By Emmy Liederman
When John Quiñones was 8 years old, he shined shoes in San Antonio for 10 cents a pair. When he was 13, he rode in the back of a truck to Northport, Michigan, and would spend two hours picking one bucket of cherries, only to be sold for 75 cents each. One day, while picking tomatoes in Ohio, his father asked, “Juanito, do you want to do this work for the rest of your life, or do you want to get a college education?”
In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, Quiñones spoke in the Brower Student Center on Tuesday, Oct. 31, and discussed how his personal struggles have shaped a career focused on equality and acceptance.
Quiñones became an ABC News Correspondent and creator and host of the hit television program “What Would You Do?” He’s won seven Emmy awards along the way. If you want to know what it’s like to overcome poverty and go on to build your own national empire, ask Quiñones.
“What Would You Do?” is a situational show that involves fake scenarios and hidden cameras, examining how Americans react to instances of discrimination, racism and conflict when they think nobody is watching.
Situations span from a woman being catcalled to a gay teenager being tormented by his peers. The show first aired in 2008 and now has 11 seasons, 120 episodes and more than 500 scenarios, but according to Quiñones, it is more important that Americans tune in today than ever before.
“You get the sense that respect and common decency are somehow taboo these days,” Quiñones said. “There is too much talk about building walls, when we should be talking about building bridges. The hidden cameras in ‘What Would You Do?’ remind Americans that despite the progress we’ve made, we still have some work to do when it comes to accepting people who are different from us.”
During his presentation, Quiñones mentioned a quote by Aristotle that says “educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”
Quiñones claims that this concept of educating the heart is at the core of his series.
“The true test of character is what we do when we think no one is watching,” Quiñones said. “When you witness an injustice, there is always that little voice in the back of your head that asks ‘Do I step in, or do I step away?’”
The racial discrimination that Quiñones continues to face as a Mexican-American has fueled his desire to promote equality and allowed him to personally sympathize with victims of discrimination.
When Quiñones accidentally waited on the wrong line in a Dallas airport, a stranger commented that Quiñones didn’t understand the announcement because it was read in English.
When Quiñones passed the stranger on the way to his seat, he said, “You would do great on my show. You could play the part of the racist.”
Quiñones has combated racism and underestimation from a young age.
In high school, Quiñones asked his guidance counselor for tips on how to prepare for the ACT. While she appreciated his “big dreams,’’ she suggested that he shift his focus away from higher education and toward working in a woodshop or becoming an auto mechanic.
“I was constantly judged by the color of my skin and the sound of my voice,” Quiñones said. “I wanted to go to college, but my own teachers didn’t even believe in me. There is no denying that my ethnicity has influenced the stories I bring to the public.”
From a young age, Quiñones was determined to become a news reporter. Through hard work, dedication and support along the way, he defied all expectations. Outside of support from his parents, Upward Bound, a government-funded program that provides additional courses to kids in underfunded school districts, helped Quiñones take control of his future.
As a student at St. Mary’s University in Texas, Quiñones worked at a local pharmacy and delivered prescriptions to the elderly. Between deliveries, he would practice his American accent with a tape recorder in the back of the store. When the owner heard Quiñones practice, he helped him find a job at a local radio station, which eventually landed him a position at CBS News in Chicago.
At CBS, Quiñones shined a light on immigration by going undercover as a Mexican immigrant trying to cross the border to the U.S.
Quiñones made his way to Chicago, and he worked at a restaurant with seven other undocumented Mexican workers who had not been paid in 13 weeks. The owner told the workers that if they complained, he’d have them deported. The day after the program ran on CBS, the government shut down the restaurant, gave the workers the money they were owed and granted them temporary visas as they worked on their citizenship.
“These are the stories I could tell because of my background,” Quiñones said. “I understand the culture, the language and the struggle.”
Quiñones’ efforts to combat discrimination resonated with students at the College. Genesis Rubio, a senior psychology major, is a volunteer at the Bonner Institute’s El Centro program, which provides free English classes for Spanish-speaking adults in Trenton, New Jersey. For Rubio, one episode of “What Would You Do?” stood out, which involved a migrant worker receiving hateful comments about his accent while ordering a cup of coffee.
“My students try to practice English and sometimes, people say very bigoted things,” Rubio said. “They need to be reminded that not everyone is against you. There are people out there that will uplift you. As an ESL teacher, that episode made my support feel very needed.”
At 26, Quiñones was hired by ABC. He continued to travel to impoverished areas and give a voice to those who had been silenced.
One of Quiñones’ favorite episodes of “What Would You Do?” involves an elderly homeless man who passed out in the middle of a busy street in Newark. 88 people walked past and no one stopped to help the man, until a homeless woman named Linda Hamilton, who had recently suffered a stroke, came by. After the show aired, fans created a Facebook page to locate the woman and raised $8,000, which allowed her to open a bank account, buy the heart medicine she needed and find a place to live. People like Hamilton remind him why he is so fulfilled by his career, according to Quiñones.
“The next time you witness an injustice and the little voice inside of your head tells you to do something, remember Linda Hamilton,” Quiñones said. “She ended up getting all these benefits, but she had no idea anyone was watching.”