The former Chicago Tribune mentor met in Buenos Aires with (from left) Joel Sampaio, Florencia Arbiser, Dan Gutman and Monica Yanakiew

By Jackie Combs- Nelson

The South American leg of my “Alfred Friendly Press Partners World Tour” began in mid-September — a reunion in Chile with investigative reporter Alejandra Matus, a Fellow from the Class of 1997 and now one the country’s most distinguished journalists.

When you get a group of AFPP alumni in one room, they share a lot of warm memories and talk about their experiences with culture shock, valued friendships they made with AFPP staff and still maintain, and politics, in abundance. And, of course, they shared their gratitude to the Friendly family for providing such a pivotal opportunity for young journalists from emerging countries.

After a get-together in Buenos Aires, Brazilian Monica Yanakiew (Class of ‘85, Washington Post) sent me this message: “Thank you for the AFPP Family Reunion, which was responsible for bringing together Friendly ‘cousins’ who didn’t even know they were related.”

By the time we return home to Chicago in mid-December, my husband and I will have visited 10 impressive alumni in five breathtaking countries, bringing the total number of alumni we’ve visited or contacted up to 35. Last year from February through December, we traveled from Russia to India and California to meet with former Fellows.

To summarize who we met and where in South America:  

  •      Chile — Alejandra Matus, in Santiago
  •      Argentina -— Daniel Gutman, Florencia Arbiser, Joel Sampaio and Monica Yanakiew, in Buenos Aires
  •      Brazil -— Paulo Braga and Sabrina Valle, in Rio; Larissa Roso and Rodrigo Muzell, in Porto Alegre; and  Paulo Carmargo, in Curitiba
  •      Ecuador -— Glenda Ortega and Tristana Santos, who were awaiting us in Guayaquil

Alejandra and I felt an immediate bond, as we shared memories of working with the late newspaper editor Ellen Soeteber, who was a mentor to Alejandra when she worked at the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel during her fellowship in 1997. (I worked with Ellen at the Chicago Tribune)

Jackie and Alejandra Matus

In 1999, Alejandra received political asylum in the United States because her first book, “The Black Book of Chilean Justice” was banned by Chile’s then military dictatorship and she was charged with contempt. So people made secret Xerox copies and shared them widely. The Supreme Court removed the book ban in 2001, and in 2002, the law used to persecute her was changed and she returned to Chile.

This past October, Alejandra visited with former AFPP director Susan Albrecht in Washington, D.C. “It was the first time we have seen each other since 1997,”  Alejandra said. “We soon realized that sharing the same anecdotes from that class still made us laugh.” Alejandra said she liked everyone in her fellowship class, and Brazilian Deise Leobet remains one of her closest friends. (I’ll see Deise in New York City, where she works now.)

In Buenos Aires, Daniel Gutman (Class of ‘00; The Kansas City Star) hosted us in his home with his Argentine-Colombian family. Later, Joel Sampaio (Class of ‘92, Des Moines Register) threw a Monday night empanada party in his impressive Brazilian diplomatic digs for the four alumni living in Argentina’s capital.

“Which language shall we speak?” Florencia Arbiser asked immediately.

Florencia (Class of ‘98, San Antonio Express News) is the only former Fellow from Argentina that Daniel had met before that night. Seventeen years earlier, they both worked at Clarin, Argentina’s largest newspaper.  (Gutman is now a freelance investigative journalist and author.)

Monica and Florencia realized they had met before, while Monica was reporting a story and Florencia was a source. Monica was working at the time for TV Brasil in Buenos Aires and now is a correspondent for Agencia Brasil, a public news agency. Florencia is now the director of the Argentine Weizmann Institute Association, an Israeli academic institution.

Monica expressed the long-lasting ties perfectly. AFPP is a worldwide network of “cousins” who all share the same experience of struggling to write in English, working in demanding U.S. newsrooms and longing for family, friends and food at home. They did it all with the help of their fellow classmates.

