From rejection to growth, journalist Mariana Atencio shares experiences in 'Perfectly You'

The NBC/MSNBC journalist encourages readers to 'take a leap of faith' about what they can achieve, like she did. "Do it because we need your voices."
Image: Mariana Atencio
Mariana Atencio's new book "Perfectly You" is part self-help and part memoir.Jesus Perez

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By Raul A. Reyes

The line at Barnes & Noble’s flagship Fifth Avenue store in New York City twisted and wound past shelves of books and DVDs. Clutching books and cellphones, the diverse group of people gave off the vibe of a family reunion, chatting among themselves and taking selfies. When NBC/MSNBC correspondent Mariana Atencio appeared for a book signing, the line burst into applause. One young man told Atencio, “I admire you on so many levels,” while a woman shyly asked her for a photo, saying, “I am so inspired by your story, it gave me hope.”

Currently out with her first book, “Perfectly You: Embracing the Power of Being Real,” Atencio will be speaking at the Girl Up 2019 Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., on July 15, and to the Central Florida chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists on July 19. Her book is designed to help readers see how their perceived weaknesses can actually be their strengths.

“The message of my book is that you, too (readers) can make it. By sharing my journey, I hope to inspire (others) on their journey."

Part memoir and part self-help, Atencio’s book is available in English and Spanish editions.

At Barnes and Noble, Ivana Savarese, 24, said she had come to see Atencio because they share an immigrant heritage. “She reminds me of my story; she really helped me to think about what I love and what can make me special here,” Savarese said. “This book is what I need at the moment … to remind myself that you have to do your best and then whatever happens, you cannot regret it.”

To many viewers and fans who know Atencio from television and her large following on social media, she may seem to have enjoyed a steady upward career trajectory. But as she details in “Perfectly You,” she has known her share of hardships.

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Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Atencio spent summers at a local beach town, until a 1999 landslide destroyed virtually the entire community. Her high school sweetheart was tortured and killed in a brutal murder. As a college student participating in Venezuela’s pro-democracy movement, she was tear-gassed; she later decided to leave the country after going out for a hike and ending up with a gun pointed at her head.

Once Atencio emigrated to the United States in 2008, she faced new hurdles. She was laid off from her first American journalism job, and for a time was at risk of becoming undocumented. With her accent and lack of on-camera experience, she struggled to find work in television. She eventually found success at Univision and Fusion networks, but she still faced challenges. In 2017, before the White House Correspondents dinner, a network executive offered her unsolicited wardrobe advice, saying, “Please don’t look too Latina.”

Yet Atencio’s most devastating loss came in 2018, when her father became seriously ill in Venezuela. By then, the country was in the middle of a full-blown medical crisis, with a lack of medications and a crippled health care system. Despite her family’s attempts to provide resources for his treatment, Atencio’s father passed away — a wrenching experience she later wrote about for NBCNews.com and in her book.

Atencio has had her lighter moments as well. She has interviewed Pope Francis, and once took a selfie with the then-Crown Prince of Spain (his first, and it went viral).

These days, Atencio is a visible presence across NBC and MSNBC, covering everything from teachers' strikes to hurricanes to the family separation crisis at the border. “I have come to the conclusion that objectivity and emotion can go hand in hand. If you remain emotionless as a reporter, so will the viewer,” she said. “So I think the more that you show compassion towards your subjects, with the facts in hand, the more that will translate to the audience and actually move people’s hearts,” she said.

For Atencio, the most challenging story she has covered has been the ongoing crisis in her home country of Venezuela, in part because, in her view, that story does not get covered enough. Her favorite story, so far, has been covering the March for Our Lives movement, which arose out of the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida. “Seeing this new generation of kids rise up, in a diverse, united way to make a change has inspired me beyond anything else.”

A graduate of Columbia University’s School of Journalism, Atencio’s honors include the Peabody Award for Investigative Journalism, the Gracie Award from the Alliance for Women in Media, and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists “Latino Issues” award. Her Ted-x Talk, delivered at the University of Nevada in 2017, has been viewed online more than 9.5 million times.

Atencio’s success comes at a time when minorities continue to be underrepresented in newsrooms. Studies by the Radio Television Digital News Association in 2012-2016 estimated that television newsroom staffs were 77 to 79 percent white, and primarily male. As a result, Latino advocacy groups have called for more Latino representation in broadcast and cable news.

Atencio hopes that her career in journalism, especially as an immigrant with a background in Spanish-language media, will encourage other Hispanics and people of color to follow in her footsteps.

“I was afraid in the very beginning. I took a leap of faith,” she said. “If you are doubting yourself, leave that impostor syndrome at the door. Do it because we need your voices, we need more of us to tell our stories in mainstream platforms … authenticity is what will differentiate you in the market.”

Peter Shaw, Atencio’s field producer who has traveled all over the country with her, said via email, “She has the gift of storytelling and amazing ability to connect and engage with people we meet while on assignment — the issues she is passionate about have become a priority for me also. I would say she has had a similar effect on our MSNBC audience as well.”

And in her own way, Atencio is inspiring others as well.

At the New York signing for “Perfectly You,” Sean McHugh said that seeing Atencio on television meant a lot to him. “It’s all about representation. When you see someone that looks like you or is your same age or came from a similar background, it gives you hope that maybe I can do it, too.”

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