Samantha Mesa: From Family Caregiver to Trailblazing Journalist

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During her 3 years at Channel 5, broadcast journalist Samantha Mesa brought us several stories from the Latino community in Iowa. Photos by Jennifer Marquez / Hola Iowa. Durante 3 años con el canal 5 la periodista Samantha Mesa nos trajo varias historias de la comunidad latina de Iowa. Fotos por Jennifer Marquez / Hola Iowa
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By Christina Fernández-Morrow, Hola Iowa

As a big sister to five younger brothers and the third of eight, Samantha Mesa has been at the center of stories her whole life. “You can imagine the energy in my house.” Growing up in a Mexican/Irish household in Lafayette, Colorado where she cared for siblings and animals, there was always something going on. Every day at four Mesa would turn on the television to watch Oprah while she and her mom cleaned or prepped dinner.  “I was really enamored by Oprah’s ability to interview people and get the background on any topic. She was my window to the world.” The people on the show were superheroes to Mesa. “They would go into these crisis situations and were advocates for the vulnerable. Then they would hold decision-makers accountable and ask, what are you going to do?” That stuck with Mesa as she grew into adulthood, but it wasn’t a clear path to journalism.

While still in high school she earned a scholarship to cosmetology school. The class was mostly Hispanic and female, as was most of the staff. However, not everyone there saw her potential. She recalls some non-Latina instructors in particular. “They were like, half of you will drop out, half of you will get pregnant. For those who actually complete this, you’re going to need a better job than working at Walmart when you have babies and your baby daddy leaves you.” Mesa was shocked but didn’t let that deflate her. “It made me. I pushed through and got my cosmetology license.” Her older brother, the first to get a college degree, encouraged her to do the same. Although she persisted, her confidence was rocked by those words. She decided to try modeling in LA. She quickly realized it wasn’t for her. She returned to Colorado and used her license to pursue a degree in communications, political science, and international public policy at the University of Colorado in Denver. While there, her father was diagnosed with stage four inoperable prostate cancer. “You get that phone call, and it takes the breath out of your lungs.” She left school, returning to her parent’s home to help care for her dad. “I worked six days a week and did fundraisers, hair-a-thons to help pay bills.” Sadly, her father passed away after a year. “It’s really traumatizing to see someone go through aggressive chemo and it doesn’t get the job done.” With four younger brothers depending on her widowed mother, Mesa felt compelled to do more. She went back to school with a renewed focus. “It took me five and a half years to finish my undergrad degree and I threw myself into every class. I didn’t want it to be for nothing.” Seeing her dad do labor-intensive jobs in construction with long hours of back-breaking work, yet not have health insurance was impactful. It drove her to work in industries helping the most vulnerable, like correctional facilities. “Hearing all these stories of people being dealt blow after blow since childhood. A lot of them are born into really destructive environments. That was very eye-opening, forming my passion to go into journalism.” Besides her life and work experiences, storytelling became her focus during a study abroad trip to Morocco and Tunisia. “I ended up being in the middle of the Jasmine Revolution and the Arab Spring Uprisings were exploding. I lived with a human rights activist and met a bunch of women rewriting the Tunisian constitution.” That solidified her desire to be a journalist.

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During her 3 years at Channel 5, broadcast journalist Samantha Mesa brought us several stories from the Latino community in Iowa. Photos by Jennifer Marquez / Hola Iowa

She returned to the United States and applied for graduate school to get jobs in newsrooms. With a master’s degree from Columbia University, Mesa began a career in televised news. She covered the migrants on the border during Trump’s presidency before her position on the morning newscast at WOI-TV in Des Moines.  “I didn’t know much about the Midwest and some of the experiences that have changed me is seeing so many people who care about their community and are working on solutions. I was able to dive in and elevate the change-makers, people that believe in a better future by starting with what’s in front of them; what they can do today.” Mesa interviewed over 250 people who had never told their stories to the media and pushed to feature at least one story from the Latino community every day during Hispanic Heritage Month. “That was amazing because I felt like I was part of something bigger, aligning with people who are working from the heart with conviction and passion. They’re applying their gifts to projects they’re dedicated to and that’s so inspiring.” In her pursuit of stories, she became one when COVID-19 struck. 

Mesa lost hearing in her right ear during a broadcast. That led to months of incapacitation and learning how to function with her new disability. “I got back into broadcasting and tried to be honest with everyone because I couldn’t sugarcoat it, couldn’t fake it. The community was phenomenally gracious and supportive. I became more intentional about telling stories about people with disabilities and sensory experiences. These stories need to be told because it is a chunk of our society that largely gets ignored.” She’s grateful for the love and support she received. “If I would have gone through losing my hearing and didn’t have this platform to elevate community stories, I think it would have been a darker experience.”

As Mesa explores options now that her contract with WOI-TV is complete, she is taking her time choosing her next career move and getting back to some of her old loves, like riding with Escaramuza Quetzalli. She plans to consider Iowa in her future, whether through her journalism, life, or frequent visits to honor her commitments to various upcoming events. One thing is clear; she’ll keep storytelling. “My excitement comes from our stories. They give light to other people who need to hear that no matter what they’re going through, there is hope. I share the highs and lows for that reason.”

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