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Faces of NPR *Latin Heritage Month*: Franco Ordoñez

Franco Ordoñez
Franco Ordoñez
Franco Ordoñez

Faces Of NPR showcases the people behind NPR--from the voices you hear every day on the radio to the ones who work outside of the recording studio. You'll find out about what they do and what they're inspired by on the daily. This month, we feature NPR's Latin community. Next up is Franco Ordoñez.

The Basics:

Name: Franco Ordoñez

Title: White House Correspondent

Twitter Handle: @FrancoOrdonez

Are you at the White House now?

Yeah, I'm at the White House. This is our booth inside. It doesn't look fancy. But it's actually really nice.

Nice. Where did you grow up?

I was born in New York and grew up in Atlanta. I went to college at the University of Georgia and then went to South America to live for a couple of years in Colombia before coming back to the States.

What part of Colombia were you in?

I was mostly in Bogota. I am the son of Colombian immigrants and I wanted to get to know my background a little better as well as my extended family. Growing up, I would go back to Colombia every couple of years. My brother and my sister and I, we'd always talk about wanting to live there someday.

I tried a few times in high school, but kind of wimped out. I built up the guts after college. I stayed in South America a couple of years, and then came back and started my career.

Can you tell me your least favorite and your most favorite part about being a White House correspondent?

Oh, I would say my least favorite is the waiting around. This job is a lot of 'hurry up and wait.'

Just today, for example, a briefing was originally scheduled for 12:30. Then it got moved to 1:00. I sat in the chair of the briefing room till 1:30. Then they pushed it back again to 1:45. I think it started a little bit before 2.

It's a very cool job, don't get me wrong. But it's not always the glamor that some folks think about.

My favorite part of the job would have to be the access to cool events, and the travel.

I really like foreign policy. And I really like to travel. So the possibilities to go places that I probably would never have the opportunity to go or wouldn't be able to afford or have the time to go are incredible. Jerusalem. Sicily. Belgium. Cornwall, England. Going multiple times to Cuba. Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina.

It was not part of my work at the White House, but I went to Ukraine ... to help cover the war.

I've had the opportunity to be part of such important stories.

And, riding on Air Force One ain't that bad either.

Franco Ordoñez
/ Franco Ordoñez
Franco Ordoñez
Franco Ordoñez

When your identity and your work conflict, what do you do?

What do you mean by conflict?

You're a White House correspondent, and the presidents you've covered may have said some things that you don't agree with, that are demeaning to you, condescending to you, oppressive towards you or your community, so when that happens, how do you continue to do your job?

It's a tough question. Part of it is, in this job, I guess because I've done it so long, I do feel like I have the ability to separate myself from some of those things.

In certain ways, it fuels me to want to make sure to get the story out, and get the story right. The truth is a powerful tool. And just telling it straight can have a significant impact.

It can be hard not to get emotional. Everybody's human. I mean, I sometimes go home and I complain to my wife, "can you believe this happened"? But then, you get up the next day - and you go do the job again.

How do you think that your identity or that your heritage shows up in your work, if at all?

I would say it shows up a good bit. I used my heritage, my language skills to help me, especially early in my career. I was an immigration reporter for many, many years. I used my background, my language in order to connect with populations of the cities that I covered. I was able to relate to groups of immigrants in ways that my editors and other reporters could not.

As a child of immigrants, who had also lived abroad, I also think I had some more understanding of why people made the choices they made. I could see, in some cases, how people were encouraged to come here. Some of the nuances around migration.. When the government basically looks the other way so that businesses can lure families to the country - and then act surprised - or become outraged - when it was politically expedient.

It's not a black and white issue. It's really one of the most emotional issues that I have ever covered in my career.

Can you tell me a little bit about your investigations with the poultry factory?

Yeah. This was back when I was in North Carolina at the Charlotte Observer. We learned that workers at poultry plants, who were largely from Central America, from Guatemala and El Salvador, were being mistreated. They were not being taken to the hospital when they got hurt. They were not covering them for worker's compensation. And some of these people were losing fingers - and some died. We also uncovered that teenagers, as young as 15, were working in these conditions.

There was a team of reporters on it, three of us, and I was the reporter who basically lived in these rural communities of immigrants. I spent time with their families. They invited me into their homes. We ate together. They shared stories about their lives back home. And why they came.

I would also talk about my background. I think because of that and my own willingness to open up, I was able to develop some trust. They risked a lot speaking to me. Their jobs, and more.

What is the most interesting thing you've seen take place at the White House?

I don't know if this is so exciting, but one of the coolest things is Marine One lifting off from the White House. I've seen it so many times, but it never gets old.

But also just being there at such important moments. When Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky finally got a visit to the White House with Biden. I was there when Biden met [Russian President] Putin in Geneva.

It's very exciting, but it can also be daunting at times. You feel a lot of responsibility to the audience. You got to get those moments right.

I was also at the White House when former president Trump declared he had won the election when he hadn't. The votes hadn't even been completely counted.

How did everyone react when he said that?

There was quite a bit of shock.. even though there were reports that he might do it.

It's one of those moments where you say, "Oh, my gosh." But also just as quickly, "how am I going to write this? I have to file."

Covering the Trump administration could sometimes feel like reporting from a roller coaster. It was fast. It was exciting. It was bumpy. But you needed to do the work - and get it right.

