Erika A. Aguilar is a journalist and the director of podcasts at KQED. After speaking at the Zócalo Live event “Will Anyone Ever Be Able to Afford to Live in California?” she called into the Green Room to talk about her dream Marvel cast of journalism superheroes, bringing your whole self to work, and her go-to breakfast in the COVID-19 crisis (spoiler: it’s cherry Pop-Tarts).
When are you at your most creative?
After reading a book, or right when I’m in the middle of reading a book. I’m like, All I want to do is just write! Give me a journal now—I have so many things to say!
Or when I’m in discussion with others. But I don’t know if it’s that I’m creative or they’re creative.
What’s the best book you’ve read this year?
There’s so many—one I’m really enjoying, and I feel like I go back to and reference all the time, is Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott. It’s about bringing your whole self to work but also knowing where boundaries are. So, being a compassionate-but-yourself boss, and helping others do the same, but in their work. And helping others learn to be bosses and managers. I feel like often people get into leadership roles without formal training or space to understand what it means to be a manager or a boss. I keep going back to it, to try and do my best to be a good leader.
What superpower would you like to have, and why?
One of the pinned tweets I have at the top of my social media page is what I wish my superhero power is, which is the ability to have multilingual skills as a journalist. If I could make, I don’t know, a Marvel superhero gang full of journalists, we would have all of these supercool journo powers, and mine would be the ability to speak any language at a moment’s notice.
Language just opens you up to a totally different community every time you’re able to connect to someone else’s. And ultimately what I want is to be able to connect with lots of people. I want to be able to hear and understand their stories. I want them to be able to trust me enough, and being able to speak and understand a language fluidly and culturally can do that.
Who is a teacher who influenced you?
I have an affinity for my teachers. They are the people who made me. Who told me I was smart enough to do something. I’m going to cheat here and highlight two people. One was my third-grade teacher, Ms. Alexander. I was a sick kid growing up. There was one time where I spent a good two to three weeks in the hospital and another week, really, at home, and my third-grade teacher would come to the hospital after class and teach me. I was so sad that I couldn’t be in school, and I was so afraid that I would be missing out, and she came like every other day to give me my homework and go through it with me and teach me. What a selfless woman. She didn’t have to do that. That was extra work, but she was making sure that I didn’t miss out on my education. That experience had a lasting impact on me.
Then, when I got older, the second teacher who had a big impact was my AP physics teacher, Mr. Garza. I really enjoyed physics, I really enjoyed science, just understanding how things worked. Mr. Garza was the one who saw that interest. I wasn’t very good at it—but I was interested and dedicated to learning. And he would spend extra time with me, just teaching me in the morning before athletics or after practice. Going through stuff with me to help me understand it.
Just the fact that he believed in me stuck with me. Especially because I was a small girl, I was a brown kid. Growing up, people were like, Do you want to be a teacher? Do you want to be a nurse? Do you want to be a mom? My high school senior year, I took the ASVAB test because I wanted to get into the Air Force to be a mechanical engineer. I wanted to build airplanes. I backed out of that; I got offers from other colleges and stuff and some money, and I thought I can always go back to the military later if I wanted to. But nobody leading up to that point had said, you can be an engineer in the Air Force and build airplanes. It was the fact that Mr. Garza was like, cool, you want to do something in aeronautics? Let me help you understand that.
What’s the best thing you’ve done in isolation?
I don’t have a good shelter-in-place story. I’m not a good isolationist. I love being around people. But since shelter-in-place, I think the best thing that I’ve done for me—I know it sounds weird—is to run. I’ve been a runner for some time, but I got sick in 2017, and that sidelined me from most exercise. When shelter-in-place happened, I couldn’t exercise in the pool or do low-impact ellipticals or anything, so I tried running again. As much as I love being with other people, it is the one time I can be by myself. Just like sometimes people love being in their car by themselves, because they love to sing, or think, or cry, whatever it is that you need to do alone, that’s what I do when I run. I just get to feel myself without anyone watching me feel myself. No judgment, just me.
What’s your favorite run?
My favorite run ever is when I lived in Long Beach. Easiest 5K ever was a mile to the beach, a mile on the beach, and a mile back home. I love Long Beach. There’s this 18-mile route that me and this running group, the Long Beach Running Club, would do, and we called it the “Queen Mary Run.” Eventually on the loop you’d get to the Queen Mary. That to me is the coolest route.
What is the last thing that inspired you?
This week The Bay podcast at KQED is running a five-part series from a reporter named Sam Harnett on the history of American labor laws. As a student of history—my second major in college was American contemporary history—I’ve been really interested in listening to what Sam has dug up, and I feel it’s inspired me to have conversations. People often think inspiration needs to be—and even I think this sometimes—it needs to be big and grand and wonderful, like fireworks and stuff. But we are inspired by everyday small things. If it sparks a conversation, that’s inspiration. I finished listening to today’s episode, and I played a piece for my husband, and we had a conversation about politics and economics, and that to me is a form of inspiration.
Now my overarching inspiration is that since I was a girl I’ve wanted to write a book. I’ve always said the problem was that I didn’t know how. Now I’m pretty sure that I can teach myself, or I know how I can get those resources, so that’s not a problem. Once I figured out that wasn’t a problem, then what was a problem was, what would I write about? I’m a reporter, and so I can write about anything, really. The one thing I do know a lot about is myself, so I can write about myself. A memoir of my family, or something like that. The problem with that was, I haven't been ready to share myself or my family or my life experiences with other people. Just, mentally or emotionally, am I ready to be in that kind of space to share myself? And I think now I’m getting closer and closer. So lately it’s this long, drawn-out feeling of inspiration, of maybe I need to start figuring out what it is that I’m going to be sharing. Yeah, that’s the long—if I were going to talk about in the long term—what’s been inspiring me, it’s been that.
Last question: So, what did you have for breakfast today?
I love this question. I had coffee, I think Trader Joe’s coffee. Cream and sugar. And two Pop-Tarts, cherry flavor. I’ve been really into Pop-Tarts ever since shelter-in-place. It is dumb and wonderful at the same time.
Amazing. What is your preferred way to make Pop-Tarts? Do you toast them?
Totally. It has to be crispy. The sides have to be a little brown. It’s like when you have a tortilla, you know, and you warm it up, like a flour one, and there are some of those little pockets that are brown, and you can pop it a little bit, and you’re like, “mmm.” That’s how I like it.