Meet reporter & artist Juliana Reyes

Many know Juliana Reyes as a tech reporter for Technical.ly, but Juliana is more than just an excellent reporter, she is an infinitely creative woman who is crafting deeply personal art on her journey of self discovery. With each step, Juliana gets closer to who she really is, taking up more space as a woman of color and embracing her Filipino-American identity.

Juliana Reyes grew up in the quiet suburbs of northern New Jersey, making annual summer visits to her parents homeland, the Philippines.

Her suburban teenage life changed when an aunt suggested she attend an international high school in the Philippines, where she fell in love with language and communication.

Do you remember your first day of high school in the Philippines?

It was amazing. There were all these people who spoke different languages, because it was an international school, and there were people from Korea and people from Europe and people from other parts of Asia. I was like, ‘this is so different from my life in New Jersey.’ It sort of widened my world view, because in Jersey where I grew up it was mostly white kids; me and my brothers were the only Asians. So I guess there was just this sense that there's something else out there.

I was more American than the other Filipinos there, but I felt Filipino. I was somewhere in between this Filipino and American thing, whereas [in New Jersey] I was Filipino.

When you were in the Philippines, you weren’t Filipino enough?

Yeah, exactly, and here I don't look American-- like normal American--that everyone would look like and so, yeah, it was this strange identity crisis.

Did your parents support your move to the Philippines?

Yeah, they were totally down. They always let me be really independent, but I think they also liked that I was going back to where they grew up, because we didn't really have ties to there. We would visit, but I didn't really know what it was like to live there.

Plus, we had a lot of family there. Both of my parents' parents are there so I guess they saw it as a way to get back in touch with that.

I remember one time he mispronounced the word “Thai." He said "thigh" in front of my friends and I opened up the dictionary to correct him, which is a really horrible and shameful moment.

Was it hard to leave your family and friends behind for such a long time?

Yeah. It was funny, the initial decision to move wasn't that hard because I was so allured by not living in suburbia anymore and I was just tired of my life. But then it became harder after that, so I would go back every summer, but then I started to really miss my family… but it made me appreciate them so much more. I went to college at Bryn Mawr to be close to my family. I didn't want to be far from them again.

Did you witness your parents struggling with their cultural identity in North Jersey?

My parents kept to themselves. They didn't really have friends in our town. I think the first time I felt my dad was different when I realized that I said the word "war" like "wo-ar," and these kids at school made fun of me. I was really upset, because I was thinking, ‘oh I'm stupid or something, why am I saying it wrong?’

I was about 11 and I went home and I was wondering why I said it wrong, then I realized my dad said it like that. And then I heard him mispronounce other words and I got upset. I remember one time he mispronounced the word “Thai.” He said "thigh" in front of my friends and I opened up the dictionary to correct him, which is a really horrible and shameful moment.

I think those were the few linguistic things that I felt like were different. But I don't think they ever really cared so much about assimilating. They spoke English, they had jobs, they didn't really want to make friends.

When you were growing up did you have any sense of what you wanted to do for a career?

Um, not totally, I wanted to be an actress...well I wanted to be famous [laughs]. I really wanted to be a film actress, but I was also into musicals and I would sing and perform school plays.

I started a newsletter for my family, The Reyes-Feliciano Times when I was in elementary school. I did it in a Word document. But I didn't know I wanted to be a journalist until I was 17 when I went to this camp at Northwestern and they taught us everything about reporting and writing and I thought ‘yes this is what I want to do’.

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Photo by Aidan Un. 

How did you discover journalism?

At first, I thought being a journalist was just writing. At this camp, I realized it was half reporting or even more reporting and I got to talk to all these strangers, these people who I wouldn't normally have license to talk to otherwise.

I guess I felt like maybe people wouldn't listen to me or pay attention to me, but since I was a journalist they would give me this attention.

It's a funny shift because when you're an actress you want people to pay attention to you. As a journalist, you're paying attention to other people's lives and telling their stories.

Yeah I think there was like an empathy thing there. As an actress you can embody someone else's feelings and put another ‘you’ on.

Don't wait for validation from people, don't wait for them to tell you it can be published here, just do it and then learn.

How did you transition from college to becoming a beat reporter at The Daily News?

I was really lucky. I was just working at the college newspaper when our old web editor Dave Merrell (by then he'd been working at the Daily News already with Doron Taussig on It's Our Money) said they were looking for an intern.

I was the kind of person who -- anything, any opportunity I could do I would apply-- so I applied and I didn't think I would get it. I did get it and I stuck with them for awhile, even though Doran said, ‘You shouldn't be working here anymore, you shouldn’t stay at the internship for this long… because we can't pay you, this is exploitation,’ and I was like, ‘no I want to keep writing for you guys.’

Then, they got more money and were able hire me right as I graduated.

