Changing the Conversation

You may recognize Alicia Menendez from her appearances on the O’Reilly Factor, Countdown with Keith Olbermann and Larry King Live. But she didn’t always know she wanted to be in media. Before graduating from Harvard, Alicia thought she would follow in the footsteps of her father, Senator Bob Menendez. But after working on his 2006 campaign she realized that elected office was not for her, at least for the time being. Alicia moved to Washington, DC and worked for Rock the Vote and Democracia USA. Currently, she leads the 21st Century America Project as a Senior Advisor at the New Policy Institute.

Alicia’s media appearances began when Sonia Sotomayor was nominated to the Supreme Court and the cable news networks needed a “Wise Latina” commentator. For Alicia, Sotomayor’s appointment was as transformative personally as it was professionally. “The meta narrative against Sotomayor---that she wasn’t smart enough, that she wasn’t deserving---was so familiar to so many Latinas. If she deserves to be in the highest court in the land then all Latinas belong as well.”

While Alicia is skilled at fielding questions from interviewers, she much prefers being the one to ask the questions. “It’s much more fun to drive the interview, that’s when you control the arc of the story.” Some of Alicia’s most notable interviews have been with Sen. Hillary Clinton, Sen. Shelby Graham, and the late Senator Edward Kennedy.

Alicia is only one of a handful of Latina political commentators on national television, along with Maria Cardona and Maria Teresa Kumar. “There are so few Hispanic commentators period, male or female. Many of us tend to be the guy behind the guy,” she says. “We have a lot of good operatives but very often we start thinking of ourselves as behind the scenes people. It feels a little presumptuous to be on camera.”

Cable news is still struggling with how to incorporate Latino talent without them being pigeon-holed. Getting more Latino faces on camera requires Latino producers and management who make diversity a priority. For Alicia, getting networks to understand what the future of America looks like requires engagement on the part of the community to write local television stations and express the need for diversity in the lineup. Alicia knows first-hand the power of Latino mobilization from when she worked on Democracia USA’s campaign to get Lou Dobbs fired from CNN for his xenophobic and vitriolic portrayal of immigrants.

Alicia continues to work to transform the dialogue by setting standards for herself. “Whenever you have two guests with opposing views---unless they are trying hard to meet at the middle---there is little opportunity for idea sharing,” she says. “Changing the conversations requires creating spaces where you can have new conversations. And it requires joining the conversations that are already happening.”

Alicia also understands the challenge in balancing the creation of new media and the need to be involved in the mainstream conversation. She and close colleague Adrian Maestas recently launched, a website that offers “a Latino take on politics and media.” The impetus for it came from their sense that a new platform was needed to cultivate a group of talented Latino writers and support emerging voices, Alicia notes, “We can complain about the lack of platforms or we can go build them. As a wise mentor once told me, ‘The flip-side of we are the ones we’ve been waiting for is that ain’t nobody else coming.’”

Regardless of who is coming, Alicia remains focused on lifting others, particularly Latinas, as she climbs: “In looking forward to the next professional opportunity, don’t forget to look over your shoulder and see who is behind you.”

By Maritza Kelley