Ron Arias: Journalist Teaches Students to Tell Their Stories
As a young college student hitchhiking through Spain in 1959, Ron Arias met Ernest Hemingway
by chance in Pamplona.
“I knew who he was, and asked him to sign his autograph on the bullfight program for the day,”
Arias remembers. “He did a lot of the talking, asking me a lot of questions about myself.
He was asking the questions a reporter would ask. I had been the editor of my high school paper
and I had ambitions to be a writer at that age. He was the first one who ever encouraged me to
be a writer. And coming from someone who was such a master, I had to do it.”
That experience, among others, including a stint in Peru as a Peace Corps volunteer and a search
for the truth about his father’s withdrawal from the family after returning from the Korean War,
led Arias to a career in journalism that spans nearly 40 years. Newly retired from his 22 years at
People magazine, the Los Angeles native now teaches a class at California State University, Dominguez
Hills titled “Writing the Biography of a Pueblo.”
“I call it that because all the students are in Chicana/o studies, and mainly of Latino background,”
he says. “Pueblo means people or place. The idea is for them to write biographies of family members
or friends in the Mexican or Latino community. I want them to write scenes, be able to write dialogue,
convey action and to develop a personal style.”
Now two months into the semester, the class is revealing to Arias how a group can be so diverse,
both culturally and in age, yet find common ground.
“I am surprised at how diverse their backgrounds are and yet how similar their cultural knowledge is,”
he says. “There could be a young man, 20-years-old, a first-generation student from a working class
family, and another student could be a 50-year-old member of the middle class. Yet, they both share
similar experiences with food at home, music, religion, and other cultural elements.”
Arias recalls how he landed his position at People, where he became known not only for his interviews with
famous people, but for his coverage of major disasters all over the world.
“My first story was on the Mexico City earthquake in 1985,” he remembers. “I had just gotten the job.
They asked up and down that hallway, ‘Who can speak Spanish?’ I was the only one who raised my hand.
So they sent me down to Mexico City and said, ‘Just bring us back a story.’ I brought them back a
survivor’s story. They liked it so much, they said, ‘Go back and bring us another story.’
“I was sort of the magazine’s ‘parachute journalist,’” he says. “On every continent, I covered five wars,
famine, earthquakes, hurricanes, all kinds of disasters in Haiti, Somalia, Ethiopia, Australia, Vietnam,
Moscow, you name it.”
Arias’ education was almost as international as his career. He attended Oceanside-Carlsbad Community
College in California, and then spent a year studying abroad at the Universidad de Barcelona. He returned
home to attend UC Berkeley for a year before setting out again to study abroad, this time at the
Universidad de Buenos Aires, where he studied under another famous writer, Jose Luis Borges, who was his professor
in a class on Middle English. He earned both his bachelor’s degree in Spanish and his master’s degree
in journalism at UCLA.
Drawing from his Peace Corps experience, Arias thinks that travel and volunteer work can be integral
parts of one’s education, saying, “When you have to share the lives and work of foreign places,
you learn a lot. You become involved with other people who you might not meet if you stay on the safe
education and work path that allows you to only meet people like yourself.”
Arias’ books include his first novel, The Road to Tamazunchale, which was inspired by his time in Peru
and was nominated for the National Book Award in 1976. This was followed by Five Against the Sea, a
narrative of survival by five men who survived 142 days drifting at sea after their fishing vessel lost
its course. His most recent work, White's Rules: Saving Our Youth One Kid at a Time (with Paul D. White)
tells the story of a teacher in Canoga Park, Calif., who in reaction to the drive-by killing of a student
teaches his students life skills and ethics that will help them stay out of risky situations. He now
writes the column, "More Than a Job" for the South Bay weekly Easy Reader on locals who love their
work. But it is Arias' 2002 memoir of his family and his career, Moving Target, that would most likely
inspire his students at Dominguez Hills to find themselves through writing.
“Whether I’m writing fiction or biography, it’s all about finding the answers, which is what reporting
is,” he notes. “It took me 15 years of peeling back [the facts] like an onion to get at what I think
is the truth. That’s what I want to share with my students, as they find their own subject, their
style and their voice.”
- Joanie Harmon