Jorge Ramos: We can't "be neutral" with a president like Trump

The World
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump spars with Univision reporter Jorge Ramos before his "Make America Great Again Rally" at the Grand River Center in Dubuque, Iowa, August 25, 2015.

Jorge Ramos has been called "the most influential news anchor in the Americas."

He's the face of Univision's flagship Spanish-language news broadcast. He was front and center during some of the most compelling moments of the last presidential campaign — like a press event in Iowa in 2015 where he sparred with then-candidate Donald Trump over Trump's proposal to use mass deportations to rid the US of criminals.

At a widely seen event later in the campaign, Ramos again tried again to press Trump on his immigration policies. That's when Trump called on his security detail to throw Ramos out.

Ramos writes about how that moment changed him in his new book, "Stranger: The Challenge of a Latino Immigrant in the Trump Era."

Marco Werman: After then-candidate Trump had you ejected from that event, you had an exchange with a Trump supporter. Tell us about that incident.

Jorge Ramos: Yes, Donald Trump said, "Go back to Univision." He really meant to go back to Mexico. And I think hate is contagious, because just a few seconds afterward, after the bodyguard ejected me from that press conference, one of his supporters told me, "Get out of my country." And I told him, "What are you talking about? I'm also a US citizen." 

And that's exactly what's happening. I've been living in this country for 35 years. Both my kids, Paola and Nicolás, were born here. I came here because of censorship in Mexico. I never would have expected that I would be ejected from a press conference in the United States. Something similar happened to me with Fidel Castro, when a bodyguard prevented me from asking questions. But to happen, the same thing, in the United States? It was unthinkable for me.

How did that whole day make you feel?

I'm an immigrant from Mexico, and this country has been incredibly generous to me. I left Mexico when I was very young. There was a lot of censorship in Mexico. There was no democracy. And this country gave me the opportunities that my country of origin couldn't give me. I was censored in Mexico because I was criticizing the president, and my boss told me I couldn't say that. And in the end, I quit and I left and came to this country. And when I realized that you could criticize the president here, and nothing happens, I thought it was beautiful.

So it's been like that for decades, until Donald Trump came in. When he said that Mexican immigrants were criminals and rapists, I knew that he was lying. And he was talking about me. That's when I thought that not only as an immigrant and as a US citizen, but that as a journalist, I needed to take a stand.

The subtitle of your book is, "The Challenge of a Latino Immigrant in the Trump Era," and it feels like there are parts of this book where you feel the need to argue, "Immigrants are really good people." What does that say about the times we're living in?

What we listen to almost every single day from President Trump, and from his tweets, is the idea that immigrants and foreigners and refugees — like the refugees that we have right now at the border between Tijuana and San Diego right now — that they are all "bad hombres," that they are criminals. And the reality is exactly the opposite. Immigrants are less likely to be criminals and to end in jail than those born in the United States. Immigrants are here not because they want to kill Americans or they want to go to Disneyland. They are here simply because there are jobs for them, and they are doing the jobs that nobody else wants to do.

Talk a bit about how journalism has changed for people of color and immigrants who are journalists in the Trump era.

I believe that as journalists — you are a journalist, and I'm a journalist — that we have to report reality as it is, not as we wish it would be. So if something is red, we say red. And if 17 people died, we say 17. And I think everybody agrees with that. However, when it comes to certain issues, I think it is our social responsibility to question those who are in power and to give voice to the voiceless.

You do write about the need to stop being neutral, and it's led some people to call you an activist. How do you respond to that?

I'm just a journalist, asking questions. But I don't think it is our job necessarily to be neutral all the time. I don't think so. Am I supposed to be neutral in front of a dictator like Fidel Castro or Hugo Chávez or Daniel Ortega? Am I supposed to be neutral when the president of the United States makes racist remarks? When he says that Mexican immigrants are criminals and rapists, or when he says that Judge Gonzalo Curiel cannot do his job, simply because of his Mexican heritage? Or when President Trump said that people from Haiti and African nations come from asshole countries — are we supposed to be neutral in front of that? I don't think so. I think the basic examples that we have of great journalism in this country have happened when journalists take a stand, when they stopped being neutral. We can talk about Watergate, or Edward R. Murrow during the McCarthy era, or the Boston Globe in front of the Catholic Church and the cases of sexual abuse.

Editor's note: President Trump was actually reported to have referred to African nations as shithole countries.

Sometimes I do feel that we are in the resistance, that somehow our real job is to make sure that people know exactly what's happening. Because if they were to listen only to President Trump and to his government, they would be getting a completely distorted image of what's happening in this country.

And I think, when my kids ask me in ten or 20 years, "Hey, Dad, you were a journalist during the Trump era. What do you do? Did you resist?" I can safely say that I resisted, that I said no, and that I asked questions.

But can you really be objective if you're part of the resistance?

When you have a president who constantly lies, a president who's making racist remarks, what are we supposed to do? Are we supposed to report what he what he is saying, what his government is saying without challenging that? Without resisting? Without telling our audience that is not true? These are not normal times. And our role, let me just repeat that, is to question those who are in power. We always have to be on the other side of power.

Agree, disagree? We're talking about this interview and immigration in the US in the Global Nation Exchange on Facebook. Join us!

We learn a lot about you in your book, "Stranger." You talk about accents and how your accent immediately tells everybody that you're not from here. You say your accent is Chilango from the north side of Mexico City. Tell me about your childhood and what your neighborhood was like and where you grew up.

