Immigrant tale: Sportswriter turned columnist becomes voice of underdog
The tears came abruptly. We had been discussing the University of Illinois men’s basketball team—whose run to the 2005 national title game she covered for the Chicago Tribune—when the woman across the table from me apologized. Then, she began to cry.
“You asked before about immigration … I think my family did experience the ugly side of that. What people don’t realize, it is not always people calling you names. In our case, we were a family of nine. We couldn’t find anyone to rent us a home. And it was brutal,” said Marlen (MARE-a-lin) Garcia ’93.
We were having lunch with the business crowd in June on a second-floor restaurant in a Loop hotel, a couple of miles east from where Garcia works as an opinion writer for the Chicago Sun-Times. Garcia had been buoyant up to that point in our interview. Dressed in a light blue sweater and a spring dress, she smiled often as she talked about her newspaper career and life as a child in a Mexican immigrant family.
She even joked about her Spanish, which she grew up speaking at home. She mentioned that former Cubs slugger and Dominican Republic native Sammy Sosa once made fun of her for speaking Mexican Spanish with an English accent.
For years, the turmoil of Garcia’s past never rose to the surface. She waited more than a decade into their relationship before telling her husband that her family was homeless for a time while she was a teenager. Things had changed, however, and in her view decisively, since President Donald Trump’s electoral victory.
In the days before our interview, public furor peaked over the Trump administration’s policy to separate immigrant children from their families at the Mexican border. Moreover, she surely remembered what Trump said in his campaign announcement speech in June 2015: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Trump’s rhetoric revived something dormant in the American psyche, Garcia thought, recalling an incident in 2016. Her mother, Elena, accidentally spilled a woman’s coffee at a Chicago bus stop. The woman responded by saying she hoped Trump would be elected so he would deport Elena.
“It’s not just rhetoric. It’s very dangerous because it gives people license to mistreat people in ways that good-natured Americans would know that is wrong, instinctively and intuitively,” Garcia said.
“When I started writing about immigration six years ago, I didn’t think anti-immigrant sentiment would be whipped up as it is now. I thought some of (President Barack) Obama’s immigration policies were incredibly rough, but not only does Trump take them 10 steps further, he does it with such hostility that it starts to look like a discriminatory policy—racism.”
Given this national dynamic, journalism and Garcia’s background growing up in an immigrant family have tied back together. The two threads were separate for most of her adult life.
Garcia spent the first 15-plus years of her newspaper career writing about sports. She started at the Chicago Tribune as an editing assistant and rose to reporter before becoming the lead college basketball writer at the USA Today for five years. She took a buyout in 2012 and decided to try something radically different just as the immigration debate was heating up over Obama’s new policy to grant relief from deportation for children brought to the country illegally.
Jim Kirk ’90, a former Tribune colleague and fellow Illinois State alum, recruited Garcia to be a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times, where he was then the editor-in-chief. Three years later, she joined the Sun-Times’ editorial board.
“Writing about sports for a long time—it was rewarding and it was interesting work,” Garcia said. “But in the background, I have these other interests. I’m following the immigration debate. I didn’t have a platform to do anything about it. That’s what I got at the Sun-Times: The opportunity to write an op-ed column and to take on issues. Our editorial page editor tells me, ‘You’re in the right place if you want to speak up on all of this.’ He’s right.”
Instead of tracking box scores and the latest sports news, Garcia has been keeping tabs on politicians and has emerged as a voice for the city’s working class.
Rick Jones, one of her former School of Communication professors, was not surprised Garcia was able to make the transition from sports to news. “I think she really has found her passion, really upped her game at the Sun-Times,” Jones said. “She is a powerful advocate for people who don’t have much of that in the media.”
Garcia’s columns include a heavy dose of reporting with a focus on the stories of the immigrants and blue-collar workers whose lives are shaped by laws enacted far from their neighborhoods. For example, she wrote in support of a city ordinance that would require all companies to offer sick days—a benefit her mother was deprived of for almost the entire 40 years she worked at her factory job.
In another column, Garcia advocated for the Illinois Monetary Award Program, whose grants enabled her to afford college. She told the story of a senior at the Illinois Institute of Technology who was forced to work two jobs and launch a GoFundMe drive due to a lack of assistance.
“The columns are not about me. They are about people in Chicago,” Garcia said. “Sometimes it becomes personal, and you write it that way. But there are topics I want to take on because I know how people are being affected.”
Garcia writes about her late father, Pedro. He was born a U.S. citizen in southern Texas. His parents brought him as a young boy to northern Mexico during the Great Depression. With not enough documentation to prove his citizenship, he spent the 1950s crossing the border illegally to work as a migrant farmer in the United States, harvesting tomatoes in Ohio, potatoes in Idaho, and cotton in Texas.
She used his life story to write about migrant labor rights. One farmer told Pedro and his fellow migrants he could not afford to pay them, so he gave them “rare” coins. Marlen later discovered they were worthless.
After a long process, Pedro finally persuaded U.S. immigration officials that he was a citizen. In 1967 he immigrated, legally, to Chicago with his Mexican wife and Marlen’s older siblings. Marlen was born in the United States and grew up in minority neighborhoods in Chicago’s suburbs, moving frequently as her family struggled to gain a foothold in the United States.
Her dad eventually was hired as a unionized janitor at O’Hare Airport. Her mother found that factory job where she would work until she was forced to quit at the age of 79.
“My passion about immigration has a lot to do with my upbringing, and what I’ve learned since,” Garcia said.
Garcia’s family bounced from one rented place to the next. She and her siblings had to lie about how many children actually lived at home so they wouldn’t get evicted. Her family lost their home when Garcia was 13, forcing her and her siblings to split up for the summer and live with friends and relatives. Her parents took shelter at a ramshackle motel.
“There is a lot of shame associated with that,” Garcia said. “I was ashamed for a long time, but not anymore.”
Garcia wrote for the student newspaper at Maine West High School, and covered high school sports as a stringer for the now defunct Des Plaines Times. She wasn’t sure what she would study once she arrived at Illinois State as a Robert Bone Scholar and a walk-on for the Redbird cross-country team.
During her sophomore year, she received an internship through the University’s Minority Professional Opportunities Program under then sports information director Tom Lamonica, M.S. ’88. She credits Lamonica for reigniting her interest in journalism.
“You could tell that Marlen was very intelligent, very mature, and very passionate,” Lamonica said. “She had very strong values. She stood for something, and she wasn’t afraid to let you know.”
As a student, Garcia worked at TV-10 and WZND, was a correspondent for The Vidette, and wrote features for Athletics game-day programs. She also interned at the Telemundo affiliate in Chicago.
“You know what was wonderful about ISU was all the opportunities,” Garcia said. “And I had the best time doing it all. I see college as an equalizer. If you want to gain equal footing, that’s where you do it.”
In her frequent trips back to Illinois State, Garcia advises School of Communication students that regardless of the topic they are covering, journalism is all about people: “It always comes down to who is being affected? And who are these people who are bringing about change for us?”
Garcia’s life has come full circle now. She is writing about and for the people with whom she grew up, those immigrant families who are fighting to escape poverty and find the American dream—just like her family.
Kevin Bersett can be reached at kdberse@IllinoisState.edu.