On Aug. 31, 2023, the AL DÍA Foundation hosted a reception to induct the newest class fellows into the AL DÍA newsroom, and honor broadcasting legend, John Quiñones.

How can the Philadelphia landscape better reflect the communities that make up the Philadelphia population, which a microcosm of the population of the United States?

The answer: By creating a pipeline of young, aspiring media professionals who are as diverse as the population of the city and the country. 

With the formation of the Félix Varela Fellowship Program, the mission is to provide the opportunity for young, diverse media professionals to have the tools and skills to become trusted storytellers for their communities. 

On the evening of Aug. 31, 2023, six young media graduates were recognized as the official 2022-23 Class of Félix Varela Fellows during a reception event at The Union League of Philadelphia. 

“The purpose of this gathering is to uplift the voices of emerging leaders from multicultural communities,” said Dann Cuellar, the master of ceremonies for the event.

The fellowship is named in memory of Félix Varela y Morales, who was a Catholic priest originally from Havana, Cuba, who was one of the most prominent voices for the independence of Cuba from Spanish rule in the 19th Century.

In 1823, he escaped Cuba and arrived in New York City, and came to Philadelphia, where he started his career as a defender of immigrant rights.

The following year, he began publishing "El Habanero," an independent journal launched in Old City Philadelphia and the first Spanish-language newspaper in the history of the United States. 

Given Varela’s influence in the upholding of freedom of speech, Hernán Guaracao, founder, chairman of the AL DÍA Foundation, decided to name the fellowship program in Father Varela's memory.

The result of which is to serve as inspiration for other Latino and multicultural journalists to populate newsrooms across the city and across the country, and become the next storytellers of their own communities. 

During the event, Jennifer Hernandez, Renata Kaminski, Carlos Nogueras, Alan Nuñez, and Eliot Olaya were honored with the Félix Varela Medal of Freedom.

A Lifetime of Achievement

In addition to the induction of the six new fellows, the night featured the honoring of a broadcasting legend.

John Quiñones, the longtime ABC TV News correspondent and host of "What Would You Do?", was honored with the first-ever Félix Varela Lifetime Achievement Award

“Ever since I was a young kid, ever since I was 12 years old, all I ever wanted to do was tell stories,” Quiñones said upon receiving the honor.

A native of San Antonio, Texas, and of a Spanish-speaking household, he is the child of parents who both dropped out of school in elementary school. His father was in third grade, and his mother was in the fifth grade. 

As his father worked as a janitor and later a sharecropper and his mother worked as a maid, each kept education front and center for Quiñones and his two sisters. 

He grew up watching the news, reading the newspaper, and listening to the transistor radio in his home. However, while doing so, he noticed an alarming trend.

“All the stories that came out of my neighborhood were stories that were negative — about gangs, and illegal immigration and drugs,” said Quiñones.

“And I knew there were good stories in my community, but no one was telling them,” he added. “I knew there were heroes in my community of interest. I knew them personally. And yet you ever saw them on the news.”

Quiñones wanted to be the person to tell those stories. However, it was, of course, a challenging process.

When he was 13, his father was laid off from his job, causing the family to travel to Michigan and join a caravan of migrant farmworkers to harvest cherries.

He'd often help his father harvest cherries for 35 cents a day. Later on, the Quiñones family followed the migrant route to Ohio, where he would help pick tomatoes for 75 cents a bushel. 

After a while, Quiñones’ father asked him a critical question: “Do you want to do this kind of work for the rest of your life? Or do you want to get a college education someday?” he asked.

For Quiñones, it was a no-brainer.

“I knew I didn’t want to do that kind of back-breaking work for the rest of my life,” he said.

However, his teacher and counselors didn’t believe in him. He’d ask how to prepare for the SATs and ACT, and how to enroll in advanced classes. However, in response to his dream of being a reporter, the teachers and counselors would instead try to convince him to pursue a manual career in a woodshop, metal shop, or an auto mechanics shop.

Nonetheless, his parents continue to push and motivate him not to give up. 

John Quiñones' career in journalism has spanned over 40 years, earning him this honor. Photo: Peter Fitzpatrick/AL DIA News.

He attended St. Mary's University, where he earned a Bachelor's degree in speech communication before later earning a Master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. 

Fast forward several decades later, and Quiñones is perhaps the most recognizable Latino journalist in all of the United States. 

Upon receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award, Quiñones dedicated it to his parents, Maria and Bruno Quiñones, whom he said, “no doubt are smiling down from heaven beaming with orgullo… tremendous pride.”

Setting a Great Example

To close the evening, Kianni Figuereo provided an inspiring closing remark.

As the Félix Varela Fellow in 2021, she has accomplished what these six new fellows are looking to accomplish during their year-long fellowship.

Growing up in North Philadelphia, as a first-generation Dominican-American, Figuereo rarely saw people on the news reporting on her community who looked like her or came from the same neighborhood. 

Upon that realization, she asked herself a critical question. 

“If not me, then who?” she thought. 

Thanks to the Fellowship program, Figuereo launched her journalism career as a AL DÍA Foundation Fellow acting as a liaison between community members and policymakers on the detrimental impact of gun violence across the city, with her series entitled, “What Our City Needs.” 

Kianni Figuereo is the inaugural Felix Varela Fellow. Photo: Peter Fitzpatrick/AL DIA News.

A Chestnut Hill College graduate with no prior journalism experience was given the space, trust, and mentorship to pursue such an ambitious project. 

It is her hope that more young, aspiring journalists will be provided that same platform to pursue projects just as big, or even bigger in newsrooms all across the city.

“I do not want this opportunity to end with me or with the AL DÍA Foundation fellows Class of 2022,” she said. “People who look like me, look like them are here to stay and we're going to continue investing in them.”