Rutgers alumna reflects on her Toni Morrison documentary, her life, career
Sandra Guzmán is an Emmy-winning producer, journalist, author and Rutgers alumna.
She was raised by a single mother in Jersey City and has worked her way up through the media business to now, where she has finished working as the lead interviewer and a producer of the documentary, “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” which is on recently deceased author Toni Morrison and features extensive interviews with the former Rutgers commencement honoree, as well as her friends and colleagues.
Here are portions of an interview with Guzmán on her life and career:
Guzmán's time at Rutgers
I started Rutgers on the eve of my 17th birthday.
I was raised in Jersey City and I was the second in my family to attend college. My family is highly educated in the secrets of the universe that are not found in books or schools.
My mother’s family are natives and they are the first people to have made contact with Christopher Columbus in 1493. And so, they know the secrets of the ocean, they are skilled fishermen, they know how to harvest the land.
I was raised by a single mother, and I have five siblings and my second sister. I am the third in a family of five. My second sister was a year ahead of me and she went to Livingston (campus).
It was a very big deal for my mother to let go of her daughters and go live in a dorm room where there were boys. It was a very big deal for us. But she understood the power of a formal education and she let us go with a lot of rules to follow which I quickly broke.
On how Rutgers changed her worldview
My life at Rutgers was a kind of deep intellectual exploration and deep exploration of myself as a young woman coming of age.
For the first time when I went to Rutgers, I realized how poor we were. I had no idea how poor my family was in terms of financially poor. We were really rich culturally and really rich spiritually. But I did not know how poor we were.
Rutgers was a revelation, so I began to see myself in the bigger lens of the world, the big issues of the world. What it means to be an inner-city young woman going to this huge place that had such a rich history in the state.
On why Guzmán became a journalist
The reason why I wanted to be a journalist was because I was an avid newspaper reader – and I still am – and news watcher. Every time I saw stories about Puerto Ricans and other Latin American immigrants or African Americans, I would see stories that were skewed in a way that did not tell the whole story.
I did not have the language that I do now but what I wanted ... was to be part of changing the narrative of really fully telling the stories of my communities.
Where she started her journalism career and what paths she took
I wrote when I was at Rutgers for – and I do not know if it is still around – a newsletter called Black Voice, which was a bilingual Black and Puerto Rican newsletter. At the time, we did not feel that The Daily Targum really represented our voices and the way that we wanted to be represented, so we created our own space from where we can write.
When I was a student at Rutgers, I got myself an internship at CBS News in the newsroom. I thought I wanted to be in television news, but at the internship I realized that television reporters do not really have a lot of control over the story.
The stories are controlled by producers and news directors, so I decided that I did not want to do television and if I did, I wanted to produce.
What else Guzmán has done in her career in addition to being a reporter
After the newspaper, I took time off to have my first son and then I went back to work and I was hired to be the general assignment manager at Telemundo News.
That is where I won an Emmy for producing a special on the U.S.-Cuba embargo. After my time on Telemundo 47, I went to work on Channel 5 as a morning show producer on a show called "Good Day New York."
Then I was tapped to be the editor-in-chief of Latina magazine, which was a magazine that targeted young women like myself — American, living in the U.S., but also culturally Latin American. After that I left Latina and I wrote a book called "The New Latina’s Bible," which is now in its second edition. And that is kind of like a guide to women who are navigating two cultures at once — the U.S. culture and also the Latin American cultures.
After that, I had my second child and I took some time off. Then I went back to the New York Post (in 2003). I was associate editor of the New York Post. I worked in the features department.
I launched a couple of sections for the newspaper — I launched an eco-friendly section that covered all things green and I edited the African American section. I edited all these different sections that explored New York City’s different cultures. I launched a section for them called Tempo, which covered Latin American New York.
On how she got the idea to interview Morrison
I was about to interview Shonda Rhimes. Rhimes created "How to Get Away with Murder," "Scandal" and "Grey's Anatomy." And on her bio, she said "I want to be like Toni Morrison" or something like that ... In any event, I remember wanting to see a documentary on Morrison after I finished the reading. And I googled "American Masters Morrison" and I was shocked to find out that there was not one.
What Guzmán thought were some of the more memorable appearances from the guestlist for people on the Morrison documentary
The most memorable of all was Morrison. She is such a great storyteller. She has, by far, the most fascinating, the most exquisite, the most amazing history that I have ever interviewed. The most brilliant, the funniest and the raunchiest. The loveliness and the beauty of this woman.
Besides Morrison, Oprah Winfrey was really revelatory because she told us that she started her famous book club so that she could promote the works of Morrison. She delved into Morrison’s catalog and she went back and asked America to read books that had been written years prior and read books like "The Bluest Eye," "Sula" and "Song of Solomon." Winfrey chose more Morrison books on her famous book club than any other author.
Another one of my favorites that did not make the cut was Peter Sellars. Sellars said that Morrison was the only author in the English language who could take on William Shakespeare. He said that Morrison matched and superseded the great Shakespeare.
When Sellars said this on camera it was a confirmation of everything that I was feeling. Morrison was the greatest writer in the English language. And she was an American. And she was a woman. And she was a Black. And also, by the way, she may have been the first person in her family to attend college.
On what Morrison means to her
I remember saying I would read Morrison for pleasure. And I discovered at the end of this two-year journey, I discovered that we do not read Morrison for pleasure, you read her for liberation.
You read her for a renewed sense of language. You read her for freedom, because you understand so much about the human condition. You understand so much about yourself. You understand so much about history.
You understand so much about being a woman. You understand so much about being a man like in "Song of Solomon." You understand so much about so much.
On where Guzmán's career is taking her next
I am working on a memoir about, I think the best way to describe it is my decolonization — the decolonization of Guzmán. And Morrison was a big part of it. I am spending a lot of time in Puerto Rico understanding my story through different lenses that I now have thanks to her.
So I continue to want to tell the story of people who do not get the chance to tell the story to their fullest.
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