John Quiñones returned to Northwest Ohio Wednesday.
|John Quiñones, an ABC news anchor, speaks to an audience Wednesday, January 29, 2014, in the Lenhart Grand Ballroom of the Bowen-Thompson Student Union at BGSU. (Photo: Enoch Wu/Sentinel-Tribune)
The last time he was here was almost 50 years ago. He was 13 and picking tomatoes with his family in Swanton.
They'd left their home in San Antonio because his father had been laid off from his job as a janitor, and they headed north, first to pick cherries in Michigan, and then down to Ohio.
Kneeling on the cold, hard ground, plucking fruit from the plants, the elder Quiñones turned to his teenage son and asked: "Juan, do you want to do this the rest of your life?"
Quiñones, now 61 and an Emmy-winning media celebrity, returned to the area where he remembers not being allowed into stores. He spoke to about 1,000 people in Bowling Green State University's grand ballroom as part of a celebration of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., proof of the message he wanted to convey: "If you keep your eyes on the prize, you can get there."
Now an internationally-known journalist, he has worked for decades for ABC reporting wars and natural disasters, then contributing to "20/20" and "Primetime," and developing his own series of specials "What Would You Do?" The specials stage everyday ethical dilemmas, and using a hidden camera, watch people's reactions.
He showed parts of one show Wednesday where an actress played a barber in a Harlem barbershop who criticized a black customer for having a white girlfriend. Several customers rose to the girlfriend's defense. One woman ended up having them embrace. After it was broadcast, it has been seen by more than 15 million people on the internet.
Since he was a child, Quiñones had wanted to go into journalism to tell the stories he saw around him that weren't being reported.
Growing up poor in the barrios of San Antonio, he didn't lack for obstacles in his way.
He only spoke Spanish, for starters. His family had been in Texas for seven generations - "we didn't cross the border, the border crossed us" - but knowing English wasn't necessary within the Mexican-American community.
He entered a school system before bilingual education when the punishment for speaking Spanish was "three licks from the paddle."
But he persisted, joining the drama club in junior high and playing Romeo, even if that meant parading around on stage in a leotard.
In high school his advisors tried to steer him into the trades. Not that there's anything wrong with those trades, Quiñones said, but he wanted to go to college, he wanted to be a journalist.
He found a supporter in his sophomore English teacher. She was impressed with his essays and encouraged him to write for the school paper. So Quiñones wrote editorials. Thanks to the Upward Bound program he was able to attend St. Mary's University. He worked three jobs to support himself.
He was a delivery man for a pharmacy, and during his breaks he'd go into the restroom to read aloud anything at hand. The manager heard him, and helped him connect with a radio station where he got his first job.
It helped, said Quiñones, who described himself as "a child of the Civil Rights movement," that militant Mexican-American activists threatened to challenge area broadcast licenses with the FCC if more Latinos weren't hired.
But he wanted to be on TV like his idol, the young Geraldo Rivera. Someone he met at an audition suggested he attend her alma mater, Columbia Journalism School in New York City.
He did whatever he could to make the first step in his career, including interviewing the head of CBS just so he could give him his resume.
He started his career with CBS in Chicago. There he won his first Emmy for a story in which he went undercover, posing as a Mexican who wanted to enter and work in the United States illegally.
These were the kind of stories he wanted to tell. Covering Latin America for ABC gave him a chance to do some of that.
He followed the advice of veteran anchor Peter Jennings, who told him: "Don't worry about talking to the movers and shakers; talk to the moved and shaken."
That included 300 homeless children in Bogota, Columbia, who committed petty crimes by day and lived in the sewers by night. The military and police tried to get rid of them by throwing gasoline down the sewers and setting it ablaze.
One Columbian businessman earned their trust by visiting them and providing food, but he lacked the resources to build a true home for them.
Quiñones and his crew told their story by living with them, including a six-week infant recently born to a 16-year-old. "Can you imagine starting out life in the sewers?"
When the story aired on "Primetime," the response from viewers was immediate. They contributed $1 million to build an orphanage for the kids from the sewers.
"The beauty of shining a light ... on the darkest corners of the world, and exposing misery and changing the world for the better - that's what journalism has allowed me to do," Quiñones said. "After that, I only wanted to do those kinds of stories."
That included stories of child slaves in the sugar plantations in the Dominican Republic and suicide bombers in Israel.
He gained most "notoriety" for the "What Would You Do?" specials.
Quiñones conceded he's gotten some flak from other journalists because the show uses actors. It's not journalism, they contend.
But as he's done throughout his life, he's undeterred by the critics.
"When I feel down," Quiñones said, "I work on another show."