At this year’s annual conference of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the organization will honor a newsroom volunteer-turned ABC correspondent, a writer who has written columns for six metropolitan dailies, and a foreign news editor who once worked as an event manager for a hotel.
Jim Avila, Elaine Ayala, and Ana Real — three veterans of the industry who are being credited for spending decades paving the way for future Latino journalists — will be inducted the final night of NAHJ’s Excellence in Journalism Conference in San Antonio.
Real, who died this year, will be honored posthumously.
For more than 40 years, Jim Avila has covered a wide range of events, from the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado to the Sept. 11 attacks. He has reported on a variety of local and international stories, consistently helping the news stations he worked for win awards.
As a child, Avila watched his journalist father cover the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. Being exposed to big news events at a young age taught Avila the importance of a free press and inspired him to pursue a career in journalism.
Avila never formally studied journalism, but learned in the field, willing to take on what he referred to as menial jobs in the newsroom to launch his career. After his schedule of ripping wires and serving coffee to anchors he would volunteer to work for free.
“I applied at many TV stations, only to be told they already had a Hispanic reporter,” Avila said. “I overcame it by continuing to apply at many places, and finally got in the door and made sure it never closed behind me.”
His tenacity to work in journalism opened the door to many opportunities throughout his career, including working as a weekend anchor in San Francisco, an investigative reporter in Los Angeles, and a bureau correspondent in Chicago.
Avila rose from a desk assistant position at KCBS Radio in San Francisco to be a White House correspondent, advocating for other Latino journalists along the way.
“Every day, I walked through the gates of the White House to take my place in the West Wing,” Avila said. “I appreciated where I was, and that I was an important part of the way our country is supposed to work.”
Avila, who exposed the stories of undocumented workers who were not released from work to seek refuge from wildfires in Southern California, is now a senior national correspondent at ABC News.
His commitment to telling stories about issues that often go unreported in the United States has made him a nationally recognized journalist.
Over the course of her career, Elaine Ayala has worked as a reporter, editor, and columnist at six metropolitan dailies, including the El Paso Times and the Austin American-Statesman.
Ayala’s journey to success involved many obstacles, but the turning point in her life was the death of her father when she was 12. For a year after his death, Ayala and her mother were in mourning. During this time, they were confined within the walls of their home, only leaving the house to go to school, to attend Mass or to buy groceries.
This experience deeply impacted Ayala and her academics. She immersed herself in writing, taking every possible English class she could in high school.
“I loved everything about writing, including (using) paper, pencils, and pens.” Ayala said. “I still spend a lot on supplies at Target.”
After high school, Ayala left her home in San Antonio to attend the University of Pennsylvania. While the university didn’t have a journalism program, Ayala knew she was destined to be a writer.
She worked many campus jobs that could lead her into journalism: as an editorial assistant for the faculty newsletter, a student aide in the public relations department, and an editor of the Chicano campus newsletter.
“I was so pollyannaish that I’d get a job at a newspaper after graduation,” Ayala said. “And I did.”
In the early 1980’s, Ayala was among very few Latinos that worked in newsrooms. It was tough, and she often felt overwhelmed and responsible to represent all people of color. She was involved in several efforts that pushed for more diversity.
“I remember an evaluation in which a supervisor wrote, as a form of criticism, that I cared too much about minority issues,” Ayala said. “Some editors didn’t always welcome or encourage diversity, though that changed over time.”
Ayala’s gift for storytelling has made her a commanding voice for many underrepresented communities.
“Journalism has given me a passport to people from all walks of life,” Ayala said. “It is such a privilege — like having an all-access pass to current events and history. I never take it for granted.”
As a Metro columnist for the San Antonio Express-News, Ayala continues to be an advocate for diversity in American newsrooms and has helped raise nearly half a million dollars through her work with the San Antonio Association of Hispanic Journalists in support of Latino students interested in journalism.
Ana Real, an award-winning and beloved international journalist, was known by friends and colleagues for her eagerness to tackle big global news and her ability to land interviews that no one else could get.
Real died on March 26 after a long fight with leukemia, leaving behind a deep love for storytelling that lives on in the many people she mentored. She was 60.
“Ana was a woman (who was) passionate in everything she did,” Ligia Belli, a close friend of Real, said in Spanish. She described her late friend as an entrepreneur and an adventurer.
Before she became a journalist, Real worked as an event manager for an InterContinental Hotel property. Her job was demanding and had long hours, but despite her busy schedule, she never missed important events in the lives of those she loved.
Belli and Real met in fifth grade and became close friends ever since. Through the years, Belli admired Real’s determination and love for life.
“She was an unconditional friend,” Belli said in Spanish. “She had a great capacity to give.”
Real began her journalism career as a TV news field producer covering the guerrilla wars in El Salvador. She went on to work as a journalist in Peru for Worldwide Television News, which later became APTN.
She joined CBS News in 2001 and soon began working with Ingrid Ciprian-Matthews, who was a senior producer for “CBS Evening News” at the time. Real worked on the CBS Foreign Desk and Ciprian-Matthews oversaw international and foreign coverage. Through their work, they formed a strong bond.
“There was so much we had in common — some of it because neither of us were born in this country,” said Ciprian-Matthews, now executive vice president of strategic professional development for CBS News. “We came here as immigrants and we spoke that same language.”
Both women spoke Spanish, but Ciprian-Matthews was referring to something less tangible.
“You know, that immigrant language,” she said. “We could say things that made sense to us. We could reference our culture in a very personal way.”
Real, who most recently was a foreign news editor for CBS News, was a master in developing contacts and maintaining relationships with sources all over the world. In 2003, she got an interview with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for “CBS Evening News” with Dan Rather. She even flew out with the anchor and CBS executive producer to Baghdad.
Real’s sources also included defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman, who represented Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán.
She was part of a “48 Hours” team that traveled to Guatemala and helped expose the trafficking of children in the international adoption market.
“Wherever we were where things were difficult, where transmission was difficult, where logistics were impossible, I always knew and felt secure that we had the best people dealing with the situation,” Ciprian-Matthews said. “Ana was always at the forefront.”
After working nearly two decades at CBS News, Real became a mentor to many.
She managed teams of journalists throughout the world reporting for “48 Hours,” “60 Minutes,” “CBS This Morning,” “Sunday Morning,” “Face the Nation,” and “CBS Evening News.”
During her time at CBS, she won two News and Documentary Emmys for her work. Real also served as a president for the NAHJ chapter in New York City, advising students pursuing careers in journalism.
“I think that her most important job in life was being a mom,” Ciprian-Matthews said. “She was a mom every single day to her kids and to so many of our young folks here as well. She will always be remembered for that.”
Jackeline Lizama is a 2019 NAHJ Student Project participant. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she studied journalism with an emphasis on visual storytelling. She was a staff photographer at The Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s independent student newspaper. Reach her at email@example.com and on Twitter at @JackyLizama.