You turn to us for voices you won't hear anywhere else.

Sign up for Democracy Now!'s Daily Digest to get our latest headlines and stories delivered to your inbox every day.

Adriana Gallardo: From Crossing the Border as an Undocumented Child to Winning the Pulitzer Prize

Web ExclusiveMay 12, 2020
Media Options

We continue our interview with Adriana Gallardo, engagement reporter at ProPublica, where she is part of their collaboration with the Anchorage Daily News that just won a 2020 Pulitzer Prize for the investigative report “Lawless,” about sexual violence in the state of Alaska. She also discusses her essay “The Lucky Ones,” in which she revisits her own journey as an undocumented child who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from the epicenter of the pandemic, in New York City, with co-host Juan González, who’s in New Jersey, broadcasting from his home to protect against community spread. New Jersey is number two in the pandemic in the United States.

As we continue our interview with the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Adriana Gallardo, engagement reporter for ProPublica, where she’s part of a collaboration with the Anchorage Daily News that just won the 2020 Pulitzer for the investigative report “Lawless,” about sexual violence in the state of Alaska. We’re going to talk about that in a minute.

But first, Adriana, you wrote a magnificent piece about your own life, called “The Lucky Ones,” where you revisit your own journey as a child who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, memories brought up during a reporting trip to the border you did with your ProPublica colleague Ginger Thompson.

You write, quote, “I wanted to call it luck, draw a straight line from that kid crossing in the late '80s to the woman there on assignment. But, after that trip, my version of the story wasn't good enough. A discomfort was cemented by the gut punch I felt, and will never forget, crossing back over that particular stretch of border for a second time — when the Border Patrol asked 'Reason for travel?' Ginger replied, ’We’re journalists.’ The agent gave us the go-ahead, no questions asked, just like that. That luck felt particularly unfair.” Those are the words of Adriana Gallardo.

Welcome back to Democracy Now! for Part 2 of this conversation. So, you came here as a child. You were undocumented for years. You lived with your brother and parents in the Chicago area. Talk about that journey and growing up in Chicago.

ADRIANA GALLARDO: Yeah. I mean, the whole piece was about undoing a fantasy that I think I — that I know I had created for myself, in ways that may be voluntary or involuntary, that finally catch up with me on this trip. You know, I had a very romantic notion of how we had crossed and had brief — you know, I was 5, so I thought I remembered here and there. After that trip to the border, I started asking more difficult questions of my parents. And I’m a reporter, but I refused to ever sit them down and sort of have an interview about it. I think I was too afraid to learn what I ended up learning over the course of those two years after I went to the border with Ginger and came back.

But I grew up really happy with, you know, my janitor family. We did everything together. My parents were janitors for this company. The man decides to sell. My dad takes on the business with absolute zero training in business or management, and my parents run this tiny janitorial service for all of my childhood.

And one of the parts where I feel very lucky was that they started cleaning the public libraries in our suburbs. At some point, we’d clean three or four libraries in a day. We’d just go from one to the other to the other on Sunday mornings. And I became obsessed with books and words and language.

And I think at the same time as I was learning all about, you know, literature and doing my homework at an empty library, I was also always very conscious of why I was there, right? And it was my mother cleaning toilets. It was my father mopping hard floors. It was, you know, always there at after hours or very early in the morning. And I think both of those things sort of seeped in.

And then, fast-forward, you know, I’m very, again, lucky to have moved on to go to school. But all of the ways that those —

AMY GOODMAN: When did you become documented? Do you remember that moment?

ADRIANA GALLARDO: Yeah. Oh, I remember it clearly. This is also, like, a consequence of growing up in Chicago. The only reasons we would ever miss school, growing up in the ’90s, was our immigration appointments downtown Chicago on Jackson and when the Bulls won a championship. Those were the only two reasons we could ever miss school and the only two reasons my father would not go to work. It was, you know, the Bulls championships or immigration court.

