By Charles Tharpe
In the 1960s, Rebecca Aguilar traveled with her parents to Ohio camps for new immigrants and passed out flyers for her dad’s Spanish radio program. She watched her mom use nail polish to mark the spot on families’ radio dials so they could tune in and listen to her father provide farming tips, and urge workers to hold picket signs and rally for better pay and workers’ rights. Those small moments showed her the power of media.
This September, Aguilar, 63, became the first Latina national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in its 112-year history. Aguilar likes to believe her middle is ‘Diversity’. She’s been invested in it since she was born, she said, and she chaired SPJ’s diversity and inclusion committee from 2018 through 2020. She’s worked as a journalist for over 40 years and received over 50 awards and nominations, including multiple Emmys.
While taking Journalism 101 at Bowling Green State University, she realized she wanted to be a journalist. “I remember this reporter, a white guy, who I would see on local TV in Toledo, and he said, ‘Every day, I do something different. I meet new people.’ My parents work in a factory. They’re in the same place every day, same people, same building. I knew I didn’t want that for me.”
Media even consumes her personal life. The Dallas journalist is married to a retired TV news director, John Boos. Their son, Alex Boos, is a TV news producer in Dallas. Her mentor told her when she was a young journalist, “Listen, you have to meet someone that will support you, especially in your case as a Latina woman, someone that will follow you from job to job,” Aguilar said. She met her husband at a station in San Antonio and told him he would have to follow her. He did.
Friends refer to her as a role model and an exemplar of what a “proud Latina looks like.” Eleanore Vega, former Los Angeles bureau chief of CBS and the first Latino woman to run a U.S. bureau for any TV network, has been friends with Aguilar for over 25 years. When the two met in May 1993, they were covering a shooting in Guadalajara, Mexico. When Vega has been in trouble or when she had doubts and fears, Aguilar reminded her to not give away her power, she said.
Like many minorities in media, Aguilar said, she faced discrimination. “From my last job, I got fired after 14 years. I strongly believe it’s because I was a squeaky wheel,” Aguilar said. She mentioned that although she was a great journalist, she was looked over for many opportunities. “I remember one of the last conversations I had with a news director, I said, ‘Hey, can you consider a qualified Latino for the open positions?’” Aguilar said. “And I will never forget, she looked at me and said, ‘You’re a reporter, and I’m the vice president of news. You do your job, and I’ll do mine.’
“I don’t want to be your token Mexican in the newsroom,” she said. “I don’t want to fear speaking up. And I think many times, journalists (including people of color) are afraid to speak up. They don’t want to lose their job. But when you become good at what you do, there’s a hypocrisy sometimes in our business. They want you to be a tough reporter on the outside, but when you’re in the newsroom, and you call people out for certain things, they don’t want to hear.”
Aguilar continues to freelance for newspapers, magazines and TV stations as she presides over the SPJ. She said her focus is making sure the next generation feels supported and unafraid. She advises young journalists of the C’s: “being courageous, being compassionate, being committed and being curious.”
Charles Tharpe is media innovation and content strategy graduate student at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @charlestharpe0