As an immigrant I think you're always looking for a home. And I realize that I'll never be home again. I grew up in Mexico City, and if you're from Mexico City you’re called Chilango. I still have that accent when I speak Spanish. Believe me, I tried to get rid of my accent in English, but when you learn English late in your life — I really learned when I was 24 or 25 years old and my kids correct me constantly — it is simply not easy.

But I think your accent reflects who you are. And when people listen to me they say, "Hey, Ramos might have two passports, he might have a US passport and a Mexican passport." You can clearly know that I was not born in this country. Sandra Cisneros, the wonderful writer, she told me that I am an amphibian, and I think she's right. I think I live in two worlds. Right now we're having a conversation in English, but just in a few hours I'll be doing a newscast in Spanish, and then I'll be talking to my kids in Spanglish. And I go back and forth. I'm not only an amphibian — I'm also a translator. I'm trying to translate the Latino and Latin American reality to the English-speaking community. And then, what's happening in the in the US to an audience that feels more comfortable in Spanish. So I go back and forth, and sometimes I'm Mexican, and sometimes I'm American, sometimes I'm Chilango, sometimes I'm Chicano. I have dual citizenship, so sometimes I decide to be Mexican or American depending on how long is the line at the Mexico City airport. That's the truth.

Why did you want to get rid of your accent initially?

So people can understand me. English is the language of power. If I’m invited to Fox News — some people might think that it's political suicide to go to Fox News. But I do that constantly, because I think it is important to have a conversation with people who don't agree with you. When that man outside the press conference told me, "Get out of my country," Those words were charged with hatred, and you feel it. You not only listened to it, but you feel it in your skin. And it goes inside you.

It occurs to me that in an age when we talk about fake news and hate speech, the rationality of understanding the power of words is almost an existential concept. I mean, just compare Obama to Trump. Trump tweets from the hip all times of day. Obama the opposite. Almost to a fault, you can see the gears moving when he'd answer a question or a very careful lawyer mentality where every word matters. But you had big problems with Obama, didn't you?

I also criticized President Barack Obama. When the Democrats controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress, they had about eight to nine months when they could have approved immigration reform. President Obama didn't deliver on that. The other problem is that he deported more immigrants than any other president in the history of the United States. Two and a half million undocumented immigrants destroying thousands of families. Granted, he gave us DACA and he always supported immigration reform, and he never insulted immigrants.

But my problem with Barack Obama was that he didn't deliver on his promise to introduce immigration reform and that he deported so many people that when election day came, there were about 14 million Latinos who decided to stay home because they were thinking, "OK, should I vote for the Democrats — but they didn't deliver? Or should I vote for a candidate who's been making racist and anti-immigrant remarks?" Fourteen million Latinos decided to stay home on Election Day.

Look ahead, if you would, to future elections, because you write in "Stranger" how you underestimated Trump's ability to win the election while losing the Latino vote. So, what did you get wrong, and also, what do we miss when we talk about the Latino vote like it one singular block?

Latinos are not monolithic. There were about 13 million Latinos who voted in the last election and 29 percent — about three-point-six million — voted for Donald Trump. So just think of what that means that even within the Hispanic community despite the attacks on Latinos and immigrants more than three million  Latinos voted for Donald Trump. That clearly says that we are not monolithic. There are many differences between new arrivals from Mexico and Central America, and people from Puerto Rico who have a US passport, or people from Cuba who, up until just a few years [ago], they could become US residents simply by touching US territory. So that's one thing.

And what I got wrong during the election is that I said many times that no one can make it to the White House without the Latino vote. And I was wrong. Fourteen million Latinos decided not to vote. I was not listening correctly to the other Latino voices that were telling me, "We don't trust the Democrats. I don't know who Donald Trump is, but I would rather try something new." It was my mistake. It's on me.

So, let me end with this question, Jorge Ramos, kind of going back to that idea that all through the day you're constantly code-switching almost between your Spanish newscast and speaking in English and Spanglish with your kids, written English, Chilango Spanish. You drive home, you said, listening to MSNBC or a Beatles station. So what Beatles song do you turn to when you're feeling like a stranger, a song that pulls you out of that feeling?

In Mexico I grew up listening to The Beatles. But actually in Mexico — talking about accents — I didn't call them The Beatles. That was that was too elegant. There were called Los Bettles. So we were listening to Los Bettles all the time.  You know something funny, before I learned English, I used to sing The Beatles songs in Spanish. It didn't make any sense. I would just repeat words after words — it didn't make any sense. And later in my life I realized how beautiful those songs were.

Can you give me an example?

Yeah. When you listen to [The Beatles'] "Let It Be," I had no idea what "let it be" meant. And then you would say it in Spanish, ‘Let-It-Be-Let-It-Be-Let-It-Be.’  I still remember seeing singing with my friends, ‘Let-It-Be-Let-It-Be-Let-It-Be,’ which means really nothing neither in Spanish nor in English.

And then later in my life, I realized that he really meant: Let it be, which is just a beautiful sentence. But I used to do that with many other songs — constantly. Somehow now I realize that part of my love to this country — and again I've said this country has been incredibly generous — it started with songs, with songs in English that I had no idea what they meant, but that I constantly repeated in my mind in Spanglish in words that meant absolutely nothing, but that eventually I made peace with the US by coming to this country and understanding that those beautiful songs that I was singing in English actually had an incredible meaning in English.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.