In a Miami Dade Community College classroom, Aurora Rodriguez can be mistaken for one of the students she teaches in the undergraduate journalism courses. It is not simply a matter of looks; it is also the way she connects with younger audiences in person and through her work, her knowledge of the latest cultural trends, and her nonstop energy. Aside from teaching aspiring journalists at the college and before that at Florida International University, she is the editor of Where magazine for South Florida, as well as a blogger for various websites including J-14 Magazine and Dirty and Thirty.
She started in journalism almost 15 years ago in her native Puerto Rico and since then has written for various news sites and publications including The San Juan Star, The Ledger and The Miami Herald. Throughout her career, her focus has been on stories about culture, travel and entertainment. If you want to be in the know of the coolest places in Miami, ask Aurora. But aside from all the fun stories, her writing also addresses very personal struggles.
About eight years ago, Aurora was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Instead of hiding it she found a way to deal with her illness: by writing about it. I wanted to know her motivations for opening up to her readers and what she is teaching to others who want to follow her same teenage dreams.
What draw you to journalism?
When I was in the third grade and I started writing, one of my teachers told me ‘your writing is really good, you should be in the school paper.’ We did have school papers in elementary school. I remember writing stuff about the cafeteria food, my fellow peers, and then I never stopped. In high school, I became the editor for the school paper and it was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed hearing other people’s ideas and I enjoyed hearing stories about people’s lives. I guess that’s what really drew me into journalism.
You started at a really early age too? Did you do something before you were a reporter in The San Juan Star?
Yes I did! When I was in Sagrado (Sagrado Corazon University in Puerto Rico) my first real reporting job out of high school was being a youth reporter for Casiano Communications and the website PuertoRicowow.com. I had a weekly column online and I started writing about events and what was going on the city and Puerto Rico, where to go, and what you can do when you were young and you wanted to have a good time in the area.
Were you inspired by any author? Is there anybody you have looked up to throughout your career?
I was really in love with literature and I was really in love with poetry. I won a few poetry awards when I was in Sagrado which I was really excited about. Some of my favorite poets are (among others) Edgar Allan Poe; I know it’s a classic but I really love his writing (…) When it comes to really reading journalism and news writing, I pretty much follow the local news and those reporters. I also loved the magazines so I would subscribe to (these) which was one of the reasons I think I became a feature writer, just because I follow pop culture so much.
(…) Being at the school paper I started (writing) poems for it, but then when I started news writing I had a professor, his name is Rafael Matos, (who) gave me my first journalism class and he told me ‘don’t let anybody take your voice away from you because you can really be a good features writer.’ And I pretty much just kept doing that. I blame him and that is a good thing (laughs).
What has drawn you to continue writing in this type of beat: culture, traveling, entertainment?
I feel like there are stories that just have to be told because not everything has to be negative and depressing (…) I feel happy when I write a story and it’s something that people can relate to. For example, in my travel writing if I write a story on say going to Jamaica where I went a year ago, and somebody writes ‘oh my God, those were such great recommendations, I am happy you wrote that story because I follow your advice,’ it makes me feel good.
(…)I really like writing stories about real people, writing stories about people that are doing amazing things in their neighborhoods. I just like writing stories where people read them and they can relate or they read them and they are happy when they read them.
You are also very personal in your writing. In your blogs you have covered your frustrations.
Yeah, like my bipolar disorder and my mental illness… I knew that there was something wrong but I had no idea what was going on and when I found out, it was like sense of relief. I have been on medication since 2008. After I got married that is when I found out.
(…) It is very personal (writing) but I am not afraid to share my personal stories because I want people to relate. One of my personal goals is for people to read my writing and say ‘ok, I am not alone, look at her, she is able to have a job’ because there is stigma that people that have bipolar disorder can’t work because that is such an up and down disease. I’ve proven that you can live a normal life with my disability
It is very personal, I am sharing it, but it is also a release. It makes me feel better when I write about a tough time.
You even surpassed many expectations for “normal” people because I see you and you are always doing something.
Yeah (laughs). I have so many people coming up to me and saying ‘you are always out girl, you are partying’ and I am like ‘hold on a second, I am networking.’ I know it sounds strange but it has to do with my career. A lot of times to be able to come up with a story idea I need to be out there… One of the goals that I gave myself for this year, and I have been pretty good about it, is to go to less events because it really does take up a lot of your time. I feel when you starting out you should do that but once you reach a point you can back away; I am going to pick and choose what I am going to go to. With my disability and everything else, well I don’t consider it a disability, but I do get more tired because of my medication, etc. so I try not overextend myself too much when it comes to going out.
(…) I think that is my biggest advice to young journalists, (do) not get yourself get too burnt out because I’ve been there when I was 23, 24 years old. I was trying to cover everything at the same time and I would get so exhausted that I would barely sleep and that is dangerous. You need to have a balance.
Can you describe a great challenge that you had in your career and how did you tackle it?
I went through a big challenge when I was at The Ledger when I covered arts and culture. I remember there was source, and I bring this up at my class all the time, there was a source that said that they never gave me the quotes that I put in the story. You know for a journalist that is a big no no. When somebody says that, it is really scary. My editor was not the most supportive editor at the time but I was lucky enough that I had notes, that I had all the information in my reporter’s notebooks. I was able to back up my quotes, I was able to prove, yes I was there, yes, I had interviewed you.
(…) My biggest advice is always keep your notes, always keep everything in file and when you are interviewing somebody, always ask for permission, always save those files because you never know when somebody might read something and say, ‘hey why did I say that.’ You just don’t know what type of person it is you are going to be dealing with out there, so just keep yourself protected.
Talking about your students, what is the biggest advice you give them when you teach them?
I start my class really funny because I make them take their phones out and look up a story. I know that sounds hilarious, eleven years ago no professor would have allowed you to take out your phone and look up stories on your phone. But here is the thing: that is the world we live in today, news are that handy. News are in social media, news are on your phone, they are just right there for you in the palm of your hand.
(…) My advice to them is to keep up with the news very day … No matter what (themes) they really like, just try to step away from what they feel comfortable with and read all sorts of news… I always tell them be prepared, make sure they know multimedia, make sure they really learn their social media.
I tell them one person is expected to do the job of five. So don’t think you are going to go into a newsroom and just write: you are going to write, you are going to shoot video, you are going to take pictures, you are going to update those websites, so you need to be a ‘package’… That is what I try to teach them in the classroom.
Follow Aurora Rodriguez on Twitter @AuroraMiami
Follow the author @yadicarocaro