What steps did you take to become the White House correspondent?

I had a very circuitous route. I did not have the typical political background some White House correspondents have. I feel like a lot of correspondents come up through the ranks covering politics at smaller outlets or maybe as state house reporters at a newspaper or a public radio affiliate.

I covered immigration. I covered policy. I was previously at McClatchy and I was also doing a lot of work for the Miami Herald on Latin America and foreign policy.

When Trump was elected, we got a new editor at McClatchy who was looking to cover the Trump White House in unique ways.

Immigration was clearly a huge issue for the White House. And my editor also saw an opportunity with Latin America. She was right. The White House did a lot with Latin America,, especially involving countries of interest to South Florida, a politically important region.

I think in my case, having some specialization in immigration and foreign policy helped me. It allowed me to kind of distinguish myself. It also gave me some specific expertise that was noticed by outlets including NPR, particularly my immigration coverage.

So what made you choose NPR ultimately? And what has kept you here?

I was surprised when NPR called. I wasn't a radio guy. I didn't really think it'd turn into a job. So when I was asked to come in, I thought, "Why not? No pressure. Let's just have some fun." Even after the second or third interview, I didn't think much of it.

I also had a good job. I was doing cool stuff. But two main things interested me about NPR.

One, was NPR was offering for me to be more part of the daily conversation, which was something I wanted to do at the White House.

But also NPR had such an amazing reach. I was interested in speaking to a bigger audience.

The NPR audience is just absolutely incredible. The connection that we as reporters are able to have with listeners ... there is no comparison.

People love NPR. I've had people who I haven't spoken to in decades reach out to me and tell me that they feel like they've been in touch the whole time. That's because they hear me on the radio on a daily basis ... in the morning ....when they're getting ready or driving to work. There is a comfort level.

What's kept me here is certainly the impact that we're able to have through our work. It is an incredibly rewarding place to be.

The Tiny Desk concerts are fun. And I get to work with really great people.

Can you tell me about your experience in Kyiv? How was it?

Working in Ukraine was one of the most memorable experiences that I've ever had.

Earlier in my career, I had covered different tragedies, including the earthquakes in Haiti, and unrest and violence in border towns in Mexico. But I'd never covered a war. It was a powerful experience.

It was an opportunity to share with our listeners some of the things that were happening in Ukraine, the global significance and why it should matter to them. The emotion. The humanity.. The geopolitics... all that.

I became a better radio reporter. I was able to use sound in ways that I don't as often in Washington. I also just learned a lot about humanity. Amidst all the sadness, the emotion, the pain, I don't know that I've ever seen such resiliency in a people.

Franco Ordoñez in Ukraine
/ Franco Ordoñez
Franco Ordoñez
Franco Ordoñez in Ukraine

So you are White House correspondent for NPR... it does not get much better than that. But do you have your eyes on anything that you want to do next? Is there a next step for you?

Gosh, that's a really tough question. You're right, I really do feel like I have been very fortunate with the career that I have. I'm very happy with covering the White House. It's also very exciting to be able to cover the Biden administration and compare it to my time during the Trump years. What's next? I mean, I don't know. I really like foreign policy. I really just love telling stories. I really love reporting and learning stuff that I didn't know before. It's an awesome job.

Do you consider yourself a person of color?

Oh, shoot.

This is just part of the question that I have.

Sommer, that is the most difficult question you've asked. I think I'm going to take a pass on that one.

Obviously, I'm Latino. My father had lighter skin. My mother has a bit darker skin. But I'll tell you growing up as a Latin American, a Colombian American, I've been criticized for not being Latino enough, and I've been criticized for being too Latino. It's a little bit of a minefield. Whatever I say I feel will piss some people off.

I will say I'm extremely proud of my background. I'm proud to be Latino. I'm proud to be Colombian American. But I'm a little bit careful in that area.

As a Latino in the White House, have you faced any discrimination by other people working there?

I don't know. Perhaps, people have seen my last name, the tilde, and wondered if that represented some bias. It's also possible there were expectations of certain types of coverage - that's certainly happened throughout my career. But I can't say I've ever experienced anything very outwardly at the White House . That doesn't mean it doesn't happen. Because it does.

Does your family listen to you? Do they listen to your reporting?

So yes, my mom tries to listen as much as she can. She was not an NPR listener before, but she has become one. My brother listens from time to time, but he is also a very loyal listener of The NPR Politics Podcast. That's fun when he calls after shows if I make a family reference. My sister. She is deaf. So, she doesn't listen to my reports, per say. She follows my reports online, particularly my digital stories, and sometimes she'll read the transcripts. She also tells me when her friends hear me. My 7-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter listen to me sometimes - but mostly only when I make them. They usually ask me to change the channel. Ha. And my wife, she's a loyal listener, but never makes a big deal out of it.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sommer Hill (she/her) is a social media associate for NPR Extra. She started with NPR in May 2021. Her primary responsibilities include managing the social media accounts for NPR Extra as well as creating blog posts for NPR.org. In her time at NPR, Hill has worked on many projects including the Tiny Desk Contest, the How I Built This Summit, creating a resource page for Juneteenth material, participating in the 'What Juneteenth Means To Me' video and contributing to WOC/POC meetings.
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