Interview with Alex Zaragoza

Freelance Writer

Alex Zaragoza is a freelance writer, digital strategist and columnist based in San Diego, California. We talked about investigative reporting on the border, personal sacrifices and the constant hustle. To learn more about her work, check out her Contently portfolio.

Your work has appeared on Rolling Stone, Vice, Los Angeles Weekly and more. Which stories are you most proud of and why?

There’s that story I wrote for NPR recently, which focused on refugees from Haiti stuck in Tijuana. I’m both from San Diego and Tijuana, so I try to focus on telling stories from the border and how they intersect with social issues.

There’s a huge influx of Haitian refugees currently in Tijuana, where live in Salvation Army shelters. A woman was walking on the street and asked this small, hole-in-the-wall luncheonette if she could cook, because she wanted to to cook meals. That little restaurant became Tijuana’s first Haitian restaurant, catering to the refugee community and co-owned, co-run by refugees — particularly women. I’m proud to share these stories, especially in dark times where immigrants are treated horribly by our government.

For LA Weekly, I wrote another border story. It talked about crossing the border and dual-nationality through an art projected called AMBOS. It bridged the gap between two these two cultures.

When did you start freelancing?

I started freelancing after quitting my staff job at an alt weekly about three years ago. I started trying to be a professional writer in college. I had an internship, which I got hired at and moved up at this weird, pop culture newswire as an associate editor. Then I got laid off and it was during the 2008 market crash. I discovered this niche and I had to figure how to do it.

After eight or nine months of unemployment, because it was so brutal to find a job, I started pitching a local alt weekly. I started as a freelancer with them. They eventually hired me as their event editor and a staff writer.

What was your first story about?

My very first byline that actually appeared was for San Diego City Beat, a local on par with LA Weekly and OC Weekly. It was a short, 300-word story about weird party that happens here in San Diego. I still write for them as a columnist.

I remember that moment of seeing my name on a story and being so stoked to see my name. I took photos of it.

What do you enjoy about freelancing?

When I decided to leave the full-time staff position, it was a financial decision. I was barely getting by and had a limited viability to write for anywhere else. I wanted to grow as a writer. I needed to make money to get by, but also give myself the freedom to write about anything I felt like. When I was on staff, I had to take anything I could get out. I had to write about shopping. There’s nothing wrong about it, but I didn’t enjoy it.

With freelancing, it’s been a whole new level of freedom. I can see my byline get bigger. The freedom of doing it at my own pace is a luxury I have with a full-time job. I’ve been scared of doing it full-time freelancing, because I don’t want to be in a position where I’m struggling it, but doing it as a part-time job, is another 20 to 30 hours a week means I’m very overworked and tired, but I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing.

What don’t you enjoy?

Transcribing is the bane of my existence! That’s not just when you’re a freelancer though. The luxury now too is that I can pay for transcribers.

Another is the constant hustle. It never stops. There are no breaks. You’re never done.

People are constantly stressing self-care, but I don’t understand that because I need to pitch five people tonight. As much as I hate that part, hat’s what I thrive on, though, because it keeps me motivated.

What’s your day job like?

My day job is a digital strategist at nonprofit, but because it’s a nonprofit, you get pulled in all sorts of directions and do things outside of your job description like organizing grassroots organizing or building curriculum. In addition to freelancing, I have another part-time job on a local television show, where I host and co-produce. And then I have my monthly columns.

What values are important to you as a writer?

For me, it’s telling important stories and informing people about human issues, that educate people about intersectional feminism. It’s a step to become a more equal, supportive community of everyone, not just women. [It’s important] to share the stories of where I come from, my experiences and life, by sharing other people’s stories that demystify the border and Mexico, which is a city that has a bad reputation with high crime rates, the drug trade and cheap thrills.

You grow up with people treating where you come from like trash, but it’s so much more than that. I can educate people about what it has to offer culturally, artistically and what makes it so special.

I can discuss cultural identity when you’re from the border and how it plays into things like nationality and racism. As a journalist, I believe our jobs are to be storytellers and do the investigative work. Where I come from in Mexico, journalists disappear, especially female. It’s a dangerous, real job and it’s scary.

What message do you have for the Millennial Freelancer’s audiences?

Work/life balance is nonexistent most of the time. I work a day job to support my writing.

I accept some of the sacrifices to reap the benefits of this work. I never not want to do it.

For any millennial out there, it’s about striking that balance of how much of yourself you’re willing to give and finding what works for you to make you happy. It looks different for everyone.

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