What did you learn during your time there?

Well I learned a lot about city government. I knew nothing, it's funny, I look back on writing for It's Our Money and I knew nothing about anything. I was just like, ‘okay I'll do this,’ but I'd never lived in a city before where I paid tax dollars and had city service problems. I was living at Bryn Mawr and everything was taken care of for me.

So I learned about navigating bureaucracy and how to talk to people in the city and I learned a lot about Philly, because I was able to just go to all the different neighborhoods. I don't even get to do that at my job now. Like, I went to all the corners of the city and just talked to normal people about their problems, so that was really cool. I miss that a lot.

Do you remember some early mistakes you made?

It wasn’t so much a mistake, but I was writing about this parking issue in South Philly, of course, and it really sort of made me realize that what I did, the people that I was writing about, were real people. I feel like sometimes you start out and you're writing and you're like, ‘oh I'm a journalist and I'm just going to start writing stuff,’ but you don't actually realize these are people's lives and it could actually change something.

Be lead by what you're interested in, not just necessarily what everyone else is writing about.

You didn't realize the impact you could actually have on people's lives?

I guess you can get caught up in these characters in this story and that’s what made me realize that something would actually change when I would call the city. They would clean up an abandoned lot. I didn't know it was like that.

Who did you look up to or learn from at the time?

Well we had a small team, but I really looked up to Holly [Otterbein]. We shared an office so I got to hear all the reporting she did and that was a really great way to learn just how to talk to people. She'd be like, ‘Hi this is Holly from the Daily News, how are you?’ and I would copy that immediately. Just something as simple as that, but just hearing her talk to people in power… I had a lot of fear and anxiety about talking to people in power and asking them hard questions, because why should they listen to me?

Holly said, ‘No you're doing a service to the public and everyone deserves to get these answers, not just you, everyone. So you should be able to ask them.’ And that helped me a lot. Just seeing her and being near her.

And Doron too, he cared so much, he paid all this attention to our work and was always there if we needed to talk to. I'm always searching for an editor like Doron.

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antlers

Photo by Aidan Un. 

Tell me about how you made your way to Technical.ly. You were their first reporter. What was that like?

I paid attention to when they made their first hire and I was watching that whole process, because I thought, ‘oh who else is hiring people right now?’ So it was really exciting to be part of that, this new thing that was happening. There wasn't a structure of how this was going to go, they were making it up as they went along and I was really into that energy.

You read a great essay back in March during the taping of the Technical.ly podcast where you discuss your struggles entering the world of tech reporting. How did you acclimate yourself?

Well Chris [Wink] was really good at making a lot of introductions. I also tried to do this thing where I would meet with people who I thought were important and have a cup of coffee with them.

But I guess the most important thing was feeling okay that I didn't know anything, but it was hard because there's all this pride where you don't want to look stupid, especially when you get into a new beat. So much landscaping and so much you need to understand, context, you need to write a story that makes sense.

So I felt really lost in the beginning, but then I was just like, ‘okay learn as you go and your readers are just going to learn along with you and it's okay if you say something that is obvious or, you know it's sort of being okay with asking a question that may be stupid and stuff like that.’

The tech scene has this glitz and glamour, and the other side is that companies fail and people don't want to talk about that a lot.

What are some of the biggest lessons you've learned thus far in the job? Is it challenging to be a woman in this role?

I think in the beginning I was asking, ‘how do I own my femininity and my sexuality, but also…how do you not downplay it, because that’s who you are, and what does that mean when you're reporting on a scene that is so male-dominated?'

So I think I was trying to figure out the way I fit in there, and it was awkward at first, but I think I moved into this persona of not being so sweet. I became more stern, not as accommodating.

So I'll ask the hard question if I need to and I'm not going to try to be everyone's friend necessarily, not try to make everyone like me. I feel like that was a big thing that I've been working on learning. I asked myself, ‘why do you try so hard to make everyone like you?’ That's really exhausting and it makes it hard sometimes to do your job.

You have a tough job. You have to report things that aren't always flattering to companies and executives.

Yeah, and that's been really hard with Technical.ly vs. The Daily News, because when I was at the Daily News we weren't really in a community, knowing everyone in this community that we helped build, but that's how it is with the tech scene.

So if we want to do a story about a closing or a failure, it’s hard because people are ask, ‘Why do you want to write this, why are you being like this?’ So you have to negotiate this relationship you have where you can't just burn them.

In your opinion, what do you think makes a good reporter?

I guess curiosity. Be lead by what you're interested in, not just necessarily what everyone else is writing about. If it strikes a tone in you have the confidence to say ‘yes this will be interesting to other people.’ Sort of what Holly taught me about knowing that you deserve the answers and not being afraid to ask questions that are hard.

Is there a favorite story that you've written, or something that has been really impactful that you're really proud of?

