The big, grand gestures and larger-than-life types always get the credit. But it is often times those people who work quietly, discretely, yet with singular focus who can open pathways that will alter your life. For me that person was Teshima Walker Izrael, Executive Producer of NPR’s Tell Me More with Michel Martin, who on Friday lost her courageous two year battle to cancer.
I don’t pretend to know Teshima as friends do from her hometown of Southside Chicago or colleagues throughout her career. In Washington where climbers and hanger ons stake out “chance meetings,” I really met Teshima on accident. It was the beginning of 2011. I had just started The Wise Latina Club which is really the first time I’ve dipped my toe in the waters of my true, authentic voice. Not the years of studying postmodern literary theory. Certainly not the decade I spent reporting and anchoring on television. A dear friend syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, who I met at the beginning of my journalism career when I crashed conferences, staying on friend’s couches, and wearing cheap Le Suits, was a member of Tell Me More’s all guy weekly roundtable Barber Shop. In town from San Diego for a conference, the only way two busy Busy Game people could connect is if I met him at NPR, grabbed a quick lunch, before Ruben was off to another meeting before heading to the airport.
I reconnected with a woman who had recruited me to ABC, met another “alphabet soup” alum host Michel Martin, and Teshima, all welcoming me to their corner of NPR–the little team that could.
I’m sure I did the Washington thing–collected business cards and exchanged mine ordered on sale at Vistaprint.
On one side: “Viviana Hurtado, Blogger-in-Chief”.
On the other: “Latino = Mainstream” .
Both mini-manifestos, my voice more a meow than a roar but significant because I was beginning to break my silence.
I kept writing, experimenting with form, topics, point of view, as I exorcised demons and the trauma of failure, and hoped for rebirth and reconciliation with myself.
Then one day a TMM producer called and asked if I would be on the Beauty Shop, a women’s thinker, journo, academic, and blogger hot and water cooler topics roundtable.
Teshima was reading TWLC.
After a few months of doing the Beauty Shop, Teshima called me into her office.
¡Gulp! What had I done?
I’m going to be canned.
I’ll just be grateful for this opportunity.
“Viviana, how would you like to guest host while Michel is away?,” Teshima asked, not behind the authority of her desk but both of us sitting around a table–a Lean In circle before Sheryl Sandberg coined this phrase to promote female leadership and support.
This would not be the last time Teshima would push, pinch, shove, but always embrace me. Known to call colleagues and friends “Sis,” we called each other Hermana.
And she was.
Unlike others who don’t have the time or courage to put their hand in the fire for someone, she leaned in.
Not for her but for me and many others, finding out about, creating opportunities, burning through her own political capital in service of others when she contacted decision makers and argued:
You need to invest in her.
You’ve got to give her a shot.
We shared triumphs–like my nearly eighteen minute long interview and live performance with international rock star Juanes, who I had been chasing for four years which you can listen to by clicking here.
His people called me at 10AM and said, Juanes has a cancellation and can be at the NPR studio at 4PM. You have to understand, I have the clout of a kitty cat at NPR. Still, ni corta ni perezosa, I called Teshima and fought to tape and hold this interview until I guest hosted on the grounds that it would draw a new audience to the show and introduce TMM loyalists to a rising voice in “mainstream” music.
The math was against me: this interview would cost muchos dólares in the form of overtime for sound technicians, engineers, and producers to set up in Studio 4A, tuning tens of thousands of dollars worth of speakers, sound boards, and going to NPR storage (it exists) to collect crazy guitars over which musicians experience minor orgasms. We even had cafecito and brownies for Juanes and his crew.
Teshima found the money and gave the green light. I conducted arguably the raddest interview of my career–rad because every hunch turned into a bulls eye: we made news of Juanes’ intention to cross over and sing in English–months before his hot Grammy performance. I stretched way beyond my hard news, politics mold. The insatiable hunger from people who don’t regularly tune in to NPR to hear more about this artist/social activista crashed the NPR website during the live performance.
She saw so clearly that Juanes’ potential has not crested and jumped in, to record her own interview on this Colombian roqueros’ musical influences which range from Metallica to Marley for later broadcast.
As so many will say, it was rarely all work with Teshima. We also supported each other on a vulnerable and personal level, confiding in each other the highest peaks and lowest valleys that come when you love hombres complicados.
I never saw Teshima again, but we stayed connected, texting notes between Washington and Chicago, her hometown where she had moved to live out her last days with family.
On Sundays during the end of the Lord Hear Our Prayer at Georgetown’s Dahlgren chapel, the priest leading mass would ask us to say the name of loved ones to whom we wanted to send love, mercy, and faith.
At the beginning of June, I learned I would travel to Chicago to speak at BlogHer ’13. I texted:
Hermana, I’ll be in town and would love to see uuuu!!!
Teshima responded: I would love to see you too hermana. Maybe I can go to your hotel and visit. It will be good for me. I’ll give you an update after the 8th [of July].
I never heard again from Teshima. I kept texting, likely stupid-checking-in-I’m-here-tell-me-your-address-I-can-go-to-uuuu!!! nonsense, my respect of her space masking my fear that she had crossed a border from which there is no return.
Four days before she left us, The Terrible Thought became Truth. Teshima was nearing the end.
I sent my last text:
“Hola hermana! Thinking about you and sending you warm healing vibes, candles lit! Tight abrazo! XXX”
Despite my exclamation pointed Catholic hocus pocus, the treatment that ravaged her body, and the countless love and prayers of so many family members, friends, neighbors, colleagues, strangers, and listeners, Teshima didn’t make it.
I am better because of you and will try every day to emulate your compassion, grace, humility, and kindness. Thank you for teaching, challenging, listening, guiding, and valuing my voice and the community it represents.
Thank you for believing in me.
Que en paz descanses hermana.
Rest in Peace, Sis.Please share your memories in celebration of Teshima.