What makes you special? | Mariana Atencio | TEDxUniversityofNevada


Translator: Riaki Poništ
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven Thank you so much. I am a journalist. My job is to talk to people
from all walks of life, all over the world. Today, I want to tell you why I decided to do this with my life
and what I’ve learned. My story begins in Caracas, Venezuela, in South America, where I grew up; a place that to me was,
and always will be, filled with magic and wonder. Frоm a very young age, my parents wanted me
to have a wider view of the world. I remember one time
when I was around seven years old, my dad came up to me and said, “Mariana, I’m going to send you
and your little sister…” – who was six at the time – “…to a place where nobody
speaks Spanish. I want you to experience
different cultures.” He went on and on about the benefits
of spending an entire summer in this summer camp in the United States, stressing a little phrase that I didn’t pay
too much attention to at the time: “You never know what the future holds.” Meanwhile, in my seven-year-old mind, I was thinking, we were going
to get to summer camp in Miami. (Laughter) Maybe it was going to be even better, and we were going to go
a little further north, to Orlando, where Mickey Mouse lived. (Laughter) I got really excited. My dad, however,
had a slightly different plan. Frоm Caracas, he he sent us
to Brainerd, Minnesota. (Laughter) Mickey Mouse was not up there, (Laughter) and with no cell phone,
no Snapchat, or Instagram, I couldn’t look up any information. We got there, and one of the first things I noticed was that the other kids’ hair
was several shades of blonde, and most of them had blue eyes. Meanwhile, this is what we looked like. The first night, the camp director
gathered everyone around the campfire and said, “Kids, we have a very
international camp this year; the Atencios are here from Venezuela.” (Laughter) The other kids looked at us
as if we were from another planet. They would ask us things like, “Do you know what a hamburger is?” Or, “Do you go to school
on a donkey or a canoe?” (Laughter) I would try to answer
in my broken English, and they would just laugh. I know they were not trying to be mean; they were just trying
to understand who we were, and make a correlation
with the world they knew. We could either be like them, or like characters out of a book
filled with adventures, like Aladdin or the Jungle Book. We certainly didn’t look like them, we didn’t speak their language, we were different. When you’re seven years old, that hurts. But I had my little sister
to take care of, and she cried every day at summer camp. So I decided to put on a brave face, and embrace everything I could
about the American way of life. We later did what we called
“the summer camp experiment,” for eight years in different cities
that many Americans haven’t even heard of. What I remember most about these moments
was when I finally clicked with someone. Making a friend was a special reward. Everybody wants to feel
valued and accepted, and we think it should happen
spontaneously, but it doesn’t. When you’re different,
you have to work at belonging. You have to be either
really helpful, smart, funny, anything to be cool for the crowd
you want to hang out with. Later on, when I was in high school, my dad expanded on his summer plan, and from Caracas he sent me
to Wallingford, Connecticut, for the senior year of high school. This time, I remember
daydreaming on the plane about “the American high school
experience” – with a locker. It was going to be perfect, just like in my favorite TV show:
“Saved by the Bell.” (Laughter) I get there, and they tell me that my assigned roommate
is eagerly waiting. I opened the door, and there she was, sitting on the bed, with a headscarf. Her name was Fatima,
and she was Muslim from Bahrain, and she was not what I expected. She probably sensed my disappointment
when I looked at her because I didn’t do too much to hide it. See, as a teenager,
I wanted to fit in even more, I wanted to be popular, maybe have a boyfriend for prom, and I felt that Fatima just got in the way with her shyness
and her strict dress code. I didn’t realize
that I was making her feel like the kids at summer camp made me feel. This was the high school
equivalent of asking her, “Do you know what a hamburger is?” I was consumed by my own selfishness and unable to put myself in her shoes. I have to be honest with you, we only lasted a couple
of months together, because she was later sent
to live with a counselor instead of other students. I remember thinking, “Ah, she’ll be okay. She’s just different.” You see, when we label
someone as different, it dehumanizes them in a way. They become “the other.” They’re not worthy of our time,
not our problem, and in fact, they, “the other,”
