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Distinguished Speaker spreads inspiring message

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As the first distinguished speaker of the fall semester, John Quiñones, co-host of “Primetime,” anchor for“20/20,” and host of the TV show “What Would You Do?” motivated the audience with his message of perseverance despite adversity and posed the moral question “What Would You do?”

“I’m here because I want to inspire you tonight,” Quiñones said, “especially the students who have ever faced an obstacle, the people who have been confused about their dreams. I have been there.”

Quiñones’ speech, “A 20/20 Vision of Hispanic America,” was received in the Hoag Recital Hall at 7 p.m. on Sept. 15 CSU-Pueblo. Quiñones began by speaking of his upbringing. He recalled living in poverty in a west-side barrio of San Antonio, Texas.

John Quiñones, host of the TV show “What Would You Do?” was first distinguished speaker of the semester. Photo by Ye Ming

“You know how they say, “’We didn’t know we were poor?’  Well, we knew we were poor,” Quiñones said jokingly, as he shared a laugh with the crowd.

Quiñones, a Mexican-American, spoke of his struggle in grade school, having only known Spanish.

“On the first day of school in the first grade, the bell rang for recess and I went home. I thought it was over. The teacher didn’t speak Spanish, and I didn’t speak English,” Quiñones said starting another roar of laughter.

Quiñones said he slowly learned English and began excelling in his English courses. In fact, he said an English teacher encouraged him to pursue a career in journalism or broadcast. The encouragement led to his first try at journalism on his high school newspaper.

Though his teacher turned him on to the world of journalism, he had decided he wanted more for himself at a young age, Quiñones said.

At the age of 13, after his father was laid off, Quiñones said he and his family joined a caravan of migrant farm workers, who traveled the country to harvest crops. The labor-intensive job changed his outlook on life and his vision of his future, he said.

He told the crowd of an enlightening conversation with his father.

“He looked at me and said, “Juanito, do you want to do this for the rest of your life? Or do you want to do something better?’” Quiñones said. “It was a no-brainer. I wanted to go to college. I wanted to do more with my life.”

Quiñones spoke of his idolization of Geraldo Rivera, one of the only Hispanics on TV when Quiñones was a young man.

“I would look on TV for anyone with a brown face,” Quiñones said. “I wanted to be like Geraldo.”

Quiñones now works on “20/20,” the same program Rivera was once a reporter for.

“My dream came true,” Quiñones said to the crowd, “but it came true with a lot of help.”

Quiñones, who said he was the first in his family to pursue a college degree, spoke of the opportunity the Upward Bound Program gave him to succeed.

Quiñones signed autographs during meet and greet prior to his speech. Photo by Ye Ming

The federal program, which was started by the Higher Education Act of 1965, provides low-income students with college entrance training for a better opportunity to attend college, according to the U.S. Department of Education website.

He explained to the crowd that in middle school, his counselors pushed him to be in vocational classes.

“They didn’t think we (Hispanics) were college material,” Quiñones said. “Then the government came along with this wonderful program. Because of Upward Bound, I was able to go to college.”

Quiñones said he first received a bachelor of arts degree in speech communications from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas. He then went on to Columbia University in New York City, where he received a master’s degree from the Columbia School of Journalism.

Quiñones told the crowd of a unique opportunity. When the president of CBS News spoke at his campus, Quiñones  said he was able to give him his résumé. The network gave him an audition to become a news reporter in Chicago and he got the job.

One of his first stories as a journalist focused on illegal immigration.

Quiñones said he posed as a Mexican immigrant crossing the border into the U.S.  With the help of a smuggler, he was able to cross undetected and the act was documented on camera by his news crew.

Quiñones said he then went undercover as a Mexican immigrant and was hired at a restaurant where many Mexican immigrants were working. He met immigrants who had not been paid by the owner in 13 weeks.  If they complained, Quiñones said, the owner threatened to have them deported.

“I confronted the owner of the restaurant. We shut the restaurant down and got the workers their money back, and we got them their papers to stay in the U.S.,” Quiñones said as the audience applauded.

“Those are the stories I love to do. They are the stories that shine a light on the dark corners of the world, giving a voice to the voiceless, “Quiñones said. “There are people in the world who don’t have access (to the media), people who are abused, live in poverty, who go through earthquakes, war and famine. That’s the role that journalists should play.”

“It’s unbelievable that the (immigration) story is still alive today. We have to make exceptions for families. We cannot tear families apart,” Quiñones said.  “I’m going to be doing more stories on this. We need to shine a light.”

Quiñones shared with the audience a piece of advice given to him by late ABC Evening News anchor, Peter Jennings: “John, some people like to talk to the movers and shakers of this world. I want you to remember to talk to the moved and the shaken. ”

Quiñones then showed a clip from his show, “What Would You Do?” The show poses moral dilemmas using actors to stage ethically-challenging scenarios. The camera crew then captures various unknowing observers’ responses. They then confront the observers and ask them to explain their reactions.

Quiñones spoke with students and signed autographs prior to his speech. Photo by Ye Ming

In the clip, three white male actors attacked one Hispanic actor, while shouting racial slurs.  The staged fight was inspired by the hate crime killing of Jose Sucuzhanay, a 31-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant. A phenomenon known as “Mexican Hunting” is on the rise, according to the clip.

The audience watched the clip. In all, 99 people witnessed the brutal assault, seven people called the police, but 67 people did nothing. Only two people, one man and one woman, stepped in to stop the beating.

After the clip, Quiñones told the story of another “What Would You Do?” social experiment.

Quiñones set the scene: In the winter, an actor dressed as a homeless man and carrying a beer can falls down and doesn’t get back up. Eighty-eight people pass him up, until one woman stops.

Linda Hamilton, the sole responder, is also homeless and half paralyzed. She asks other observers to use their cell phone and no one responds. In fact, 22 more people pass by, Quiñones said.

“She took the beer can out of his hand and threw it away, to give him some dignity,” Quiñones said.

Then, Quiñones said, she did a beautiful thing.

“She bent down and she said to him, I’m going to give you a name. I don’t know you but I’ll call you Billy. Billy, don’t worry, I’m here. I’m going to take care of you.”

Quiñones said when he and his camera crew confronted Hamilton about her response she said, “I think God put me at this spot on this day to teach the world a lesson, so that people would help.”

Quiñones left the crowd with a final thought.

“When you see something wrong, something that’s amiss, do what Linda Hamilton did. Do something–not because you’re going to be on television–do something because your heart, su corazon, tells you that it’s the right thing to do.”