Then and Now: Alejandra Matus
Country of Origin: Chile
Fellowship Year: 1997
Fellowship Host News Organization: South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Current Position: Associate Professor of Communications and Literature, Universidad Diego Portales, Chile
Biography: Alejandra Matus is an internationally recognized investigative journalist whose work has contributed to the furtherance of modern democracy in her Chilean homeland. Soon after completing her Friendly Fellowship, she returned home and published a book exposing corruption and abuse by the Chilean Supreme Court. The Chilean government charged her with crimes against the government, and she was forced into emergency exile. Today she is a prominent journalist, author and professor.
Then and Now
By Alejandra Matus
The Alfred Friendly Fellowship experience had a huge impact in my life. At that time I was 31 years old. I had started to study English just three years before applying. I was accepted, but my guess is that the Friendly Fellowship directors had great doubts about my abilities to perform in a North American setting.
I still remember the phone interview with John Sirek, who then was the Friendly Fellowships director. He asked questions I probably answered totally off track.
The same thing happened with my driving. With an acceptable transport system in Chile, I never had to drive before. I had a license, but it was a different story to say that I really knew how to drive.
Nonetheless, they selected me, and I arrived in the U.S. with a bag full of expectations and hope.
I met a diverse group of fellows who were, on top of everything, a wonderful group of human beings. The idea of giving us time to adapt during the first weeks — to train us in American journalism, in American culture — taught me things I still remember and were lessons for my whole life. The concept of “cultural shock” allowed me to understand so many things!
I was sent to the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida — a disappointment to someone who had a great opinion of herself and dreamt, like all of us, to be sent to the New York Times or the Washington Post. I soon realized that I was wrong. How marvelous it was to be in a smaller newspaper –- well, smaller by American standards, huge compared to Chile — small enough to give me the opportunity to try and fail, and try again.
I still remember how excited I was to get my first front-page article in the newspaper! My editor, Ray Lynch, was a wonderful father/teacher: a rough shield wrapped around a great heart. My mentor, Nancy San Martin, was a colleague and a friend — and still is.
All the things that we were able to do in addition — a workshop in ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a conference of women journalists in Montana — were impressive and significant experiences for a journalist who had never lived or worked abroad before.
It is very difficult to enumerate all the things that I learned. But it created in me the conviction that good journalism does not have language barriers. It can be practiced by any professional in any setting.
I gained unbeatable confidence in my abilities to overcome external difficulties and to always find the way to perform the best I can as a professional, to serve the public.
The five months went by too fast. But 16 years later I am still friends — real friends — with most of my Alfred Friendly class and have a special bond with John Sirek and former director Susan Albrecht. Even a professor who taught us – or tried to teach us — how to write for American newspapers, Chris Callahan (now dean of the Arizona State University journalism school), became close enough to recognize me when we met by chance at Harvard last year.
Of course, the effect was not visible immediately. When I came back to Chile, I was down for a little bit, as we had been advised we would be.
But then I restarted my career with a renewed strength and confidence. If I had been able to overcome the intimidating Interstate 95 in South Florida — which at the beginning I drove dangerously slowly out of fear — what could have stopped me?
Soon after my return, I finished a complicated book I had been preparing for a while: “The Black Book of Chilean Justice.” This was an historical exposé of the Chilean judiciary’s lack of independence and a detailed account of corruption, abuse of power and nepotism among Chilean Supreme Court judges. It also chronicles how the judiciary failed to protect Chileans’ human rights under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.
The book, in our imperfect democracy, was banned right after publication in 1999, and I was accused of violating the Chilean National Security Law. Who was the first person to call and offer support when I was on my way back to the U.S. to ask for political asylum? John Sirek. He, Susan Albrecht and the Alfred Friendly family supported me through all those difficult years.
In 2001, I came back to Chile. I have written other books since then. In 2009 I won a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, and in 2010 I became a Mason fellow to study at Harvard’s Kennedy School for a master’s degree in public administration, which I earned in 2011. I am convinced that none of that would have been possible had I not been accepted in the Alfred Friendly program. I am just sad that I am too old now to apply again!
Here is a sample of the work I did at the Sun-Sentinel. It was selected as the best article in the newspaper that month (October, 1997).
Right before leaving South Florida, I wrote a piece that might make you laugh: “A stranger in a strange land.” It is about the cultural shock I experienced entering the American way of life. The story was the result of a diary I had kept from the beginning, encouraged by Nancy and Ray. I couldn´t believe the Sun-Sentinel would give me the freedom and the trust to publish it. The drawing that accompanied this article is framed and hangs on a wall in my living room.
Being a Friendly Fellow changed me forever and for the better. I can’t stop feeling thankful and privileged for having had this opportunity.
I recently learned that Ray had passed away a few years ago. If there is something I regret, it is to have allowed the speed of life to absorb me so much that I was not able to thank him once more. Let this little article be my tribute to him and to all he helped me gain from a Friendly Fellowship.
Alejandra Matus’ ground-breaking book, El Libro Negro de la Justicia (1999), and more recent work including Historias de Paula: Antología de reportajes y entrevistas (Spanish Edition) and Los Archivos Del Cardenal: Casos Reales, are available from various sources via Amazon.com.
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