The National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) will honor ABC News weekend anchors Cecilia Vega and Tom Llamas with the NAHJ Presidential Award of Impact at the Hall of Fame & Honors luncheon on Saturday. We caught up with Llamas and Vega about their recent work, being honored and we even reveal which one of them watches the The Real Housewives.
TVNewser: You recently participated in ABC’s Pope Francis and the People, which included a virtual audience. This seems like a first-of-its kind opportunity. Tell me about that.
Llamas: Being a part of the team behind “Pope Francis and the People,” which connected his holiness with high school students who have overcome so much adversity has been one of the most rewarding and memorable experiences of my career. When the Pope asked Valerie Herrera, one of the students I was with in Chicago, to sing for him it was truly a magical moment. Here you have a young woman bullied for most of her life because of her skin condition and the Pope asks her to be courageous and sing for him-asking her to let go of that timidness. Valerie has a beautiful voice but the lesson was self-empowerment.
TVNewser: You also recently interviewed Presidential candidate Ben Carson– what is your biggest takeaway from sitting down with him?
Llamas: Off the bat I was struck by how mellow he is. He’s one of the world’s most renowned neurosurgeons yet still very approachable. We had a long chat about the bible and he’s someone who clearly knows his Old and New Testament. He’s very conservative, an anti-PC crusader, and not afraid to say what he really thinks. I enjoyed interviewing him because he doesn’t give rehearsed answers. We’re actually working on a “Nightline” profile of Dr. Carson right now that I’m really excited about.
TVNewser: You were embedded with the Coast Guard during a mission to intercept Cuban vessels trying to smuggle refuges into the U.S. back in 2008. That must have been a powerful experience; especially considering your parents fled Cuba. Seven years later, what are your thoughts on that project now that U.S.-Cuban relations are being normalized?
Llamas: It’s a story and an experience I will never forget. The Coast Guard just like Border Patrol agents have a herculean task to keep our borders safe. Even though relations are being normalized the flow of Cuban refugees trying to come to the U.S. has not stopped or even slowed. For someone to put their family on a boat or raft in hopes of crossing 90 miles of ocean tells you about the desperation. I saw it up close on that story when the Coast Guard stopped human smugglers at sea who crammed dozens of Cuban refugees on go-fast boats. The Cubans were sea sick, piled up on each other, and now with a spotlight on their faces. You could see the realization on those faces that their dream of freedom had just ended. Some boats had babies. Those types of images don’t leave you.
TVNewser: Thoughts on being honored with the NAHJ Presidential Award of Impact?
Llamas: I’ve been a part of NAHJ nearly all of my career and this is an amazing honor. I’m thrilled to be sharing the award with Cecilia who is a tremendous journalist and role model. Jose Diaz Balart will also be honored. Jose is a friend and a mentor and someone I’ve always looked up to so this is significant to me. I’m grateful to all of the people who have helped me along the way — I couldn’t do it alone. And I’m also thankful to ABC News for the support and the amazing opportunities I’ve been given over the last year that I’ve been here. I hope recognition like this encourages younger Latinos to become journalists. Newsrooms will only benefit from more diversity.
TVNewser: You were named co-anchor of WNT with Tom Llamas back in March. How has the show evolved, or improved, over the last six months?
Vega: I’m really proud of the show we produce. We have an ambitious broadcast. We’ve covered some pretty amazing stories over the past few months, from the church shooting in Charleston to the refugee crisis. And with a presidential election in the not too distant future and a pope visit in a matter of days, it’s only going to get better. When viewers watch our show on the weekends, they get the same “World News Tonight” they know and expect. But I’m excited about the unique flavor we bring to Saturdays and Sundays.
TVNewser: Do you appreciate being honored with the NAHJ Presidential Award of Impact more than other honors because it’s associated with your Hispanic heritage?
Vega: One of my favorite things about my job is hearing from young reporters looking for career advice. It reminds me about the impact we can have. When I was growing up, there weren’t very many reporters with names like mine whose bylines I read or whose faces I saw on TV. This award is really special and I’m honored to receive it. My hope is that one day more of us in the media look like the communities we cover- not just racially and ethnically, but economically too. We’re making progress, but there’s more work to do.
TVNewser: What’s the last thing you did for fun that has nothing to do with work?
Vega: I try to do something fun everyday that has nothing to do with work! But recently, my husband and I saw an exhibit about New York’s old school hip hop scene. That was fun. I just hope the surveillance footage of us dancing to Salt N’ Pepa never emerges.
TVNewser: What non-news show are you currently into on television?
Vega: House of Cards and Scandal. And yes, those are both news-y themed shows. So fine… I admit it. There may be an occasional Real Housewives episode or two.