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Faces of NPR: Lulu Garcia-Navarro

Lulu Garcia-Navarro, photographed for NPR, 4 November 2019, in Washington DC.
Mike Morgan
Mike Morgan
Lulu Garcia-Navarro, photographed for NPR, 4 November 2019, in Washington DC.

Faces Of NPR showcases the people behind NPR--from the voices you hear every day on the radio to the ones who work outside of the recording studio. You'll find out about what they do and what they're inspired by on the daily. This week, we feature Lulu Garcia Navarro, the Host of Weekend Edition Sunday and Up First at NPR.

The Basics:

Name: Lulu Garcia-Navarro

Twitter Handle: @lourdesgnavarro

Job Title: Host, Weekend Edition Sunday & Up First

Where you're From: Miami, FL

You've been with NPR 16 years, what has kept you?

I started at NPR as the Mexico City correspondent. I was at that time based in Iraq for the Associated Press and I really wanted to be a foreign correspondent and NPR was sort of the pinnacle of where to do that for audio. And I've always been an audio person. That's what I love to do. I was able to just move around the world and that's really exciting and an extraordinary opportunity. And then I was able to come and be a host. At every juncture NPR has allowed me to grow and to do new things. That's what has kept me here. Also, I believe in the mission and the people are pretty cool.

What is your favorite experience with NPR?

It's a bit of a weird thing for me because I've had so many different types of experiences. I've been able to go to the Amazon and report there for weeks. I've been able to go to the Galapagos Islands and travel around in a boat talking about how that's changing. I've been to all these extraordinary places in the world, and I've just been able to tell people about it.

And so for me, when I think of my career at NPR, I just think of all the amazing stories that I've gotten to tell. There's not just one moment, it's like a whole rainbow constellation of amazing things that I've been able to do.

Since I've become a host, it's been really fun to work with my team. And that I think is the thing that has been the biggest highlight. When I was a foreign correspondent, I worked alone mostly or with one other person who was a member of staff from the country that I worked in.

Being able to be part of a group like on Weekend Edition has been just a delight and has taught me how to work in a different way.

How did you prepare yourself to cover the stories in Brazil, Israel, Mexico & Iraq?

Everyone is different. I'm the kind of journalist that needs to be on the ground to figure out what's going on. I think it's really important to read as much as you can. Definitely, if you're going to go to a new country, get books, really try and understand the history.

But I'm a person that learns by talking to people. And so until I'm there, I really don't get a real sense of what it is that's going on and what are the stories that are really important.

I just learn by getting there and for me I can land in a place I could be like "Omg, there's 50 stories I want to do" because everything's interesting. Everything can feel relevant to our audience. And so many of my stories just bubbled up from my own experience. Like in Mexico being stopped by the police and being asked for a bribe or going to a festival and noticing that there is something different or interesting going on there.

You just immerse yourself in the culture.

Being in the thick of war, what was your biggest concern and greatest motivation?

Biggest concern: not dying and not getting anyone else killed because we're working with other people. There are always a lot of people who are from there who are working with you at great risk and so obviously you don't want to die, but you really don't want to get anybody else killed. And so that is always the thing that has always been foremost in my mind about operating in those kinds of environments. And then when you're talking to people, they're in a very dangerous situation too. And you always have to keep it very clear, how you're going to protect them also.

And then what motivates me is: conflict is a weird thing. You are seeing people on the worst days of their lives probably, but also it causes them to act in ways that are utterly heroic. You'll take someone who is maybe a housewife looking after their kids and all of a sudden they will have done something utterly extraordinary because they had been placed in an extraordinary circumstance. I think in those situations it is best to really, again, ground myself in the people. I always found that going to the frontline was important. You really had to know what was going on in terms of the actual conflict, but the best stories I would always find were not at the frontline, they were around the frontline, how people were reacting, how things would be litigated in the neighborhoods and among families and friends. And I think that gave me much more insight into what was happening in the country and what was going to happen in the country than actually being where shooting was going on.

