From farm to tube, TV host true to his roots
Originally published in the San Jose Mercury News July 21, 2011
When KNTV reporter Damian Trujillo thought about his “quinceañera” — or 15th anniversary as host of the “Comunidad del Valle” Sunday morning television show, he never considered an on-air party, fancy tribute or even a cake. That’s just not his style.
Instead, he invited Little Joe Hernandez, the Willie Nelson of Tex-Mex music, to fly in from Austin to talk about Chicano music and identity and plug his upcoming concert in Santa Clara.
“Damian has a big heart,” Hernandez said at the station in North San Jose, “and the talent to go with it.” Viewers who tune in at 10:30 a.m. Sunday will get a short look back at the show in Trujillo’s hands. The clip starts with a hip, young reporter sporting wire-rim glasses and interviewing the members of Culture Clash. Then comes Trujillo sporting a thick, black mustache on assignment in Mexico City, followed by the 41-year-old Trujillo today with close-cropped, graying hair.
Mostly, the anniversary show is vintage Trujillo, a relaxed conversation with a guest who, famous or not, has something interesting to say about Latino life, art, work or politics in the Bay Area. Most of his guests over the years have been people who work quietly inside the community, often with nonprofit organizations, addressing long-standing issues and problems.
“The show is really a conduit for them, the nonprofits, and what they do for the community,” Trujillo said during an interview. “I’m just trying to help their voices be heard.””Comunidad del Valle” dates to 1980, when it was hosted by Mario del Castillo. Two other former KNTV reporters, Daniel Garza and Judy Garcia, hosted the show before Trujillo took over in 1996.
“I wanted it badly,” Trujillo said. “I used to watch the show when I was a kid. I had never seen a show about Latinos hosted by a Latino.”
He grew up in Greenfield, a farming town in Monterey County, the fifth of eight children. His father had migrated from Mexico in the 1950s as a bracero, or agricultural guest worker, and with only a first-grade education. His mother did slightly better, making it through second grade in Mexico.
Trujillo recalled clearing weeds from tomato fields on weekends and summers and dreaming of becoming a tractor driver because the tractor cabins were air-conditioned. He figured he’d drop out of school because that’s what his older brothers and sister did, but he didn’t want to end up in the fields, either.
“So I took auto mechanics, wood shop and welding classes,” he said.
Still, “something from within” persuaded him to study hard. He took some classes with the college-bound kids, and he liked writing.
A short story he wrote at age 11, “Antonio’s Cafe,” was printed in a youth publication in Santa Cruz. He published another in high school, where the journalism adviser invited him to join the campus newspaper or yearbook staff.
“Journalism, that’s for sissies,” he remembered thinking at the time. He rejected the offer.
He graduated and enrolled at San Jose State to study computer science.
“I thought that was something I might like.” However, a future as a geek fizzled when a friend, noticing Trujillo’s fluency in Spanish and English, asked him to fill in as host for Radio Aztlan, a campus program.
“What I liked was meeting interesting people and interviewing them face to face,” he said. “I switched my major to journalism.”
But he didn’t sail through. One of his early mentors, professor Bob Rucker, gave him an “F” on his first paper. Rucker, now director of journalism at SJSU, remembers Trujillo well.
“He was never a ‘know-it-all,'” Rucker said. “He was always willing to learn from setbacks, plus offer fresh and challenging story ideas that forced him to go beyond the easy.”
Finding a calling in broadcast journalism, Trujillo won a coveted internship at KNTV-11. After a brief stint behind a desk with Telemundo, a Spanish-language station, he returned to KNTV as a full-time reporter and has remained there ever since.
His reporting has taken him all over the Bay Area on breaking news, hot-button issues such as police profiling and occasionally to Mexico for special reports. The Associated Press of California named him television Reporter of the Year in 2004, and his coverage of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Mexico won a first-place award from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists in 2001. Along the way, he became the most sought-after master of ceremonies for Latino events in Silicon Valley.
Meanwhile, Trujillo married, started a family and moved to Morgan Hill. Every year on Cesar Chavez Day, he and his wife, Monica, and friends pack about 200 sandwich lunches and deliver them to farmworkers in Greenfield. Each year in May, the Trujillos give a $500 college scholarship to a graduating Greenfield high school student from a farmworker family.
On the day he interviewed Little Joe Hernandez, Trujillo also taped a segment with Susanna Zaraysky, author of a book on how to teach foreign languages through music.
“Sometimes talking with journalists, you get the feeling they don’t understand the people we’re working with,” Zaraysky said. “But Damian does. He gets it.”