Fernanda Santos is a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. Formerly the Phoenix bureau chief for the New York Times, she is the author of The Fire Line, which tells the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a band of 19 firefighters killed on June 30, 2013, while battling a wildfire in Arizona. Before taking part in a Zócalo/Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West event that asked “How Can Humans Coexist With Monster Wildfires,” Santos talked in the virtual Green Room about making mac-n-cheese, taking long drives with her daughter, and why she decided to start lunging up hills.
What do you wake up to in the morning?
I have this whole routine. My alarm clock rings very softly, usually around 5:30 A.M. And I go to the kitchen. I tell Alexa to start my day, and she says, “What’s up, early bird? Time to get that worm.” And then she plays a song. I’ve had different songs play depending on what stage I’m at in my life.
What surprises you most about your life right now?
Even though I have, as we all have, a lot of reasons to be upset, anxious, or unsure about everything, I feel pretty good. I’ve learned a lot of lessons throughout my life, through personal experiences I’ve had that have sort of prepared me for what we’re living through right now.
I feel that when you face the challenges knowing that there is an end, somewhere, in sight—even if maybe it’s a little fuzzy out in the distance—and embrace the challenges and try to find the lessons and the opportunities, everything becomes a lot easier. I have learned that you really don’t need much to be happy. I have been going out on drives with my daughter every day because she can’t really see her friends. So we get in the car, and we go all the way out. Today, we went to the northern end of Phoenix. We just listened to music and talked and it was pretty awesome. We have been spending a lot of time together, and so I’m trying to make the best out of it. I’m truly privileged and blessed to have the life that I have.
What’s your hidden talent?
Most people don’t know that I am actually a pretty good cook. So that’s a talent. [My daughter, Flora, says her favorite thing I make is] mac-n-cheese. It's entirely homemade. Sometimes I'll sprinkle some Panko, some Gruyère, some shaved Parmesan. I'll put it in the oven to get the hard crust on top. The funny thing is that I don’t like mac-n-cheese very much, but I make a good one.
Where do you go to be alone?
I love hiking by myself. I hike near my home in Phoenix—one-hour, two-hour, three-hour hikes. I love to do that when I really need time for me, when I need time to think.
What relaxes you?
Music, hiking, and exercise in general. Not crazy strenuous exercise that you feel like you’re going to pass out, but I do like to challenge myself. So if we’re going on a bike ride I like to go uphill and see how fast I can go.
All my life I played a lot of different sports. I was never great at anything but I was good at a lot of different things. I really feel very relaxed when I get up super early and I get out of the house and go for a jog or go for a hike. There’s this big hill across the street that’s parallel to mine, and today I went up and down the hill doing lunges. Other people walking by were looking at me like I was crazy, but it was pretty cool.
Lunges are no small thing!
When the gyms closed and yoga studios closed I thought, OK, what can I do to keep moving and be outside? In Phoenix, we’re lucky to have great outdoor spaces and sunshine almost every day. So I was doing different things, and I looked at the hill, and I thought what could I do here that would be a challenge? And then I thought, OK, I’m going to go all the way up the hill doing lunges. The first time I did about 50, and I was pretty tired. But I just started adding, little by little.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
I’m a widow, and it was from a fellow widow, who lost her husband two years before I lost mine.
We were having a conversation during the early stages of my grief. I was telling her how I was pretty lost as an immigrant living in this country, having been married to an American for pretty much all of my time in this country, a white American from a very white American family. I said, I don’t really know who I am anymore.
And she said, of course you know who you are. Don’t think about what other people expect of you or what they want you to say or look like. Just be you. I embraced that. And I wish I heard that— obviously under very different circumstances—but I really do wish I had heard that when I was in my late teens. Because I think it would have done a lot of good to me as a teenager going into adulthood. So I talk to my daughter a lot about how you really just have to be confident in who you are, and happy about who you are, and I hope that it will make an impact on her, so that when she’s older, she won’t suffer from some of the same insecurities that I did.
What was the last thing that inspired you?
It was yesterday. I spent some time talking to a young undocumented immigrant. I’m actually writing a piece about him.
Here’s someone who’s 18 years old, and has gone through so much uncertainty, still goes through daily uncertainty, and has gone through so many struggles with his family because of their immigration status. And he is graduating from high school, the first of his family. He’s going to college on a full-ride scholarship that he had to work very hard to get because undocumented people don’t qualify for federal money, so they have to secure private scholarships. He just gave me a list, without even knowing it, on how to handle challenges and adversity of life.
I left that conversation feeling like I had grown so much, and learned so much, from a kid. It’s pretty awesome when you open yourself up to learning from anyone who comes your way without thinking because I’m older I know more than you, or because I’m a professor I know more than you, or because I’m a writer I know more than you. I am always open to learning, and yesterday’s conversation was a beautiful learning experience.