Francisco Martinezcuello on a motorcycle
Francisco Martínezcuello will join Chilkat Valley News as a reporter for the summer. Courtesy photo.

A California-based journalist, writer, and editor has joined the Chilkat Valley News staff for the summer. Francisco Martínezcuello, who has lived in San Diego since 2001, served 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, doing tours in Iraq and Afghanistan before pivoting to journalism. He graduated from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and had a fellowship with the  Public Policy Institute of California before making his way to Alaska to work at KYUK Public Media in Bethel in 2022. 

He sat down with editor Rashah McChesney to talk more about why he got into journalism and what he’s hoping to do during his time telling stories in Haines. 

So tell me more about why you’re coming back to Alaska, what do you enjoy about reporting here? 

I think what drew me to Alaska was the chance to report on the Indigenous population, the Alaska Native people. I didn’t know anything about it and I just really enjoy the challenge of reporting on underrepresented populations and how to do it through a different lens – through understanding systems and trying to better understand myself through the colonial lens. 

No one taught me about my own culture, the things that are passed from generation to generation. So, I’m put –  right away in my childhood as a foreigner – with other Latinos who are struggling at the same time. But, I’m also having to assimilate. My mom just wanted me to learn English and speak English and then it came to a point where I completely didn’t speak Spanish at all at home and then that became a problem and so she beat me and sent me down to the Dominican Republic for the summer to repatriate me and learn Spanish.

So, I’ve been shifting through these two worlds my entire life and it continued in the Marine Corps – and it’s complicated through war, right?  We went to colonize, to go to Iraq and Afghanistan and it was brown people, marginalized people, poor people, and you have to crack the whip. That kind of stuff weighs on you. 

I’m trying to unpack that and how I unpack that is how I listen to other people’s stories with similar backgrounds brought up through systems of marginalization, class struggles, lack of resources – just so I can better understand myself because I have children now and I kind of want to figure out a way to tell that story to them. 

What did you learn reporting in Alaska and how might you carry that to reporting on Haines? 

How difficult it is to navigate the Western world and the Indigenous world, right? The Alaska Natives have been fishing, you know, forever. And we have these restrictions brought on by these big governments who think that they know better, to think that they’re better stewards of the resources and I found that, you know, listening to the elders that there’s always been these kind of fluctuations in temperatures and fish and how these rules that are applied hurt the everyday fishers. But, they still find a way to make it work and I just think it speaks to the resilience of people and I’m really interested to see how that plays out in Southeast Alaska. 

I know you’re relatively new to the practice of journalism, what kinds of stories are you looking forward to telling while you’re here? 

I don’t have a preference. But, I like healthcare, mental health, and the environment and that’s all I really have come up with so far.  

How has your 20-year military career impacted your work?

I guess I’m just mission-oriented, detail-oriented and task-oriented and that’s essentially what makes or breaks you in the Marine Corps. So what matters in a story, is it factual, is it as factual as you can get? Is it representative of the topic or the people? 

I guess my approach is different. For example if there’s an incident, a tragic incident, is it so important to bother that person right away to just try to get the story? That experience is helpful to continue these relationships within the community and the newspaper and journalists. Because it’s community-oriented journalism right? So, we serve the community and I look at it as I’m continuing to serve my country, my community, my people the best way I can. 

Are you saying you learned empathy in the Marine Corps? 

Yeah, you do right away. As an officer. When I was enlisted I didn’t, I just knew pain. But on the flip side, taking care of Marines after 20-something years of war you’ve got to take care of people. You’ve got to know when to ride someone and when to pull someone back and say, ‘Hey, you need to talk to someone, to stop drinking.’ It takes that experience – a father figure to take care of these people. 

Why the jump from the military to journalism?

When I got out of the Marine Corps I just used writing as a way to better understand myself and be connected with my feelings. I wasn’t feeling, I was so detached and obviously that’s not good when you’re trying to be a father and raising two young women in this world. I tried to be the father that I wish I had and that required a lot of work and I continued to write. I found some success and some publications. When I got out I tried to go the police officer route but I wasn’t able to – I was too honest with my depression. I worked for a Fortune 500 company as a consultant and I was working within this military industrial complex working for the Navy and it was difficult. 

It was soul sucking because I was just contributing to the destruction and I wanted to distance myself from that so I could better understand and be human. I thought about my friend Kyle [Seitsinger] and how he died in 2004 and he received his degree posthumously for journalism from Oklahoma Christian University. They opened up a whole wing in his name. 

It kind of hit a chord with me because I was just kind of struggling to find my way. I thought ‘How do I live a meaningful life?  How do I honor Kyle? Because Kyle would have wanted me to continue to live to raise my daughters honorably. And I said, what better way to honor him than to do what he dreamed of doing and that was to be a journalist. So I had enough of a manuscript and I put it together and I only applied to one school and that was Berkeley and I got it. 

You know it’s easy to retire and just kind of collect a pension, right, but I’m not used to being comfortable and I know for me to grow, I need a lot of pain and I need to be uncomfortable. There’s nothing more humbling than going back to school, Berkeley nevertheless, as a Marine and to go with a bunch of 20-something-year-olds to school to learn a new craft. 

So I think I’m doing right by Kyle and I continue to do what he couldn’t have done.