So, for many years in our childhood, we would go to downtown to do our documentation. This is, you know, the '90s, when you could pay a fine, “wait in line,” quote-unquote, and then eventually you'd be granted a green card, and then eventually you could apply for citizenship. So I was fifth grade when we got our green cards and the first time we were able to go back to Mexico and meet the rest of our family. I was 5 years old, my brother was a few months old, when we came.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Adriana, given that experience and the years it took you to become documented, as a journalist now covering issues such as the continuing immigration debate in the country, your perspective, what you bring to the table, when you cover these stories?

ADRIANA GALLARDO: Yeah. I mean, I think earlier in my career, it made me afraid that it would disqualify me from covering such issues. And it has been really difficult to — you know, when we were covering zero tolerance, to sort of separate myself from that kind of story. I’ve been able to translate that into, I hope, better journalism, because I can understand, and, beyond empathize, I think I see the value of seeing those stories from beginning to end, instead of the part in the middle that gray. And I think — that’s what I ask of myself, and I think this essay was particularly that for me, which was a full circle and being honest with myself about my own story in order to do a better job at telling other people’s stories.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us about your tattoos? You’re wearing a long-sleeve shirt right now, but your journey is told through this journey really on your own skin. Your brother is a tattoo artist. Can you talk about your first tattoo, and then take it from there?

ADRIANA GALLARDO: Yeah. I credit my editor for this piece, Michelle Garcia, for completely restructuring the piece to be about my tattoos. I didn’t realize it until we were editing, and I was very stuck with — it took me nearly two years and several editors to get this piece out. So, Michelle was the one that really brought me to the finish line.

But yeah, I start — my first tattoo was in college, in freshman year. You’re feeling free. You’re feeling accomplished. You’re testing the boundaries of rebellion. And I went and got a tiny tattoo on my ankle in an Aztec language, in Nahuatl, for the word ”nemi,” which means to move forward, to make progress, to take a step forward. Nahuatl words often mean many things. And so, only through context can you sort of read the story. And so, I put that on my ankle. And it was just, at that point, a reminder of myself to stay true to both where I come from and to — you know, it was a blissful optimism at that point, at 18.

I don’t get any other tattoos until I graduate college, and my second tattoo is on my right shoulder. And it’s another pair of Nahuatl words, which mean “wisdom” and “writing,” which was the equation that I thought was closest to journalism that our ancestors came up with. And so I put that on my back as a reminder and a commitment to tell these stories, with the purpose of bringing forth, you know, the wisdom that’s been recorded for all of our history.

So, I keep getting these tattoos. The one of my back is the first my brother did on me. By that point, he had become a pretty accomplished tattoo artist. It was fun for us to think about things to do together in regards to his art and things that I cared about. Fast-forward, I end up getting a couple more on my arm.

And this whole time, you know, the things that I feel merit enough of a marking on my body are also the things that I struggle with in making sense in my head of my own story. And it wasn’t until writing this piece where the dots really became obvious. It was like, “Oh, I needed to, you know, do an ode to my grandparents in this way. Got it.”

You know, I have a garbage can on the back of my left arm for my parents and the janitorial work that we did together, that gave us so much life and so much motivation growing up. I have, you know, a tattoo of that on the back of my left arm. It’s a garbage can filled with flowers, because it was an imagery that we thought was interesting with the dichotomy.

But all of these are sort of semi-private moments. Like, I get these tattoos, I don’t necessarily parade them, and it’s just a thing that belongs to me. But in this piece, we make the connections of how it all sort of was revealing the discomfort in my own story and the things that I needed to negotiate in order to see the complete picture. So, it was an interesting way, I think, for me to narrate it.

AMY GOODMAN: You call them “art wounds,” or your brother does, this beautiful quote of Beto. “Tattoos are the art of pain in exchange for meaning. Tattoos start as open wounds that heal to reveal permanence. Growth requires healing, the only other person we let us cut open to bleed, to fix something, to live, is a doctor.” You say, “My tattoos now tell my story in a way that I couldn’t capture in words.”

