Lilia Luciano on Becoming a 4-Time Emmy Recipient and Redefining her Relationship with Failure

Lilia Luciano has had her fair share of ups and downs; she’s won four Emmys, been publicly fired, created Guerras Ajenas, developed an eating disorder in high school. But despite Lilia Luciano being criticized and praised in the public eye, she’s managed to remain herself. She lets Lilia Luciano deal with the criticisms, but holds on to Lilia Rodriguez’s creativity and passion.  

Attending high school in Puerto Rico, Lilia Luciano, née Lilia Rodriguez, initially had her sights set on becoming a doctor. Looking up to family members who she describes as “artists, politicians, [and] attorneys”, and seeing the positive impact her father made on the community as a doctor, inspired Lilia to practice medicine and continue her father’s legacy, an ambition underscored by an intense curiosity in the sciences. While attending Tufts University in Boston, though, Lilia came to realize that pursuing a career in medicine wasn’t right for her. Instead, after reflection brought about by meeting people from around the world at Tufts and discussion with her father, she decided to follow her love of writing and desire to learn about different topics rather than specializing in medicine — two things that lead her to the endlessly changing and intriguing world of investigative journalism.

Thus, Lilia was thrown into an environment that demands honesty, dedication, and passion. Encouraged by her boss at Telemundo Internacional where she first interned, Lilia went to a casting call at Telefuturo where her nerves gripped her so much that she felt “the prompter was reading another language”. While Lilia didn’t get the part, she received an opportunity to work as an executive assistant, where she moved up at the network until she was eventually working as an entertainment reporter. Interviewing celebrities and reporting on their lives, though, became unfulfilling, as Lilia remembered why she wanted to be an investigative reporter — to tell stories and learn about unfamiliar people and places, rather than worry about the lives of people in the spotlight. From that point on, Lilia worked on telling a story in its entirety, from reporting on the Casey Anthony trial to creating Guerras Ajenas, a documentary about the war on drugs in Columbia, focusing on the use of aerial spraying. Lilia’s most impactful piece, she says, is a documentary titled Puerto Rico Rises that highlights the impact of Hurricane Maria on her hometown; describing it as “a chance to tell the story that [her] family had taught [her] growing up, and to give voice to a lot of people..that [she doesn’t] think have been told in the past”.

This sharing of underrepresented stories is one of the main themes Lilia expressed to our Queen Bee Project representatives, especially as it relates to her own voice as a woman in the newsroom. On the topic of being heard, her work required Lilia to speak up and, as she puts it, “be obnoxious” and say “This is how it’s going to be done!”. Being vocal, in Lilia’s experience, is about ensuring that one’s voice is heard, something many young girls and women have to learn in their professional lives, as well as unlearning the sentiments that are directed towards women, both intentional and unintentional — being quiet and polite, practicing humility, letting others go first. And while these qualities are valuable, Lilia says, women in the professional world should vocalize their opinions and concerns, and not feel as if they have to mute their own intelligence, capabilities, and beauty so that others will receive them well. The importance of taking pride in one’s intelligence and skills as a woman is highlighted by how women in the public eye are expected to present themselves, which Lilia identifies as one of the hardest parts of working in the news as a woman. Lilia understands firsthand some of the most extreme effects of the ways women are expected to look and dress while their male counterparts are judged solely on their abilities — she developed an eating disorder as a teenager, and believes that the way young girls today are exposed to beauty standards makes it even harder for them to resist the pressures of social media influencers with perfect looks and bodies. Lilia hopes that girls today can learn to value their intelligence and talents over their physical appearance, and that the pressures placed on women to be “perfect” will be lessened in the future. 

Lilia discusses the importance of empowering women outside of a professional setting as well, mentioning short documentaries she’s produced about micro-financing women in impoverished countries such as Nicaragua, India, and Haiti. The impact that a small amount of financial support had on women in these countries, Lilia explains, positioned women who were victims of domestic abuse, to better the lives of their family members, community, and regions around them. Another story Lilia identified as particularly inspiring featured a South African woman who built a Pre-K in order to educate the children in her area, something she did without any formal education or knowledge of research done about the importance of Pre-K. This impacted her entire community, directly resulting in a more motivated and self-aware generation of young adults.

Lilia’s story serves as an inspiration to women and girls looking to positively impact the world around them, conveying that through many failures and setbacks, they can develop their unique voice and experiences in order to better their surroundings. Working as a journalist, Lilia faces several issues that affect the work she produces, explaining that it’s nearly impossible to make (and keep) promises to the people she interviews: “You’re asking them to open their lives and their stories, in order for society to understand their struggle, but you could be putting them in danger”. To overcome these challenges, Lilia suggests redefining our relationship with failure. Lilia was fired due to an honest mistake from NBC, and developed many insecurities because she was told she was fired not because of her mistake, but because she wasn’t good enough. She spent many years afterwards not having a stable job, freelancing for VICE, and emptying out her 401K. But never was she tempted to go into another career; she learned that she needed to face her fear of failure, take chances and say, “If I screw it up, whatever”. Those chances created opportunities in her professional and personal life, and will do the same to any young woman who follows her advice. 

Such is the risk taken in the field of journalism, and any other male-dominated field; Lilia could not emphasize further the importance of communicating the voices and experiences of those who need their stories heard — whether it be one’s own or helping others facing their own struggles.

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