Artist Series: Q&A with Journalist, Anthony Advincula

Anthony Advincula is an editor, writer and national media director for the New York bureau of New America Media. No stranger to investigative journalism, he has been recognized and received several awards for his in-depth reporting on labor and immigration issues. We sat down with Anthony Advincula to learn more about how he got his start, what inspires him, and what’s next.

Lehach Filippa: The tables have turned! Does it feel strange to be the one being interviewed versus the other way around?

Anthony Advincula: I’m excited about this opportunity to be on the other side of the table. It's now becoming a trend that journalists are being interviewed, especially in broadcast media. So, I’m basking in the glory of this five-minute stardom!

LF: Let’s start at the beginning and paint a picture of Anthony Advincula the younger years...where did you grow up and what were you like as a child?

AA: I grew up on a small peninsula in central Philippines. Bordered by active volcanoes and beautiful sunset bays, my hometown Sorsogon—known to many as the Switzerland of the East—was and still is visually stunning.

My family lived on Cogón Street, an esquinita or a narrow alleyway. It was really narrow that the only vehicle that could fit through it was a motor-powered pedicab. When two vehicles happened to meet halfway, I remember, one had to back up first to the nearest spot and let the other pass. Each time we were outside and we saw the pedicab coming towards us, we cowered on either side of the street as if we were the sea that Moses split into half.

The roofs of our house were made of thatched dry palm leaves on one side and corrugated metal sheets on the other. During the typhoon season, my mother hoisted cinder blocks on top to keep the roofs on.

I had a happy childhood. My mother provided me a convenient shield from poverty. We were poor, but I never felt that way growing up. Our clothes were always ironed and tidy. We never missed a meal. I could say that there was neither a sense of deprivation nor insufficiency at home. My memories of flying a kite in an open field, playing with other kids at night, climbing aratiles trees — these are my childhood memories that are still vivid and alive.

LF: Wow that’s quite the beginning! How did your journey to your current profession begin? Did you always have an interest in journalism?

AA: When I was in seventh or eighth grade, I took a writing test for our school paper. Our school would send students every year to participate in a national writing competition. I knew that this competition would take place in Manila—the nation’s capital— or in another city far from my hometown. At the time I never had any opportunity to travel, although I always longed to see places. That was my main motivation.

Fortunately, the school sent me and three other young writers to represent our school to a national press conference in the south. For three days, we traveled by public bus and ferryboat. When we got there, there was no hotel accommodation for us. Instead, we were housed in one of the school’s classrooms. We slept on a cold concrete floor. My adviser was never happy with me because I listened to B52s on my Walkman the whole time.

But we brought an honor to the school, bagging an award for feature writing. That whole experience really emboldened my interest in journalism. I knew then that it was something that I wanted to do.

LF: Fast forward to today, you’re now the editor, writer and national media director for New America Media’s New York bureau, what lead you to this point in your career? Any advice for those wanting to follow in your footsteps?

AA: I started as a news editor for a Filipino American paper. That was the title, but I essentially ran the whole publication—writing, editing, designing, and sometimes even distributing the paper. To make rent, I also took odd jobs cleaning houses or caring for the elderly.

Soon I got my break and I became a correspondent for The Jersey Journal, a daily newspaper in Jersey City, NJ. There, I mostly reported on community news and town hall meetings. When I got my first front-page story, I bought almost all the copies from a nearby newsstand. That was exhilarating.

In 2005, I joined the Independent Press Association in New York City. As the managing editor and communications director, I co-edited Voices That Must Be Heard, a news digest of stories from the ethnic press. I also managed the Ippies Awards, the only journalism awards in New York City that recognize stories in English and other languages. Both the news digest—now called Voices of NY—and the awards are now under CUNY’s Center for Community and Ethnic Media.

Then, in 2006, I went to Harvard University for a continuing program in advanced narrative nonfiction. I became flat broke after a semester, so I had to drop out of school. Fortunately, a year later, I was accepted to the graduate school at Columbia University with a yearlong fellowship. It felt like the sabbatical I needed from the newsroom. Yet, I had to work to be able to afford living in New York City. I went to school full-time during the day and I worked part-time for New America Media at night and on weekends.

Some people think that if you have a graduate degree in journalism, you will go straight to The New York Times. That was not definitely my case. My advice: write for any publication, big or small. The sector is very competitive; it is an advantage to get your foot on the door.

LF: When did you make the move to the United States and how do you think that has shaped your career opportunities as a journalist? How do you think your personal experiences with immigration have shaped how you investigate and report on the topic?

AA: Disenchanted with the election of Philippine Pres. Joseph Estrada, I immigrated to the United States nearly 16 years ago. I arrived in San Francisco with a carry-on piece of luggage, $250 in my wallet and the promise of opportunity. I had planned to stay with a friend from back home who had helped me to secure a job, however, he never showed up at the airport to pick me up and I found out later he had left the state. So there I was, no job, no place to stay, and without much funds. I was a long road to get to where I am now. I am grateful to several people, some of them strangers, who helped me to get on my feet and eventually allowed me to become established as a reporter.

Inspired by my own experience, immigration has become the air I breathe in my reporting. By and large, that has shaped my journalism experience. I am compelled to write and explore other people’s experiences, mostly the ones that have been underreported because of the media’s lack of cultural nuances and direct pulse on the issue.

LF: You recently reported on the presence of ethnic media, in particular Asian Americans, at the Democratic National Convention. Can you talk a little bit more about that, what was your overall takeaway?

AA: Asians are the fastest growing racial group in the United States. I believe Asian American voters could be the swing vote in the coming elections. More and more Asian Americans are also running for a congressional office. To date, there are 40 Asian American politicians hoping to be elected in congress this year. For me, the takeaway is that the voice of Asian Americans will be more amplified and recognized as part of the larger majority in the years to come.

LF: If someone told you that you could interview anyone you wanted (living or dead), who would it be and why?

AA: It would be the highest honor to interview Abraham Lincoln. I wonder what he would think of our current immigration system, with thousands of immigrants getting deported and families getting broken apart. I love the Lincoln quote: “Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man -- this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position....Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal."

On a personal note, I also would like to interview my father. He died of cirrhosis when I was nine. I did not have an opportunity to get to know him and grow up with him. Would he allow me immigrate to the United States by myself? Would my life be different?

LF: No doubt those would be compelling interviews. Changing gears a bit, what are you reading right now?

AA: I am re-reading “Ideas of Heaven” by Joan Silber. It’s my fourth time reading her collection of short stories. Her writing reflects the breadth of her subjects that cut across generations, cultures and locations.

LF: If there were a piece of advice that you could give your younger self what would it be?

AA: I would not change anything. I like how my younger years unfolded. I have learned from my past mistakes and challenges—and they have made me who I am today.

LF: If there were a piece of wisdom that you could impart on an international journalist just starting out in his/her career, what would it be?

AA: All journalists are made, not born. And whether you have a foreign accent and English is not your first language—that should not be an impediment to your goal of becoming a strong journalist. Remember, your experience and background would give you a unique perspective that other journalists may not have.