ADRIANA GALLARDO: Yeah, yeah, that’s — yeah, collaborating with my brother on this was also deeply meaningful, because he was there with — you know, if anyone understands the story, well, it’s him. And so, it was really special to be able to look back at his work and my work and find this middle ground that really pays tribute to my parents, who are just — of course I’m going to say nice things about my parents, but they’re great.

AMY GOODMAN: Even if your mom didn’t like your first tattoo.

ADRIANA GALLARDO: Yeah, of course. Yeah, my first tattoo, my mom was deeply disappointed, the first time I made her cry. And I felt horrible for years. But then my brother becomes a tattoo artist, and many things changed.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Adriana, I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about the articles you worked on that won the Pulitzer Prize, on the situation in Alaska, where as many as one in three Alaska villages have no local law enforcement, and what that has meant for the communities in the less populated areas of Alaska.

ADRIANA GALLARDO: Yes. So, all credit due to the Anchorage Daily News, who did a lot of the work in this first year of our investigation. We had so much to do that it’s become a two-year investigation, so we’re now in the middle of our second year. And what the Anchorage Daily News brought to us was an incredible collection, and this is how I became involved in the series.

Back in 2018, when the Kavanaugh hearings were happening, the Anchorage Daily News put out a Google form. It simply asked, you know, “Do you have a story of sexual assault in Alaska you’d like to share?” And they were inundated with about 200 stories of people willing to share an instance, or many instances, where they’ve been raped or sexually assaulted in Alaska.

And the surprise there was not that — how many people and how many incidents were being revealed; it was that people were ready to talk, that, you know, the moment felt right for the paper to finally take on an issue that is deeply endemic in the state. Alaska has long led as the place that records the most incidents of sexual assault and rape in the country, and somehow had been missing from a lot of the conversation over the past few years on sexual assault.

And so, the newspaper brought this to us and said, you know, “There’s an opportunity here. We’d like to do this as a team.” They became a partner with the Local Reporting Network, and we got to work.

And one of the threads that was deeply reported last year was the lack of enforcement in a state as vast as Alaska. And so, a lot of Kyle Hopkins’ reporting was centered around this idea that not only is it the most — one of the most dangerous — the most dangerous place to be a victim of rape and sexual assault, but it’s also one of the least policed and the least — and the most broken court systems, and so really leaves the population on their own when it comes to seeing any sort of consequence or justice being served in this way. And so, that’s where the investigation went lots of last year.

My focus remained to speak with the survivors and the victims, and really begin to understand what toll it takes to live in a place where this happens so many times. Most of the people we spoke with talked about many, many rapes in a single lifetime. Many begin in childhood. And then, maybe by the second, third incident, they’re ready to talk about it, and they make a report. But much of this goes unreported. Much of this is kept within families. Much of it is generational. And it really doesn’t discriminate. We met all races that were affected by this.

And so, we’ve had incredible conversations with Alaska Natives that have really informed our journalism, that has really become a collaborative process and trying to tell the story in the most fair ways and in a way that we might not understand sexual assault the way it happens in a community as it does in Alaska.

AMY GOODMAN: Adriana, I wanted to go to someone you featured in the series, Annie Reed, the lone village police officer in Kiana, Alaska. She described having to shelter a sexual assault victim at her own home because it was too late to find an overnight shelter. The victim later had to travel 550 miles to speak with detectives in Anchorage, because there was no nurse locally to conduct a sex assault exam. Meanwhile, it took three weeks for state troopers to arrest the suspect, who had a long record of similar assaults. This is Annie.

ANNIE REED: I’m stressed. I am tired. I am overwhelmed. And, you know, it’s pretty hard. Sleepless nights, and barely see my family. So, yeah.

KYLE HOPKINS: How is it to, you know, have to arrest your neighbors?

ANNIE REED: Pretty hard. I mean, you know everybody in this town, you know? Some people like you, some people don’t. It’s all depending. You know, “Annie did this,” “Annie did that.” And, you know, it’s pretty hard. You know, I still have few friends out there, but it’s — and few families that still talk to me. But, you know, some — it’s pretty hard when you have to arrest somebody. And then they’ll start hating you for a while. But it gets good. It gets better.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, that’s Annie Reed, the lone village police officer. And is it pronounced Kiana, Alaska?


