We are very excited to announce that Clarissa León has joined Documented as Deputy Editor. She will be editing news stories and features and also collaborating with our staff writers and freelancers to elevate Documented’s coverage of New York’s immigrant communities.
Before joining Documented, León was the editor for Payday Report. She is a Colombian American writer, journalist, editor and educator originally from Nevada, and now based in New Jersey. She received her Master of Fine Arts in nonfiction writing from the University of Pittsburgh where she was a Valparaíso Foundation writing resident in Mojácar, Spain and managing editor of Aster(ix) Journal. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, The Daily Beast, The Nation, and Salon, among many others. Her manuscript-in-progress attempts to answer questions, both personal and political, about belonging, attachment, identity, and home.
Documented: How will you tell Documented’s readers about yourself?
Clarissa León: I think I’m first and foremost a lover of writing. And I got into journalism because I was really interested in politics. I actually got degrees in Journalism and Political Science — trying to see if I could marry the two. I would say I’m a journalist and an editor who’s really intent on sharing stories in the best light or the best way possible, and that can be through trying to improve on the writing and also making sure that people really have their voices shared.
I think a lot of times the way that journalism has been written has been for a particular audience. And right now, I think we need to be changing our understanding of the way we read stories and how our audience reads stories. That begins with how stories are written. So I’m really intent on looking at how we can work on just making things a little bit more interesting for people who need it the most.
Prior to joining Documented, what were you up to?
I was an editor and a reporter primarily working on the labor beat. I was the editor for Paydayreport.com, which was a small, local, but powerful publication that focused on labor — be it unions, be it worker-run initiatives, walkout strikes, things of that nature. And a lot of the coverage during the pandemic was really ignoring the fact that so many people were unhappy with their jobs and were walking out.
So, Payday Report was founded by labor reporter Mike Elk and he and the Payday staff decided to start tracking some of these strikes and walkouts. What we eventually found was that people were striking across the country in one of the largest strike waves in decades, and no one was tracking it the way Payday was. I think that just speaks to how my background in journalism has always been to look at stories that nobody else has been telling. And so I have — along with Payday Report, worked with a number of progressive, more independent media outlets because they’re the ones who are truly trying to get to the stories that nobody else is really covering.
And at Payday we really tried to also focus on the Black and Brown workers that nobody was really paying attention to. And people weren’t paying attention to them, because I think many in the mainstream media didn’t think they mattered. And I think that’s something a lot of publications routinely miss.
So, long story short, when I was looking for a new opportunity, I wanted an organization that was trying to do right by sharing the stories of people who really aren’t seen in the media as a tangible force to be reckoned with. And as we saw, during this pandemic, a lot of immigrants started rising up. A lot of Black and Brown workers started rising up as well, as well as a lot of other types of workers, right, who were just unhappy with their positions and unhappy with the way management was run. I think those stories get little check marks in the mainstream media. Slowly but surely, hopefully, the media is starting to realize that a little check mark is not enough anymore.
What have been some of your proudest work, while covering those immigrants’ experiences and stories about labor?
I think one of my proudest moments working at Payday Report was when I was writing a story about this immigrant laborer who was fighting with his union. And it was one of those stories where it took a little bit of time to finally get the piece published. I don’t think anybody else worked on it.
But to summarize the story: this worker, Enrique, had gotten laid off from his job, he thinks, unfairly, and so he tried to go to the union president for help. And the union president essentially led him on for a number of months and said to him ‘I will help you, I’ll help you’. But in the end, he didn’t get any help. He didn’t get his job back. And because the union president took so long, kind of leading him on, he wasn’t able to go to the National Labor Relations Board because the statute of limitations time frame had already passed.
So the NLRB didn’t care or do anything about his case. And the union president is still doing fine. He’s not getting punished or anything. And so that particular story I was really happy to report because it shed light on the fact that he was one of so many people who are, essentially, pro-union and yet when they try to get help from their union, they’re being led astray by those who are in charge.
So, it still speaks to the fact that even though you think that all unions — which can sometimes be a blanket term for an organization that may be helping you — it’s really about the people in charge; they are really the ones who can ultimately decide your fate. And he didn’t have any recourse after that. So it was really nice to share his story.
I spoke with him over the course of many months. He was able to give me a lot of documentation, things of that nature. And to this day, I don’t think anybody has done anything, even remotely, about his story or about the union president.
What has happened since then, how is he doing now?
So, we published the piece and there were a lot of people who responded to the piece because it was something that they had seen in our own unions.
There is an organization actually set up to help Spanish-speaking people like Enrique get better help and know how to navigate through these issues, rather than being led astray by people who they think they can trust. But, Enrique is still in a job that he found. He doesn’t get the same benefits. I don’t think he gets as much pay. But nothing has happened to that union president; nothing really resulted from that. And that unfortunately also speaks to the fact that there is so much power in some of these people who hold these positions.
One of the things that was interesting to me, which is probably not that surprising, but it’s the fact that the union president makes $300,000 plus a year and for him to essentially not do his job right is really unfortunate. And yet at the same time because of the way the unions are structured, the members are the ones voting on those pay raises. And in order to oust him, they have to vote to hold an election, and it gets really complicated. And that’s why these leaders stay where they are and hold onto their power.
What are you most excited about with your new role?
It’s really nice to be part of an organization that cares so much about what they do. I am most excited to work with such great people. I think a lot of times the life of a writer or reporter can be kind of isolating because you’re often working by yourself. But it’s really nice to know that I’ll be working with a team and I’m really excited to work with reporters one-on-one to help with their stories.
I’ve done reporting in the past; I’ve done research in the past, and it’s always been a little surprising at the end of the day when your story comes out, and you’re like, Oh, I didn’t know that was how it was gonna be. So, part of the reason I also like editing is because I have a little more directive into how we can shape some of these stories and I hope to be a big part of making Documented’s stories stand out a little more.
As a child of immigrants, I’m also especially interested in how immigrant stories are reported in the media. Lastly, I think my strengths a lot of times are in writing and editing and so it’s nice to actually put that to good use.
How can our readers support you as you work on immigrants-focused stories?
Oftentimes, I think readers think that they can’t help; they can’t make a connection with the reporters or even with the editors, unless maybe they’re journalists themselves. I think readers may think, ‘Oh, I don’t know anything because I’m just consuming this news really passively’. But I would be really excited to see if readers could say, ‘hey, we really liked this piece’ or ‘hey, you forgot about this’ or, ‘did you see this?’ You know, just any kind of commentary, feedback, tips or any type of leads — all of that actually really adds up. And editors, and reporters also really, really enjoy hearing that, too.
I really hope that this is a two-way street in which we can hear and also discuss with the readers themselves. So that’s kind of my two cents in my philosophy.