ABC News correspondent John Quiñones will be dropping into Philly — virtually — on Tuesday for an event helping to mark the 50th anniversary of the social services organization Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM).
As the latest participant in APM’s anniversary speaker series, Quiñones, who also anchors ABC’s long-running hidden-camera show What Would You Do?, is expected to discuss his extensive broadcast career and his Texas childhood, and to participate in a discussion about race, inequality, and gentrification with APM CEO Nilda Ruiz, Philadelphia City Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sanchez, and Brian Hudson, former CEO of the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.
“I really care deeply about organizations like APM because of what they’re doing for the community," Quiñones said in a phone interview Friday. "I know that had it not been for organizations like that, in my community, I would have been in trouble. I wouldn’t have been able to go to the Good Samaritan Center in San Antonio and play basketball, and join baseball leagues. ... And it turns out APM is not only helping the Puerto Rican community any longer, it’s helping everyone. So that’s beautiful. I love their mission.”
Quiñones, 68, recently appeared in the ABC News streaming special America’s Future: The Power of the Latino Vote, which can be seen on Hulu. He talked with us about the diversity of the Latino vote; about What Would You Do?, which captures people dealing with situations designed to make them nervous; and about unexpectedly becoming an idol of the TikTok generation. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Absolutely. And not only that, it’s a younger audience, too. The show went wild on TikTok and on social media. We had nothing to do with it. But kids started doing their own 10-second What Would You Do? [segments]. Often when I’m at the supermarket or going through an airport, it’s young kids and their families coming up and saying: “Can my son take a picture, my daughter take a picture? They love your show.” Kids formed altars in the girls' room at high schools where they put flower petals and my pictures up there. It’s ridiculous.
Probably about half my [time] at ABC. We don’t shoot them all at once. We string them out throughout the year. And we film them all over the country. We used to just do them in Jersey. And people started complaining, saying, “Would you please get out of Jersey?” And the reactions we get in Wyoming or Oklahoma, or Texas, will vary dramatically from the reactions we get on [scenarios dealing with] race and religion in New York or New Jersey.
Although right now we can’t [film] because we like to see people’s reactions when they respond to one of our [hidden-camera] scenarios. You can’t see that if people are wearing masks. And we don’t want to get too close to people and have them worry about COVID.
We’ve done almost a thousand. So many of them have us in tears, watching behind the scenes, at how some folks ignore injustice, but also when people step in, sometimes at [perceived] risk to themselves. And folks still get involved and raise their voices. It just restores your faith in humanity at a time when I think we need it pretty desperately in this country.
I think my favorite ones have to do with race, being Hispanic and having grown up in San Antonio in the barrio. I didn’t speak English [until] I was 6 years old.
We were migrant farmworkers for a summer. We picked tomatoes in Ohio and cherries in Michigan. My father had been laid off. So my two sisters and I and my mom and dad, we became migrant farmworkers that summer and it just built a lot of character, I think, in me. But beyond that, we would go to a store and people would follow us around thinking we were about to steal something because we were shabbily dressed and because we spoke Spanish.
I feel like I was destined to do this kind of show because of where I came from.
Yeah, I get a kick out of it when people say: “You’re Mexican American. When did you cross the border?” You know, Texas was once part of Spain and Mexico, and so was California, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado. I tell people I didn’t cross the border, the border crossed me.
But I’ve been able to draw upon my experiences. And it just gives you a greater sensitivity for folks. When you’re doing an immigration story down on the border, you want to talk not just to the movers and the shakers — the Border Patrol and the cops and the ranchers — but to the moved and the shaken, the immigrants themselves.
We’re very different. The fact is, Mexican Americans in Texas worry about issues like immigration more than Cubans or Venezuelans in Miami. Because for a long time, they were allowed to come in legally without any issue because they were fleeing communism. The Hispanic community in Texas has links to the undocumented community very often. So the immigration issue looms large here.
Generally, many of the issues are the same. Whether it’s the economy or health, they rank at the top.