AMY GOODMAN: Adriana, if you can talk about her specifically? And it’s not only — this is about all crimes, and your whole — the whole series is called “Lawless.” But particularly sexual assault and what Annie was dealing with?

ADRIANA GALLARDO: Yes. So, Annie is not an outlier in Alaska. A lot of the series — and this was — this piece, Kyle reported, so he’d be the best to talk about Annie.

But I can tell you that in a small — much of the population in Alaska lives in villages. The largest city is Anchorage, and we’re talking about 200,000 people, largest, most metropolis — metropolitan area in the state. Much of the state is not connected by the road system, so you see large swaths of communities that when a rape happens, either the victim must get on a plane to fly to the next nearest hub community that may have the facilities to do the forensic exam, that may have the detectives to do the interviews.

But that also means that everyone in that village knows you got on a plane and knows that you reported whoever has assaulted you. And we’re talking about communities of a couple hundred, maybe a couple thousand, people. Everyone knows each other. Many people are related. And so, to come forward and report in any — not even just to the justice system, but to tell someone means you’re telling your entire community what happened.

And so, the level of shame, the level of uncertainty of what it means to come forward and speak out for yourself might put you at further danger or might — a lot of Native folks just simply don’t want to go to the big city, to go then experience something super traumatic, which is a forensic exam and the reporting process, only to be returned and then live with the consequences of that.

So, the layers of complexity and relationships that overlap in policing and in violence are really — are really unique to the circumstances of the state. It’s a huge state with very, very few people. And so, everyone — there’s a joke that everyone knows each other, and so anything that happens is game for discussion.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what’s been, Adriana, the reaction of government officials since the series came out? The current governor wants to further cut the budget for public safety?

ADRIANA GALLARDO: Yeah, it’s been mixed. You know, the federal government came in and gave tons of money for different efforts related to law enforcement. But Alaska is also divided by Native corporations and by lots of other individual interests that make it very complicated for these small communities to see change in a way that’s meaningful. And many of them are burnt out with initiatives. You know, they of course face other serious issues, like suicide, alcoholism. And so, I think there’s a general sense that the initiatives don’t necessarily mean a lot to everyday people. And the state is grappling with what this looks like. And now, you know, the national spotlight on it, I think, has been interesting for them to deal with, but it remains a Republican state. It remains — and that’s not to say that that makes it any different, but it’s a conservative state. And so, it’s been difficult, I think, for people to believe that change is going to come in a meaningful way.

Also, you know, rich — like, the communities are — the history there goes back thousands of years. So we’re talking about also these incredible Native communities that have survived everything and were here before any of us came to the continent. So there’s a rich history that they’re very proud of and very protective of, and they care deeply for each other. So that’s the other complication of really taking on these conversations, is that this really means talking about sexual assault with your family and people you care deeply about, and revealing the damage that’s been done over many generations.

AMY GOODMAN: You write in the piece, this series that was done, “Alaska communities that have no [police officers,] cannot be reached by road have nearly four times as many sex offenders, per capita, than the national average.”

Adriana Gallardo, we are going to link to your series as engagement report at ProPublica, again, done in collaboration with the Anchorage Daily News, that won the most recent Pulitzer, 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. It’s called “Lawless,” about sexual violence in the state of Alaska.

We’ll also link to your pieces in ProPublica, COVID-19 Took Black Lives First. It Didn’t Have To” and “Los New Yorkers: Essential and Underprotected in the Pandemic’s Epicenter” and your own life story, “The Lucky Ones.” We’ll link to all those stories.

Adriana Gallardo, thank you so much for joining us. For folks to see Part 1 of our discussion, go to I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Up Next

Democracy Now!’s Juan González on 40 Years of Fighting for Racial and Social Justice in Journalism

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation