Promenade Havana, Cuba, 1994. A raft made of inflated tires sets sea to Miami, part of a years-long migration that has remade the city. (Abbas / Magnum Photos)


When I graduated from college in Florida in 1986 and began looking for jobs, several people told me not to bother applying to my hometown paper, The Miami Herald, because they hired only “blue-eyed, blond-haired boys from the Northeast.”

I was—still am—brown-eyed and brown-haired, definitely not a boy, and clearly not from the Northeast. In fact, I had arrived from Cuba in a boat six years before graduation and was still learning new words in English. (“Azure” was a particularly pleasant discovery around that time.)

I ended up applying to The Miami Herald anyway, and one of those “boys” hired me; though, frankly, he was not a boy anymore, nor was he blond. He was John Pancake, who said I was very “green,” but he sensed something in me.

Part of what Pancake might have sensed was that I was fully bilingual in Miami, then rapidly becoming the first truly bilingual city in the United States.

I was hired to work part-time, writing the police blotter and covering the hyperlocal transportation beat at one of the Herald’s Neighbors, zoned inserts that are published twice a week. I don’t remember much about my Neighbors office, which was tucked away behind a Kentucky Fried Chicken on US 1, except that I think I was the only Hispanic there.

Soon, though, it was clear that other Hispanics got there before I did—some even more than two decades earlier, but the effort to hire Hispanics intensified after 1980, when the Mariel boatlift brought more than 125,000 refugees from Cuba in the span of five months. The paper needed bodies to cover one of the biggest stories in the history of South Florida, as well as its repercussions.

Many of those hired in the 1980s were scattered in several Neighbors offices. One of them was Aminda “Mindy” Marqués. We never worked together, but we were friendly. In 1994 we were pregnant at the same time, our babies due a week apart. Friends from the newsroom gave us a baby shower at Versailles, a well-known Cuban restaurant.

Somewhere in my Miami Herald memory box there is a picture of us, back-to-back and hugely pregnant, smiling at the camera. Shortly after, I left for The New York Times. Marqués left, too, but, after a stint at People magazine, went back to the Herald. In 2010, 24 years after she was hired, she made history when she was named the paper’s executive editor—the first Hispanic in that position. Marqués, 49, is the daughter of Cubans who left the island in the mid-1950s.

In the last six months, The Miami Herald Publishing Company has continued to promote women to the top positions of its two newspapers—The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald.

In October, Myriam Márquez, 59, until then The Miami Herald’s editorial page editor, became the executive editor of El Nuevo Herald. Márquez, hired by The Herald in 2005 after an 18-year career at The Orlando Sentinel, had been the first woman and first Hispanic in charge of the editorial pages.

She was replaced by Nancy Ancrum, 57, the first black woman to lead the Herald’s editorial pages. A native New Yorker, Ancrum was hired in 1983, and held several newsroom positions before joining the editorial board in 1990.

And on April 14, Alexandra Villoch, 56, took over as the new president and publisher of The Miami Herald Media Company, the first woman in that role. Villoch, like Márquez, was born in Cuba and brought to the United States as a child.

More than 100 years after it was founded, the people running the Herald, in the newsroom and on the business side, are what the rest of the country calls minorities and Miamians call their own. In all, it adds up to three Hispanics and an African American, all women, an anomaly in a time when yearly surveys, conducted by the American Society of News Editors, show that newsroom diversity has remained stagnant for the past decade; between 12 and 13 percent of editorial employees are minorities. The US Census reveals that minorities constitute 37 percent of the US population.

I suppose it’s possible there are other newspapers with so many women in top positions, but not likely. According to ASNE’s 2013 survey, 65.4 percent of newsroom supervisors are men. That percentage has remained pretty much the same since at least 1999. The same can be said of the ratio of “white” to “minorities” as supervisors: 90 percent of the supervisors are identified as “white” in last year’s survey and 10 percent as “minorities.”

Despite the dismal numbers, minorities have made strides. When ASNE began conducting its survey census of newsroom employees in 1978, minorities were just under 4 percent of newsroom employees nationwide.

For those in the know, though, the ascent of these particular women at the Herald is not only the happy result of a plan to recruit and promote diverse talent but also a reflection of the demographics of the city. The paper has recruited local talent. And “local” in Miami-Dade County now means this: 64 percent Hispanic, 19 percent black (many of them Haitian immigrants), and 16 percent non-Hispanic white.

And yet, the seeds for the ascent of these women in this particular moment were planted a long time ago.

“I think it’s almost a question of timing,” said Marqués. “We were hired 25 years ago when The Miami Herald was just starting to hire people like us to reflect the community. Our careers have progressed and the community has changed. We continue to reflect the community. We are a majority-minority city, and some people just don’t get that.”

Ancrum, too, said she knows she was a “hot commodity at the time when the doors were opening.” But she also attributes the fact that she was hired to the accident of her birth, the forces of history, and, of course, her talent.

“It means that I was fortunate enough to have been born at the right time. It means that I came of age during both the civil rights and women’s liberation movements,” she said. “Let’s be clear, I also had to bring the talent, the brains, and the ambition to the table. It has paid off for me and, clearly, for other women at The Miami Herald. And that’s just as it should be.”

Marqués said diversity efforts continue at the Herald, but are sometimes hampered by her inability to fill positions that are lost when reporters and editors are hired away by national newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post, which years ago took the editor who hired me, Pancake. More recently, Frances Robles, after 19 years at The Miami Herald, went to the Times.

Still, in the last 18 months, Marqués has been able to hire five new employees, including two Hispanics and an African American. Finding bilingual reporters who speak Spanish or Creole continued to be a priority, she said. Some of the Hispanic reporters she has hired come—or are the children of immigrants—from Colombia, Venezuela, and Spain, a more recent wave of arrivals that, like the Cubans before them, are beginning to stake their claim to Miami.

“Cubans are now editors and columnists,” she said. “The community has matured, and so have we.”

Yes, that and something else: For all the diversity-talk fatigue that many of us newsroom veterans claim to have, it feels good that my old home, The Miami Herald, is a place where the gatekeepers cracked the doors open and hired people unlike themselves. Almost three decades after so many told me I’d never get a job at a paper that didn’t hire people like me, people like me are the ones doing the hiring.

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Mirta Ojito is an assistant professor at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism and the author of Finding Mañana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus. She shared a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2001.