I wrote this story a couple months ago about this tech company that disappeared: Brand.com. I don't know how impactful it was, but it was really fun to report. I feel like it sparked a conversation about the other side of startup culture. The tech scene has this glitz and glamour, and the other side is that companies fail and people don't want to talk about that a lot.

There’s always that vulnerability of failure.

No one wanted to own up to that failure so that was interesting. I'm trying to write more stories about people and more sort of narrative stuff. I did this piece a month or two ago about Tinder double dating and that was really fun because it was an opportunity to write a story that was looking at culture and people and how technology affects people and I actually got to practice a different kind of writing.

A lot of the time I'll be writing a profile about a company and it's this straight forward profile, or a news announcement, but there I got to practice this kind of narrative writing, which I want to do more of.

You’re told, ‘don't take up space.’ I feel like I'm working really hard to take up more space.

Do you see yourself writing about technology for a very long time, or do you think you'll cover other topics or experiment with different styles of journalism?

Yeah I definitely think I would do other stuff. I'm not super tied to technology. I've said this to other people in the tech scene, because they would ask me if I'm into tech and it's more about the people's stories and how their company is affecting them or why it made their life hard or what they aspire to.

I want to do more writing about immigrant issues. I want to do more personal essays and sort of look at my place in the world as a first generation American and my connection to the Philippines. That's what I'm getting more and more into, sort of my place as a woman of color and how that fits into the world.

There was this City Paper food review where the writer had described these Asian women as exotic and almond eyed, and Yowei was like, “Hey look at this! Is this weird? Should we write about it?"

Is there anything that inspired this desire to connect to your heritage?

I think partly the Asian American Journalists Association, which I'm the local co-president of, that helped me sort of look at myself as an Asian-American, or woman of color.

I wasn’t politicized that way at all for a long time and one of my best friends, Yowei Shaw, really helped me look at it like that.

There was this City Paper food review where the writer had described these Asian women as exotic and almond eyed, and Yowei was like, “Hey look at this! Is this weird? Should we write about it?"

And then I guess I also felt like being Filipino was such a part of my identity, but I wasn't able to express it to people. I'm still working on this though, but for a long time I just felt more American than anything and then now I want people to know me as Filipino-American. It's also hard because I don't know what it really means to be Filipino, so I'm still trying to figure that out and do research and read.

It's hard to express an identity that you can't necessarily put into words, right? It's like it's who you are and how do you make other people understand that without a really narrow perception of who you are.

Yeah, like calling stereotypes into mind. What I've been trying to do, the one thing that's concrete, is that I can't speak Tagalog, but I can understand it and I know a ton of words, so what I do now when I'm with my friends if there's a Tagalog word that I want to use that's relevant to the situation I'll tell them what the word is, like, oh in Tagalog this is what that means.

How has the Asian American Journalist Association shaped your belief system?

Newsrooms lack diversity. That lack of diversity affects what stories you cover and how you cover them. And so that's why it's important to me because there's this sort of insurmountable issue of how do we get more people of color into newsrooms and this seems like one way to do it, to work on this network.

It's really hard, there aren’t that many of us and Yowei and I are always looking at bylines to see if it’s an Asian writer. Should we recruit them? But we built up a little group of us and it's good. We're doing something.

Can we talk about your Dreams D'oiseau? You've been making films about your dreams. Your dreams are crazy, they're great.

That's really funny because some people say they're really normal.

https://vimeo.com/104354131

The cinematography is really beautiful.

Oh yeah, that's my best friend [Aidan Un], it's all him.

Why did you start to catalogue your dreams?

Well it started out with just the poetry and I was inspired by one of my favorite writers, Roberto Bolaño. He just wrote poems like that about his dreams. I don't even know if he actually dreamed them, but he wrote those poems.

I read them and thought, ‘I can do this.’ And so I would just wake up every morning and write a really short poem about my dreams. And then my best friend, who is a videographer (it may have been his idea), said, "Why don't we just make a film about it?" And so that was it. We've been doing this now for almost a year and we only have 8, so it's hard to fit in, but every time we make time for it, it makes me so happy. So, I'm almost like, okay we have to do this more.

https://vimeo.com/123473727

In your writing and in the films you've made you give a lot of yourself. How do you do that?

I'm still trying hard on that. I like that you said that I do, because I feel like that's been sort of my big struggle. As a journalist you're taught that you're not important and you really internalize that. I guess it must be a gendered thing and it must be a cultural thing too that you don't really matter.

You’re told, ‘don't take up space.’ I feel like I'm working really hard to take up more space.

And so I made those videos with my best friend and we didn't share them for a long time and then finally I was like, let's just do this and share, and I remember I was really scared to do it, but then I felt so good to be like, okay this is just something I do and it's really personal, let me just share it. And that's why I liked writing about Tinder double dating stories, because I was in it a little bit. What I have to say matters, my experience matters. But I haven't felt like that. And even just translating with friends or with people who I meet, I'm more quiet, I don't talk about myself all the time.

