San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

U.S. high school student interns with Teletica

From the print edition

By Sofia Dyer |  Special to The Tico Times

TV reporter Yessenia Alvarado was chatting with a security guard about a red fire hydrant. We were just at the edge of a park, working a segment for Teletica’s noon news broadcast. All about us were jammed buses, honking cars, exhaust fumes, strains of Latin salsa. And there stood Yessenia, conducting an interview with the assistance of her TV news team: the cameraman, the producer, and me – a 16-year-old U.S. high school student.

I am three quarters Costa Rican, yet all my life I have been in the U.S., spoken English, lived the Gringa life. I’ve visited often through the years, spent time with cousins, walked the beaches. I’ve lost count of all my arrivals at Juan Santamaría International Airport, my strolls through the Plaza de la Cultura. But my most recent stay this summer was different. This time I was working as an intern, at a prestigious television station, at Teletica’s Channel 7. I had no idea what to expect.

For most of my life, I’ve lived in Austin, Texas, with my parents. My father, a long-time journalist, is half Costa Rican, and my mother is also Costa Rican. My parents met while my father worked at The Tico Times in the 1980s, and so my ties to the land of agua dulce run deep. And yet I’ve never experienced Costa Rica as intensely as I did this summer, working as an intern at Teletica, conducting interviews, meeting famous people.

When I first arrived at the news station near La Sabana Park, I was so scared I thought I would throw up. I felt different, self-conscious. “Just look at her eyes – she must be German or Swiss.” I got that a lot from people, many who assumed incorrectly that I could not speak or understand the language.

But the lead anchor, the intimidating yet oddly humble Marcelo Castro, did not make that mistake. He was among the first to greet me, asking me kindly about my aspirations, my interest in journalism and my family background. He then led me through the newsroom (they call it “el noticiero”) and introduced me to the reporter I would be following for the next four weeks – Yessenia Alvarado – a woman who possessed that balance between beauty and brilliance that is the hallmark of prominent TV reporters.

When I first met her, she was reviewing footage for the noon broadcast. But this occupied her for only a moment. In the next few hours, I would watch as Yessenia took on two story assignments, did her research, underwent an intimidating make-up process, scheduled and conducted interviews, wrote stories, unearthed appropriate images and went on the air. And she accomplished all of this, from story assignment to broadcast, in just three hours.

If I ever thought I’d have time to become acclimated, I was mistaken. Within an hour of my arrival to the news station, Yessenia and I were already on our way to the station’s parking lot, where Teletica’s white RAV4 was waiting for us. I met the cameraman and the assistant, provided them with answer to “American or German?” and we sped down the highway, navigating through the line of cars that seem to mash together regardless of traffic rules. We eventually arrived at the Costa Rica Tourism Board (ICT) for a press conference. We walked into the large conference room where at least 30 other reporters were already seated.

I tried to focus on the director’s words. He spoke clear Spanish, although his words were rapid-fire and and highly technical. It was not the sort of Spanish I was used to hearing in my language classes back in Austin. Yessenia signaled for us to leave so she could attempt to conduct a separate interview with the ICT director. I rudely squeezed past two reporters. Yessenia’s cameraman fiddled with a tripod. An assistant hooked a microphone to the director’s shirt. And there I stood, on my first day on the job, wondering how I managed to be where I was: hundreds of miles away from home, alone, and in the company of a TV cameraman and the ICT director.

I would spend a month at the TV station, commuting each morning from my aunt’s home in San Jerónimo and later from my grandparents’ place. During those long bus rides, I found solitude and independence, something that had previously been foreign to me. There was always white noise on the bus: women chatting about mothers-in-law, children crying, horns honking, men singing. I drowned all that out. I heard nothing. And sometimes, during those long bus rides, I would imagine an alternative childhood in which my parents never left Costa Rica, never emigrated to the U.S. Would my personality have been different? Where would I have lived? Would I even have the same interests? Would I have been the same person?

I set forth to learn as much as I could at the TV station. I became familiar with the Costa Rican government and its key institutions. I became interested in the politics behind Costa Rica’s “Bailey” bridges, which are installed as temporary bridges during emergencies, but oftentimes remain in place long after emergencies are forgotten. I also enjoyed learning about “the hole” – the giant four-meter-wide sinkhole that formed on the only highway between Alajuela and San José. It disrupted commerce, prevented students from attending school and prompted long absences for employees. Even Costa Rica’s agriculture suffered.

Inside the news station, I also became familiar with the graphic design department. By and large the designers were an eccentric crew, and yet an amiable one. I found my experiences with them especially rewarding because of my specialization with graphic design at my high school newspaper. At Teletica, working with the station’s animation expert, I first learned about a program called Cinema 4-D – software used in the animation of major films like “Toy Story.”

During my four weeks at Teletica, I familiarized myself with Costa Rican politics, conducted interviews with prominent figures and witnessed journalism from the inside out. I accomplished everything that I had set out to accomplish. And yet as I left el noticiero for the final time, I found myself yearning to return. I knew then I was not only leaving Teletica, but the sphere of politics, Spanish and journalism that for a time had completely consumed me. I scaled the bus steps, paid my last ₡165 bus fare, and rumbled away for the final time – lost in sad thoughts, but finding solace in the white noise of honking horns.

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