Quiñones was invited by Student Life and Leadership to give a lecture to Salt Lake Community College students and the public. Quiñones talked about the steps he took to achieve his dream, and his desire to overcome the stereotype that Hispanics are uneducated.
Growing up in a family of migrant workers, he said, his family traveled the country, making a living based on the crop season.
“We jumped in the back of the truck and traveled 1,700 miles to Michigan, where we got paid 75 cents a bucket for cherries and it would take two hours to fill a bucket,” Quinones said in his talk last week.
“Six weeks later we went to Ohio to gather tomatoes, and would be paid 35 cents a bushel. It taught us how to work together as a family and how to pull ourselves up in hard times.”
Quiñones had a heavy accent, so he spent hours trying to change the way he talked so others could understand him.
“I knew if I wanted to be a reporter like Peter Jennings or Geraldo Rivera, I needed to get over my heavy Mexican accent. People would always laugh at my accent,” Quinones said.
“I had to figure a way to overcome it, so at 14 years old I decided to try out for the lead in Romeo and Juliet. No one else tried out, so of course I got the role.”
It was that role that allowed him to learn to enunciate clearly and come out of his shell, he said.
Despite improving his speech, Quiñones said getting into college wasn’t easy.
“Whenever I would ask my counselors in school about taking the ACT and SAT, no one supported me,” Quiñones said. “They would say, ‘It’s great you have a dream, but we think you should take something like wood shop.'”
Then he discovered a governmental program, Upward Bound, that taught kids like him to aim for college.
“I stand here today because of them,” Quiñones said.
A chance meeting with a woman who had attended Columbia University gave him the extra push he needed to apply for school. Quiñones, unable to pay for college, asked about financial aid and eventually received a fellowship.
“Never be afraid to ask,” Quiñones said.
Quiñones earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Mary’s University in Texas and a master’s degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism.
He started his career in 1975 as a radio host in Texas. After landing a job in Chicago as a reporter, Quiñones went undercover and reported on what it was like to cross the border, how immigrants were treated, and about the corruption in the system.
“When journalism is done right, those are the stories that should be told,” Quiñones said. “I won my first Emmy for that story.”
Quiñones has won six more Emmys, and also spent 10 years reporting for Peter Jennings in Nicaragua.
“Despite all the awards I’ve received, the one show everyone knows me for now is WWYD,” Quiñones said. “Doing this show reminds us that with all the progress we have made, we still have a long way to go.”
Quiñones said he tells his story to remind others to always persevere, and no matter how tough things get, to just keep pushing.