After you report on a story, let's say migration in Mexico, how do you feel when you leave? Do you follow up?

The thing that's incredible about NPR and why I stayed for so long is because we live in the countries that we cover. So I didn't leave and come back to Mexico. I lived there and covered it. I lived in Israel and covered it. I lived in Iraq and covered it. I lived in Brazil and covered it. You're not just jetting into somewhere and leaving. And one of the best things actually about that is that you have relationships with people and you do follow up with them and you do try and figure out what's going on.

But it gets complicated- those relationships, especially when you're dealing with people, as I often did, who maybe had never spoken to a journalist before, who weren't media savvy, who were extremely vulnerable. These are people who you really have to keep in mind don't really know what it is that you're even going to do with their voice.

When I did a story on the border, President Trump's family separation policy was first instituted. It was a pregnant woman. She was trying to get across. She had two other kids and she said, I'm going to go across. I had interviewed her for a story. Then she said, "if they'd try to separate me, they'll give my baby to somebody that I know. Can I have my baby given to you?"

These are the kinds of things that, when you're doing these kinds of stories, they're not just stories that you're doing in the abstract about people. They're stories with huge ramifications and you get involved in a way that isn't just about you being a journalist. They see you as something else.

And so you really have to respect that and honor that. Luckily she was not separated from her child so that wasn't something that needed to be resolved. But it just shows you how complicated these interactions can be.

How have you dealt with your PTSD?

So I very early on felt the need to speak out about mental health at a time when it really wasn't popular. And there was a lot of stigma around mental health, and I felt that it was really important to do that because I knew so many of my friends who had covered conflict and they were afraid to talk about it because they felt that they were going to be penalized by their employer.

And in fact, many of them were penalized in the early days of this. It felt to me like when you're covering war and you're covering conflict, if you get your leg blown off, there isn't a stigma to that. Everyone's so sympathetic to that but your mind is also part of the things that can be damaged. And so it is really important to first of all, work to make sure that news organizations are sympathetic and aware and have policies in place for support. But also that the individuals. I've often found that the people themselves who might be going through stuff, they're the ones who really don't want to acknowledge that that's what's happening. And that's where I think peer support is really important.

Can tell me how you've coped and ways that you've been able to identify that has helped you.

I think if you have suffered from mental health issues, you always have to be aware and take care of your mental health because I don't believe that just because you've had PTSD means you can never cover a war zone again. I have and did after my big crisis with post-traumatic stress disorder. But you have to be very careful about protecting your wellbeing. If things are getting overwhelming, you have to take a step back.

And so the pandemic has been really hard as it has been for all of us because it kicks off a lot of stuff. You're feeling like your life is at risk. You're trying to protect the people that you love. You feel unsafe in your environment. You don't really feel like you have a lot of control over the events surrounding you. And so my advice to people around all of that is whatever your comfort level is, don't judge others. Don't judge yourself. I feel like we've gotten very judgy about people's different levels of comfort and what they choose and don't choose to do. And I really feel we have a mental health crisis in this country that has only been exacerbated through this.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro on-location. Lulu Garcia- Navarro reporting in Kikla, Nafusa Mountains, Libya.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro on-location. Lulu Garcia- Navarro reporting in Kikla, Nafusa Mountains, Libya.

Where did you grow up?

Miami. My family is in Florida, mostly. My family were exiled Cubans which meant that my mom got married at 15. My dad was 17. They had three kids by the time my mom was 20. They found themselves here in the United States. I was born in London because my dad got a job. My other sister was born in Panama because my mother's half Panamanian. There was a bit of wandering that often happened when you were expelled from your country for political reasons. But Miami is where the majority of my family is, where my mother is. I am, as I put on my Twitter handle, a Florida woman with all that entails.

How was growing up in Miami:

Miami wasn't what it is now. So what I'll say about Miami is, I had a bit of a different experience as a Latina there because everyone speaks Spanish. I actually wasn't fully aware that not everyone in the world spoke Spanish. Because I grew up with everyone speaking Spanish. Everyone was Latino, Cuban or other types of Latinos. Of course there were African-Americans who have been there for forever. Of course it was a big Jewish community, of course it was the Haitian community. Miami is very multicultural.