are probably the cause of our problems. So, how do we recognize our blind spots? It begins by understanding
what makes you different, by embracing those traits. Only then can you begin to appreciate
what makes others special. I remember when this hit me. It was a couple months after that. I had found that boyfriend for prom, made a group of friends, and practically forgotten about Fatima, until everybody signed on to participate
in this talent show for charity. You needed to offer a talent for auction. It seemed like everybody
had something special to offer. Some kids were going to play the violin, others were going to recite
a theater monologue, and I remember thinking, “We don’t practice talents
like these back home.” But I was determined
to find something of value. The day of the talent show comes, and I get up on stage
with my little boom box, and put it on the side and press “Play,” and a song by my favorite
emerging artist, Shakira, comes up. And I go, “Whenever, wherever,
we’re meant to be together,” and I said, “My name is Mariana,
and I’m going to auction a dance class.” It seemed like the whole school
raised their hand to bid. My dance class really stood out from, like, the 10th violin class
offered that day. Going back to my dorm room,
I didn’t feel different. I felt really special. That’s when I started
thinking about Fatima, a person that I had failed to see
as special, when I first met her. She was from the Middle East, just like Shakira’s family
was from the Middle East. She could have probably taught me
a thing or two about belly dancing, had I been open to it. Now, I want you all to take that sticker that was given to you
at the beginning of our session today, where you wrote down
what makes you special, and I want you to look at it. If you’re watching at home,
take a piece of paper, and write down what makes you different. You may feel guarded when you look at it, maybe even a little ashamed,
maybe even proud. But you need to begin to embrace it. Remember, it is the first step
in appreciating what makes others special. When I went back home to Venezuela, I began to understand
how these experiences were changing me. Being able to speak different languages, to navigate all these
different people and places, it gave me a unique sensibility. I was finally beginning to understand the importance of putting myself
in other people’s shoes. That is a big part of the reason
why I decided to become a journalist. Especially being from a part of the world
that is often labeled “the backyard,” “the illegal aliens,”
“third-world,” “the others,” I wanted to do something to change that. It was right around the time, however, when the Venezuelan government shut down the biggest television station
in our country. Censorship was growing, and my dad came up to me
once again and said, “How are you going to be
a journalist here? You have to leave.” That’s when it hit me. That’s what he had been preparing me for. That is what the future held for me. So in 2008, I packed my bags,
and I came to the United States, without a return ticket this time. I was painfully aware
that, at 24 years old, I was becoming a refugee of sorts,
an immigrant, the other, once again, and now for good. I was able to come on a scholarship
to study journalism. I remember when they gave me
my first assignment to cover the historic election
of President Barack Obama. I felt so lucky, so hopeful. I was, like, “Yes, this is it. I’ve come to post-racial America, where the notion of us and them
is being eroded, and will probably
be eradicated in my lifetime.” Boy, was I wrong, right? Why didn’t Barack Obama’s presidency
alleviate racial tensions in our country? Why do some people still feel threatened by immigrants, LGBTQ, and minority groups who are just trying to find a space in this United States
that should be for all of us? I didn’t have the answers back then, but on November 8th, 2016, when Donald Trump became
our president, it became clear that a large part of the electorate
sees them as “the others.” Some see people coming to take their jobs, or potential terrorists
who speak a different language. Meanwhile, minority groups oftentimes
just see hatred, intolerance, and narrow-mindedness on the other side. It’s like we’re stuck in these bubbles
that nobody wants to burst. The only way to do it,
the only way to get out of it is to realize that being different
also means thinking differently. It takes courage to show respect. In the words of Voltaire: “I may not agree
with what you have to say, but I will fight to the death
to defend your right to say it.” Failing to see anything good
on the other side makes a dialogue impossible. Without a dialogue, we will keep
repeating the same mistakes, because we will not learn anything new. I covered the 2016 election for NBC News. It was my first big assignment
