Villasana ran through yesterday. To choose the final pieces, Villasana said she read and looked through every single piece published by Adelante fellows and tried to build a portrait of migration, from the factors that push people to migrate) to the journey itself, and finally the “end destination.”

“I was blown away,” she said of the other fellows’ work. “When you look at the scope of the issues that people focused on, not only in terms of themes but also in terms of depth as well as the incredible range of publications where their stories appeared, it is really impressive… the majority of the stories really try to show underrepresented angles of migration and not fall into the same tropes and stereotypes that we often see in mainstream media.”