Jackie and her husband Lowell Nelson, far right, with Sabrina Valle and Paulo Braga

For example, Brazilian Paul Carmargo, a journalism professor and film festival curator, recently expressed his fondness for his classmates Mangai Balesegaram of Malaysia (now in Germany) and Sita Bridgemohan of Trinidad & Tobago. The members of the Class of ‘94 have visited each other in their homes.

When Paulo and I met for dinner in his hometown, we thought we had never met. Then he recalled a Chicago sailboat ride.  “That had to be, us,” I said.

“But we don’t remember meeting,” said Paulo. Agreed. But It was 22 years ago. Sita solves the mystery with an affirmative: In 1994, the Nelsons took Sita and Paulo sailing on Lake Michigan (as was our custom with Friendly Fellows).

Daniel and Brazilian Paulo Braga (Class of ‘00, Chicago Tribune) consider each other as best friends. Along with journalism and the AFPP experience in 2000, they also share a love of singing and guitar playing.

Jackie with Larissa Rosso, left, and Rodrigo Muzell

In Rio de Janiero, another fabulous meal and stimulating conversation was shared with Paulo, who remains a dear friend of ours, and Sabrina Valle (Class of ‘07, Washington Post). She now works for Bloomberg Business News in Rio.  Since the state of Rio is bankrupt, politics and economics were the main topics of the dinner conversation. Both of them are driven to help Brazil develop the brighter future its people deserve.

My husband Lowell Nelson and I also were honored to attend Paulo’s son’s eighth birthday party in a neighborhood park. In another coincidence, Lowell has friends in Chicago who have friends with young daughters in Rio. Guess who I took photos of at Luca’s raucous birthday party? Yes, those same friends of a friend were friends of Paulo and his Argentine wife, Valeria. I had posted the party photos on my Facebook page. Thus, the Rio kids were spotted by the folks in Chicago.

A one-night visit to Porto Alegre, Brazil was squeezed into the itinerary so I could meet Rodrigo Muzell (Class of ‘09, Philadelphia Inquirer) and Larissa Roso (Class of ‘11, Washington Post). Larissa recalled that after she got on the flight from D.C. to return to Brazil, “I cried all the way home on the airplane. I didn’t want to leave.”  They both now work at the newspaper Zero Hora. They are happy in their work as young journalists and are determined to carry the torch for newspapers and AFPP.

Argentinian Maria Agustina Guerrero McKinley (Class of ‘01, Chicago Tribune) went camping, canoeing, and sailing with our family in Chicago. Now she lives and works in Tampa, Florida, dodging hurricanes with her American husband Bill. Although Agustina was not in Argentina to welcome us, she made sure her girlhood friends Moira Kenny and Daniela Alastuey did. They invited us into their homes with open hearts in and near Agustina’s hometown.

After Ecuador, we’ll visit Colombia and Peru.

Here is my personal example of Friendly friendships with a South American angle: At the AFPP awards night on Sept. 8 in Washington, Russian magazine publisher Yevgenia Albats (Class of 1990, Chicago Tribune) and yours truly celebrated at the dinner with our adult children —- a “family reunion.” (During the event, Yevgenia was given the Susan Talalay former fellow award for journalist of the year and I was given the mentor of the year award named after Ellen Soeteber)

We have been friends for 27 years, ever since Yevgenia roomed with me for one month at the start of her Tribune fellowship. She soon picked out a husband for me and encouraged me to try for a baby, at age 45. Her reward? She is our daughter’s godmother.

In Washington, DC, Yevgenia and I realized we would be in Rio around the same dates. So we made it happen: As just tourists, we climbed the hill to view Christ the Redeemer, rode the cable cars to Sugarloaf Mountain and shared a few fine meals with good wine.

“Let’s meet in a different country every year,” suggested Yevgenia. “Life is too short.”

Jackie is seeking information as she tries to get in contact with other AFPP alumni in South America: Ana Cristina Flor (Brazil), Alejandro Santos (Colombia), Cristina Masuda (Brazil), Isabel Ordonez, (Equador), Javier Lyonnet (Uruguay), Joceline A. Frank (Peru), Jose Antonio Aruquipo (Bolivia), Maria Cristina Caballero (Colombia), and Ricardo Bonlume Neto (Brazil). All help will be deeply appreciated. Email or