in this mainstream network, where I had crossed over
from Spanish television. And I wanted to do something different. I watched election results
with undocumented families. Few thought of sharing that moment
with people who weren’t citizens, but actually stood
the most to lose that night. When it became apparent
that Donald Trump was winning, this eight-year-old girl named Angelina
rushed up to me in tears. She sobbed, and she asked me
if her mom was going to be deported now. I hugged her back and I said,
“It’s going to be okay,” but I really didn’t know. This was the photo we took that night,
forever ingrained in my heart. Here was this little girl who was around the same age I was
when I went to camp in Brainerd. She already knows she is “the other.” She walks home from school
in fear, every day, that her mom can be taken away. So, how do we put ourselves
in Angelina’s shoes? How do we make her
understand she is special, and not simply unworthy
of having her family together? By giving camera time to her
and families like hers, I tried to make people see them
as human beings, and not simply “illegal aliens.” Yes, they broke a law,
and they should pay a penalty for it, but they’ve also given
everything for this country, like many other immigrants
before them have. I’ve already told you how my path
to personal growth started. To end, I want to tell you how I hit
the worst bump in the road yet, one that shook me to my very core. The day, April 10th, 2014, I was driving to the studio,
and I got a call from my parents. “Are you on the air?” they asked. I immediately knew something was wrong. “What happened?” I said. “It’s your sister;
she’s been in a car accident.” It was as if my heart stopped. My hands gripped the steering wheel, and I remember hearing the words: “It is unlikely she will ever walk again.” They say your life can change
in a split second. Mine did at that moment. My sister went from being
my successful other half, only a year apart in age, to not being able to move her legs, sit up, or get dressed by herself. This wasn’t like summer camp,
where I could magically make it better. This was terrifying. Throughout the course of two years,
my sister underwent 15 surgeries, and she spent the most
of that time in a wheelchair. But that wasn’t even the worst of it. The worst was something so painful,
it’s hard to put into words, even now. It was the way people looked at her, looked at us, changed. People were unable to see
a successful lawyer or a millennial with a sharp wit
and a kind heart. Everywhere we went, I realized that people just saw
a poor girl in a wheelchair. They were unable to see
anything beyond that. After fighting like a warrior, I can thankfully tell you
that today my sister is walking, and has recovered
beyond anyone’s expectations. (Applause) Thank you. But during that traumatic ordeal, I learned there are differences
that simply suck, and it’s hard to find positive in them. My sister’s not better off
because of what happened. But she taught me: you can’t let
those differences define you. Being able to reimagine yourself
beyond what other people see, that is the toughest task of all, but it’s also the most beautiful. You see, we all come
to this world in a body. People with physical
or neurological difficulties, environmentally impacted communities,
immigrants, boys, girls, boys who want to dress as girls,
girls with veils, women who have been sexually assaulted, athletes who bend
their knee as a sign of protest, black, white, Asian, Native American,
my sister, you, or me. We all want what everyone wants:
to dream and to achieve. But sometimes, society tells us,
and we tell ourselves, we don’t fit the mold. Well, if you look at my story, from being born somewhere different,
to belly dancing in high school, to telling stories
you wouldn’t normally see on TV, what makes me different is what has made me
stand out and be successful. I have traveled the world, and talked to people
from all walks of life. You know what I’ve learned? The single thing every one of us
has in common is being human. So take a stand to defend
your race, the human race. Let’s appeal to it. Let’s be humanists,
before and after everything else. To end, I want you to take that sticker,
that piece of paper where you wrote down
what makes you different, and I want you to celebrate it
today and every day, shout it from the rooftops. I also encourage you
to be curious and ask, “What is on other people’s
pieces of paper?” “What makes them different?” Let’s celebrate those imperfections
that make us special. I hope that it teaches you that nobody
has a claim on the word “normal.” We are all different. We are all quirky, and unique, and that is what makes us
wonderfully human. Thank you so much. (Applause)

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