So I'm trying to work on this idea that I take up space, and not just taking up space, but cutting down the trees to make space. Because no one, I mean your best friend will give you that space, but other people won't. You just need to fight for it and make it for yourself.

https://vimeo.com/133075531

Do you ever feel afraid of putting yourself out there?

Yeah, for sure. I think on the one hand you're afraid of putting it out there because, in journalism at least, you don't want it to be gratuitous because, like I said, we're not supposed to be a part of it; but yeah I think it's really scary to offer yourself up to be judged. I'm even afraid to talk about myself sometimes with my friends. When it's one on one you can kind of figure out how one person is going to respond, and figure out how to express yourself in a way that person will be like, "Okay I'm down, I like this." But in a group it's harder and then with all these faces and people it's really scary. So that essay I wrote that you saw me perform, I was really scared about that because I haven't been personal to an audience, like the tech scene for so long, and it was even saying stuff that, not controversial, but it was felt risky.

As a journalist you're taught that you're not important and you really internalize that.

It was raw. It was really raw and honest. I think everyone in that room related to what you were saying. Who do you most look up to? Whose words do you think about?

That's a good question. Durga Chew-Bose, Larissa Pham and Jenny Zhang. They're a group of young, Asian-American women, who are writing what I want to be writing, such as personal essays. They’re thinking about their place in the world as first generation Americans and their place in the world as women.

They've become this group that I always want to read. And it's a lot of personal stuff and I think I want to do a mix of personal and reporting. It's been really great because I haven't read a lot of people of color or women of color, and so it's so cool to find a group of Asian-American women who are doing writing I can read and enjoy an aspire to. That makes me feel really good.

At this point now (I’m sure it will change throughout your life) how do you see your place in the world and what does being a women of color mean to you? I'm not asking you to define yourself, it can be just words or just thoughts, they don't have to be connected.

What I've been thinking a lot about being a woman of color is very connected to my identity as a writer and so I think that I have the skills and potentially the power to write about these things that maybe other people are feeling that maybe they haven't explicated or maybe they haven't been able to talk about or they haven't read anywhere else.

That's how I feel about those writers in Brooklyn I was telling you about. What if they hadn't written it? Maybe I wouldn't be this far along in thinking about my identity.

I want to be able to use my role as a woman writer of color to talk about these things that other people aren't. I feel strongly about that because I grew up not reading voices of women of color, people of color, and so I should do that.

It's really not a part of the conversation or the curriculum when we were growing up.

Yeah, and I felt like I only realized that recently and I kind of mad, because I grew up thinking that canon was all these white people, white men really. How was I supposed to know that there were all these other writers that I could have read?

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juliana f reyes

Photo by Aidan Un. 

What advice would you give to somebody who's looking to do what you do?

Especially with reporting now, because you don't need an internship or a job or anything to just do stories, I think it would be just to go and do stuff. I think if you really want to do it you just got to go and find a story, find something you're interesting in and make a story of your own.

Don't wait for permission. And I feel like I didn't know that either. I was waiting for people to give me stories or for editors to tell me I what I was doing was good. Don't wait for validation from people, don't wait for them to tell you it can be published here, just do it and then learn. Because then that will show that you actually want to do it.

How have you been cultivating a sense of your Filipino-American identity?

I've been working on building my Filipino-American identity and what that means and how to share that with people and learning more about Filipinos.

So right now it's mainly a reading thing. So I'm reading Filipino short stories, trying to read more Filipino writers and do research on Philippine history, because I know nothing about that.

In January I went back to the Philippines for the first time in a long time and I interviewed my grandparents about their lives, so learning about family history too. I think writing would be a big part of it. It's this weird nebulous call.

What are the things you need in your life to wake up and be happy and be productive?

I'm really all about food, I like spicy food, I need spicy food. They call me “snack pack” in the office, because I eat all the time and I know all the places to go eat. I put Siracha on everything. Or like, at all the Vietnamese restaurants, or the ones I like to go in Washington, they have these pickled jalapenos and those are the things that I need.

So it's about spicy condiments?

Yeah, because most of the time no one is going to make it spicy enough for you, unless you go to a Szechuan place, but that's the only time they'll really make it spicy. You can't trust anyone's spicy…

Yeah, I bike a lot more now do I don't do this, but I used to walk around the city with my headphones blasting some sort of music, like pump up music. That would help me feel myself really walk down the street listening to electronic music or hip hop, or something like that.

I have this Dickie's jumpsuit, I'm obsessed with my Dickie's jumpsuit. I also just started incorporating it into my daily life. I wear it to the office sometimes; that's another thing my coworkers tease me about.