KMTV Channel 3 news reporter Maya Saenz is living a dream that started as a girl in rural Colorado watching Telemundo Denver and KUSA NBC Channel 9.
Saenz ended up working at both stations before joining KM3 in 2016.
This youngest of three sisters is the only one not born in Chihuahua, Mexico, where the girls made tradition-rich summer immersions.
Spurred by her immigrant parents’ (her father’s an entrepreneur and her mother’s a teacher) emphasis on education, Maya and her older sisters, Dulce and Nora, graduated from the University of Denver to pursue professional careers.
The family endured a life-changing event when Maya’s undocumented father got deported when she was 12. They moved to El Paso-Juarez to be near the border.
Saenz said, “We had a place in El Paso, but we spent 80 percent of the time in Juarez (on the Mexican side). I crossed the border every single day to go to school in the U.S. because I was too Americanized to go to Mexican schools.”
“My mother was too Americanized to teach in Mexico.”
Saenz didn’t let her unsettled status limit her from student activities.
“As inconvenient as this border barrier was I still had to prepare myself for college.”
When the move first occurred, she said, “I thought it was the worst thing that could happen to us. Looking back, i think it’s one of the best things. Our parents didn’t want us to lose those Mexican values. They wanted us to see them daily and the life we could have had had we stayed in Mexico.”
Having a father barred from the U.S. personally informs the immigration separation stories she covers today.
“l’ve lived it. I feel I can definitely relate when I interview people. That experience made me understanding of situations and circumstances that people from all paths of life face. It made me conscious that we have no idea what people are going through at home.”
Her father’s “restarted life in Mexico,” where he has his own business.
“It’s definitely been hard not having him here. You want your parents there for everything you accomplish.”
The Saenzes do stay connected.
“We’re a very close family. We’re on group text every day. I call my parents every single night on my way home from work. My father knows my day to day life, he knows what stories I do, he’s able to watch me on the evening news. He knows what makes me happy. Just the other day, he texted me, my sisters and my mom, saying, ‘I love you all and I live proudly for you four.'”
She finds relief talking to family after filing emotionally wrenching stories in which someone’s lost a loved one.
“You don’t want to go home and stay in that state of mind. Communicating with family helps to kind of shake it off.”
Though she’s clearly found her calling, in college Saenz needed assurance TV was the right path.
“I knew I had the desire and the drive,” she said, “but I didn’t know realistically if a young Mexican-American girl was going to be able to make it. I had this professor, Laressa Watlington, who had been an anchor for Univision. I grabbed onto her and bugged her about how do I get this and how do I do that. She opened doors for me.
“We actually ended up working together at Telemundo Denver after I graduated. I’m still very close with her. She’s definitely a mentor in my life.”
The University of Denver made sense since her sisters preceded her there.
“Being Mexican-American, family is everything. Having to move away from my parents in El Paso, it was very important I be surrounded by my sisters during this culture shock experience. Having my sisters there really helped me get assimilated. I really needed that family support, leadership and guidance.”
Internships and jobs prepared her for her fast-track rise.
“I knew I just had to hustle and graduate and become successful like my sisters did.”
Moving forward, she said, “I definitely want to stay in news and to tell people’s stories. I just hope my platform gets bigger.”
Her career began in Spanish-language television. She set her sights on the English-speaking market in order to present Hispanic stories not being told there.
Upon finding she was “the only brown person in the newsroom” at KM3, she said, “I was like, wow. what a scary challenge but also what a great opportunity.”
She doesn’t like being the obligatory brown girl striking a blow for inclusivisty.
“Sometimes people don’t even pay attention to what you’re saying or the story – they just see you.”
On the other hand, her skin color and Spanish fluency allow her to get stories others can’t.
“I’m able to talk to people who may even know English but don’t trust other reporters. They trust me because of my background. As much as I’d like people to recognize me just for my work, I own being the Hispanic reporter.”
“Coming to Nebraska, I did not honestly think I was going to cover as many Latinos as I have. I feel like I’ve contributed to covering positive stories from the Hispanic community to where they feel they have someone they can count on.”
Her community outreach sees her emcee Latino Center of the Midlands, Women on a Mission for Change and Cinco de Mayo events, among others.
She knows young Latinos watch her with admiration the same way she did her TV news idols.
“I’m very conscious of the role I’m playing. In public, I make a point talking to Latino youth to them know, yeah, I’m a Latino reporting the news, and you can, too.”
Follow her at https://www.facebook.com/MayaSaenzNew.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.