But the people I was around, everyone was like Latino. It was kind of a big surprise that that was not the case in the rest of the country. Miami, as they, as they call it, is sort of like the Northernmost city in Latin America.

And so growing up there, it was a lot about family and a lot about our community.

Why did you decide to go into journalism?

So after college I did Latin American studies and I wanted to go and sort of experience Latin America in a non-academic way. So I sort of started backpacking through Latin America and then I wanted to go to Asia because I'd never been. And I went there and I taught English and while I was doing that, I was like, I'm really interested in understanding this place and not just being here just for my own self actualization. And so I tried to get a job at an English language paper in Cambodia, and they laughed at me and sent me away because I had no experience.

I finally moved to London and I went to journalism school there because it's one year to get your master's unlike, here where it's two years. That's much, much cheaper, they're much more vocational and that's where I learned to do radio because the United Kingdom has a huge tradition of radio. At the school that I went to which is called City University, it's their premiere journalism school, but it's not like Columbia, it's like, their journalism seemed like a vocation is not seen as the thing you go to like an Ivy League school to do. It's really a vocational thing. I wanted to do broadcast, but they didn't have a TV program. They only had radio. So that's how I got into radio.

And then I got hired by the AP by a wonderful woman called Karen Sloan. Then Loren Jenkins hired me for NPR. I've always had really strong female mentors. And now my boss is also a woman, Sarah Lucy Oliver, who's also wonderful. So I've been really fortunate in my career to have really strong women along the way who have said "Do it! You can do it!"

Are you that woman for anyone?

I really try within the people who work with me. For a lot of people, it's their first journalism job and so I think it's really important to make sure that they come up and have a chance to showcase themselves.

You have accomplished so much in your career. Is there anything else that you still have your mindset on accomplishing?

The great thing about journalism is there's always mountains left to climb, always. It's the reason I love this profession. I feel like now more than ever, it's so important what we're doing. Some days it can feel discouraging, right? Some days you can just look at where things are at and think, "What is the point of this at all?" "What impact am I having?" And then you can have an extraordinary conversation with someone like I did with one of the victims of the SurfSide collapse, and it can touch so many people's hearts and it can make them think about the world in a different way. That makes it worth it. That shows you're doing the right thing. And so that for me is the draw.

So is there anything in specific you will still want to learn about or a place you want to go see or story you want to cover it?

There's so much more left to do. And I've been really lucky. I mean, one of the things I got to do is interview celebrities and that's been really cool. Because like in war zones, you don't do that very much. The thing that I love more than anything is just getting to talk to people about their experiences in the world.

"Ok, I'll tell you a funny story that you can put in there because it's about the war":

The thing that people don't know about conflicts is that it's always really absurd. The most terrible thing can happen at the same time as the funniest thing can happen.

So we were in a compound and there was a terrible day when they attacked our compound with a truck bomb. The problem was when they did that, I was in the shower and I ended up completely undressed trying to pull out my clothes to try and get into a safe room while this attack was happening. And we were sharing a house with the Washington Post and that little detail made it into the Washington Post story.

So what I'm saying is it was one of the worst days that I've ever experienced, someone that I was very close to ended up dying that day. But the other thing I can't help thinking about was while that was happening, I was butt naked.

What Lulu said after the interview ended.:

You're a good interviewer. And thank you so much. And anytime you need anything outside of your professional world, my door or my slack is always open.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sommer Hill
Sommer Hill (she/her) is a social media associate for NPR Extra. She started with NPR in May 2021. Her primary responsibilities include managing the social media accounts for NPR Extra as well as creating blog posts for NPR.org. In her time at NPR, Hill has worked on many projects including the Tiny Desk Contest, the How I Built This Summit, creating a resource page for Juneteenth material, participating in the 'What Juneteenth Means To Me' video and contributing to WOC/POC meetings.