When Myriam Marquez was named the editorial page editor of the Miami Herald this summer, she became the first Hispanic -- and the first woman -- to lead the Herald's editorial department since the paper's inception in 1903.
It's no small responsibility. Through the decades, the Miami Herald has garnered 20 Pulitzer Prizes. Two of those belong to the editorial department -- one for cartooning in 1996 and one for writing in 1983 about the federal detention of illegal Haitian immigrants.
Over the past couple weeks, the editorial department has gone toe-to-toe with the mayor of Miami-Dade County, blasting him for giving generous raises to a dozen staff members during a time of deep financial malaise.
In October, Marquez -- who fled Cuba for the United States with her parents as a toddler during the country's Communist revolution in 1959 -- will be among the 100 people mentioned in HispanicBusiness Magazine's annual list of influential Hispanics.
Her appointment comes at a time when diversity initiatives in American newsrooms are stagnating -- even backsliding -- as newspapers grapple with plunging ad revenues and outmoded business models.
Even before last year's historic economic meltdown, minorities were under-represented in American newsrooms, making up just 13.4 percent of the nation's journalists, despite constituting a full third of the U.S. population. In the last year, while the total number of U.S. journalists fell 11.3 percent, the head count of minority journalists dropped even steeper 11.9 percent, according to the American Society of News Editors.
As for the Herald, which is weathering its own financial storm, the paper has "made great strides in diversity," Marquez told HispanicBusiness.com.
"I am following in the footsteps of a top African-American journalist (Joe Oglesby), and in the newsroom, the No. 2 person behind the editor is a Hispanic woman (Aminda 'Mindy' Marques)," she said.
Marquez, 54, takes the helm at a time when the Herald, like many American newspapers, is fighting for survival. Some experts say the Herald's situation is particularly dire.
This past March, the Herald's management announced it would lay off 19 percent of the staff and reduce the salaries of the remaining employees.
That same month, Time Magazine ranked the Miami Herald No. 3 on a list of the nation's 10 most endangered newspapers. Time predicted the paper will soon go the way of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: available only online.
But Marquez told HispanicBusiness.com there is no validity to Time's prediction. In her estimation, things at the Herald are beginning to turn around.
"Our online hits are among the top in the nation, according to the latest study, and McClatchy stock prices have started to rise," she said in an email to HispanicBusiness.com.
As for the editorial page, Marquez has put it on a more interactive path, posting videos of public officials meeting with the editorial board and video op-eds from readers. The editorial page has even taken up Twitter, allowing readers to tweet questions to the editorial board recently as it interviewed Miami Mayor Manny Diaz about the city's budget woes.
As head of the paper's editorial department, Marquez leads a staff of three writers and a political cartoonist.
A registered Independent who says she has voted for both Republicans and Democrats, Marquez understands the soul of the city.
In addition to having fled Cuba for Florida, Marquez lived through and was inspired by the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
This background has fueled not only her wariness of Communism but also her compassion for the historically disenfranchised -- women, minorities, the poor, and the like.
"I'm sort of the lump sum of all those things put together," she said.
Marquez's upbringing is in line with her description of the Herald's editorial leanings: "socially moderate to liberal, and fiscally more moderate to conservative."
Ann Louise Bardach, a leading expert on relations between Cuba and Miami, has kind words for Marquez, who, in addition to her current leadership duties, pens a column for the paper.
"She's smart, witty and fun to read," said Bardach, whose new book on Fidel Castro received national attention this week. "You know, she speaks for a certain segment of La Comunidad -- the Cuban exile community."
Like many immigrants, Marquez has a remarkable story to tell.
The daughter of a mother who taught school and father who shuttled tourists around Havana in his taxi, her family's charmed life in that country came to an abrupt halt during the Cuban Revolution. Led by Fidel Castro, the uprising put a chokehold on tourism, to the devastation of her father's business, she said.
The family decamped to Florida in 1959, when she was 5.
"We were thinking we'd be back in a year or two when things settled down," she told HispanicBusiness.com. "Fifty years later, here I am. ... It's the story of a million Cubans who left the island."
Marquez said some of her relatives who stayed in Cuba experienced tough times. Her grandfather, for instance, lost his business -- a cafeteria near the Havana airport -- when the government took it over six or seven years after the revolution.
Marquez was inspired to study journalism partly by the industry-changing Watergate stories of the 1970s.
After graduating from Miami Senior High, she attended the University of Maryland, where she earned a bachelor's degree in journalism and a minor in political science.
"My first major was medicine, but chemistry killed that," Marquez laughs. "I was always a good writer, so I started looking at journalism."
In 1983 she landed her first reporting job, covering Congress for UPI in Washington D.C. Marquez later worked for the Orlando Sentinel for more than a decade as a reporter, editor, columnist and editorial writer. In 2005, she came to the Miami Herald, where she has served as an assistant city editor, deputy metro editor and columnist.
Through firsthand experience, Marquez has learned how the written word can bring out the best and worst in people.
Once, she wrote a column about two young children living with their grandparents in Orlando. Their mother was in San Juan, Puerto Rico, dying of AIDS. The community rallied, raising enough money to allow the children to visit their mother before she died.
But another time, in response to a column she wrote for the Sentinel about the lack of women in powerful positions, an angry reader mailed Marquez a packet filled with bodily fluids.
"I've gotten a lot of, 'why don't you just go back to Cuba," she said. "Or: 'You were an affirmative action hire.' "
Cuban politics are red hot in Miami in the same way that immigration policies often dominate the discourse in San Diego. As a result, it can be an explosive topic at the Miami Herald. Sometimes, the paper finds itself in the center of the fray.
In 2006, for instance, three Herald reporters were fired after it was discovered they were moonlighting for an anti-Castro propaganda outlet in Cuba funded by the U.S. government.
As for the Herald's editorial position on Cuba, Marquez acknowledges that the paper doesn't go easy on the country.
"The position here reflects more of the diaspora in our area," she said. "We're a little tougher than some newspapers might be on lifting the (trade) embargo."
At the same time, she said, the paper supported President Obama's April decision to loosen travel restrictions, undoing former President Bush's 2004
move allowing Americans to visit relatives on the island just once every three years.
"We thought the Bush administration went too far," she said.
Marquez cites as one of her major influences the writer Anna Quindlen, a former New York Times columnist, best-selling novelist and critic of American materialism.
"She has the capability of seeing through things and being genuinely empathetic," Marquez said. "I think that's a quality we don't show enough of."
Another is her own mother, who divorced Marquez's father not once, but twice. The first divorce occurred when Marquez was 2; the second when she was 12.
"She was able to buy a home as a divorced woman," said Marquez, who is married to Tony Pipitone, an investigative reporter for WKMG-TV in Orlando, with whom she has two young-adult sons. "That was quite an accomplishment in the late '60s and early '70s."
Marquez is well aware that her industry is in turmoil. Still, she believes journalists will have a place in the job market for some time to come.
Asked to impart a little advice to aspiring young journalists, though, and she admits that, in the current environment, clear answers remain elusive.
"I guess the answers are to be curious," she said. "To not devalue yourself. To realize people will always need information, and for democracy to survive, we need an electorate who's informed. There will be jobs for journalists. ... But we have to be learning new skills."
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