Ruben Vives, From Undocumented Life To The Pulitzer Prize
As part of a series called "My Big Break," All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.
Los Angeles Times reporter Ruben Vives won a Pulitzer Prize for his investigation into government corruption in the California town of Bell. It led to multiple convictions and big changes to government throughout the state.
But before the Pulitzer, Vives was living in this country illegally — and he had no idea.
Vives was born in a small town in Guatemala. "When I was a year old, my parents decided to leave me behind and they decided to come to the United States of America," Vives says. He was raised by his grandmother for the first few years of his life. Then, when he was 5 years old, he was brought to the US to be reunited with his parents.
Twelve years later, Vives discovered, to his horror, that his immigration papers had long since expired. "This whole entire time, up to starting my freshman year in high school, I had no idea that I was undocumented," he says.
His family hired an immigration lawyer to try and sort out his documentation. But the lawyer stalled, citing bureaucracy and the lengthy process of getting documented in the U.S. "It was an attorney just basically scamming my mother for money and not really doing any of the work," Vives remembers.
This is what I set out to do, to make something out of myself — for the sake of my mother, who worked really hard to get me here; for the people who took a chance on me.
"To this day, I wonder whether I would have acted differently had my mother or my parents told me early on like, 'You're undocumented, so you have to be careful what you do.' And instead, I was this kid running around with a skateboard, waxing curbs and trying to grind on them with a skateboard and cops pulling us over and saying, like, 'You can't be skateboarding here.' And, you know, this whole time I'm like, 'Oh my god, I could have gotten deported!' "
At the time, Vives' mother worked as a housekeeper for Shawn Hubler, a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Every summer Vives would help his mother work and Hubler took a liking to him. Eventually, his mother confided in Hubler that her son was undocumented. "Shawn knew an immigration lawyer ... who she had befriended," Vives recalls. Hubler went to him for help and he immediately started working on Vives' case.
Vives says now, "if it wasn't for Shawn Hubler and the immigration lawyer that she knew, I probably wouldn't be sitting here."
As Vives' papers got sorted out, Hubler asked him if he would like to spend the next summer working at The Los Angeles Times. Vives immediately accepted. He started at the Times in June of 1999 as an editorial assistant, and recalls watching the reporters work: "I started tagging along with them on their investigations and just the compassion that went behind reporting their stories and the passion to get the truth — it affected me a lot. And I thought, 'This is what I want to do. I want to make a difference like these reporters.' "
That was his big break. Then, just over a decade later, Vives would help break the story that would ignite the LA Times: the story of financial corruption in the small city of Bell, Calif. Three years into his reporting career, this story did not only lead to criminal charges against eight city officials — it also won Vives and his colleagues a Pulitzer Prize for public service.
"The idea that my name is on that byline of that story means a lot to me because I'm leaving my footprint behind. ... This is what I set out to do, to make something out of myself — for the sake of my mother, who worked really hard to get me here; for the people who took a chance on me, like Shawn Hubler and the paper, the LA Times itself. ... I try to push myself to do the best that I can for the sake of these people. If it wasn't for them I wouldn't have had that big break."
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