Enrique Cerna has enjoyed a career in broadcast journalism spanning more than four decades. The length of time he’s spent in the business is an accomplishment in and of itself. Working in news is often stressful, requiring long hours, thick skin and flexibility.
Cerna joined KCTS in 1995 with previous stints at KOMO radio, KOMO 4 and KING 5. He’s also won nine Northwest Regional Emmys, a prestigious journalism award. Over the years he’s also moderated senate, congregational and mayoral debates. Cerna is just as he appears on your screens: personable, easy-going and showing a genuine interest in learning about who he’s talking with.
Cerna believes journalism plays a vital role in the community and it’s important to tell the stories of people such as Jessica Esparza. The DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] recipient fulfilled her dream to become a registered nurse, but now her future in the United States is uncertain. Cerna profiled Esparza several times beginning in 2013. The coverage helped educate the community about immigration and highlighted why the path to citizenship isn’t a simple task. Other notable interviews for Cerna include Sherman Alexie, Jimmy Carter, Delores Huerta, Sybrina Fulton (mother of Trayvon Martin) and Desmond Tutu.
Cerna grew up in the Yakima Valley in Wapato to parents who were Mexican immigrants. He and his siblings worked the family farm, which taught him the value of hard work.
The Washington native will officially retire from KCTS on Feb. 9 but, as he puts it, he’s not retiring from life. He plans to work on his golf skills, get in more rounds of bowling and brush up on his Spanish. He’ll also focus on working with organizations. Cerna sat down with Real Change on Jan. 29 at a Belltown coffee shop to chat about his legacy, memorable interviews and next steps.
While talking about his time at KING he recounts an unforgettable day at work in August 1986 when a man driving a Porsche crashed through the front door of the building, striking the front desk.
Cerna: The guy, he gets out of the vehicle, and he looks at us and starts cursing because he’s off his medication. We all kind of stand there wondering what to do, then — boom — he booked it out of the building. So I ran around back; I caught up to him. I noticed that he was a big guy and I’m not a very big person. So I was thinking now that I caught up with this guy what do I do. So I kicked his feet from out from under him and he landed and we all sat on him. I still have video of the cops afterwards when they came, put him in the car.
You’ve had a long career. Feb. 9 is your last day. How are you feeling as you approach the final days?
It’s kind of just starting to hit me. Part of it is I just got an email this morning from the folks at HR saying, “OK, well it’s time to get ready for your departure here, so here’s what you’re going to need to do. Turn in your keys, exit interviews and all that stuff.” I’m reading this thing. I’ve been there 23 years; it’s more than a third of my life. It’s kind of like, wow, this is actually happening. I think it’s starting to hit me now that I’m moving on. I’m moving on really in a good way because it’s my decision.
I’m looking forward to just chilling out for a while after I get out of there. I feel like all I’ve ever done is work since the time I was a little kid.
Is that what’s driving this decision?
Yeah. It’s about the relaxing. A lot of it is, I’ve sort of hit a point in my life where I’m 64 and a half. I hit this time where I suddenly was thinking about everything. Been through lots of change. The business is constantly changing. I think I’d like to have some time to breathe, to do some things that I want to do, and it’s because life is too short.
As people of color we know how much a positive impact representation has. Have you gotten feedback from others that you inspired them?
When I came into this business I had no role models of that nature. I didn’t. I didn’t have anybody. I went to Washington State University, I was the only Latino in the department so I had no real role models for any of this stuff. But I did think that “Why can’t I be” and that I think was a motivating factor for me to work hard and keep going. I do think if I have been a role model and people have seen me and felt some connection and young people have thought, “Hey why can’t I do that?” That’s a great thing. I hope I have been that for people. I hope I have been someone that’s been their inspiration or motivating factor to think about either getting into the business or just getting active into the community.
Quite frankly, yes I have made a real effort to cover issues about race, issues that affect our communities from diversity to immigration. Of all times, now it’s really important. I did a documentary in 2013 called “Latinos: The Changing Face of Washington,” and I really used my family history to kind of tell the history of Latinos coming here.
Your parents moved to Yakima Valley in 1946. What brought them here?
I already had family here, my grandfather had already — my grandfather had been a landowner in Mexico and during the revolutionary period I think from the early teens to 1920.
They tried to kill him and so he had to flee. I’ve asked my aunts, “Did grandpa get over here legally or not?” and they go, “Oh, we don’t know.” So most likely he came here without papers. But you know he came here escaping oppression. In his own way he’s a refugee. He eventually brought family and all that. My father was born and raised in Mexico and eventually came to the U.S. and then went back to Mexico. Dad was a farmer and my mother was a school teacher but a drought hit and it just made for some difficult times. They decided to come to the states because they had family here. My grandfather had already settled in Toppenish in central Washington. Mom and Dad, my oldest sister and my two older brothers, everybody got on a train for four days and came to the U.S. and ended up in Toppenish, then eventually settled in the valley area. They were looking to better their lives for the kids and to have better opportunities. My Dad farmed for many years. We were the labor force. All of us. There were five of us.
But when I was in high school it got to be too much. He went to work for a traditional company. Like a lot of people, they came here for opportunity and a better life. They became American citizens in the year I was born in 1953.
Why is your interview with Medal of Honor recipient Vernon Baker your favorite?
Vernon has always been my favorite story because it’s just this humble man who just performed all this bravery and heroics in the war [World War II] and then because he was Black along with I think there were six others or something that the Army later came back later and did research.
But because he was Black they just ignored it and also because he was under Southern commanders too. But he was just this humble guy and he had this tremendous story. And I just thought thank God that they went and researched and found out what he really did, because what a great example of someone, not only was brave on the battlefield but put up with a lot during life and he stayed in the military and he was a proud American.
Do you have any advice for budding journalists?
Be prepared for constant change. Don’t be afraid to say there are stories in our communities that need to be told, communities of color. Don’t be afraid to challenge your bosses to make sure those things are covered. And also that you can bring a perspective that I think White editors and reporters and others, they don’t have.
Don’t be afraid to speak up and to push. Be prepared for a challenging business. It’s going through all this change and you’ve got to prepare yourself to go with the change.
I think that’s why I survived as long as I have.
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge, Facebook
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