|From APRIL 2018 Sidebar newsletter for InvestigateWest members. (Miss it? Join now to start receiving Sidebar.)
This year  we welcomed reporter Sergio Olmos to InvestigateWest to participate in our just-launched project on concussions among high school athletes.
Sergio’s resume’ and writing samples were the first to arrive when we advertised this position back in December. His cover letter and samples exploded with eagerness. All told us the four things that matter most to us about him: he is intrepid, deeply curious, he wants to work, and has a rare talent we are too lucky to help cultivate.
I’ll let him tell you the rest:
Where are you from? Give us some background.
Santa Ana, California. It’s kind of a tale of two cities. It’s the seat of government for Orange County, which is a wealthy county, but the city itself is kind of populated by Latino immigrants like my parents, who arrived there because people spoke Spanish there and housing was affordable. There are lots of movers and shakers in areas of the city but most of the city is the working underclass. I went to a high school that had a 40 percent dropout rate.
If you had to pack a survival kit for your old neighborhood, what would you pack?
Physical money. Not ATM or debit. Some shoes that I can run in. I speak Spanish so I don’t need a dictionary. Oh, and loose change. There are lots of ice cream trucks.
When and how did you realize you wanted to be a journalist?
October 2014. I did a piece for the Portland Community College magazine where I slept in the streets alongside the homeless for the night. The inspiration for that was to do something like Shipping Out, David Foster Wallace’s piece on a cruise ship, which is an experiential piece. When I had to write that piece, it took me a month of nothing but writing, returning to my bed, watching Netflix and then returning to my desk. I didn’t take any classes and I was going to fail English for the third time but the department chair stepped in on my behalf. We made a deal where I was going to pass the class in exchange for writing an essay on technology. As I was leaving the meeting, though, she said, “You know the only reason people are reading your writing is because most people read at a seventh grade level.” I said, “Okay.” I thanked her. And after that meeting, I dropped out of college.
A week later, I landed in Hong Kong and it was the last 24 hours of the Umbrella Movement. This was the student protest against the Beijing government to remove democracy from Hong Kong. I just decided to buy a notebook and try my hand at trying to do this for real.
It felt really, really meaningful to see history and to see people really put themselves at risk for something. My capillaries were just bursting. It exercised something I didn’t know I needed to exercise. And since then I’ve been freelancing.
What do you like best about journalism?
There was a long period where I wouldn’t read any news. And I stopped feeling guilty about not reading the news. Because I thought, “It’s just too much data and I don’t know what to do with it.” I think the way I’ve gotten back into news is by reading very meaningful, very narrow stories. As a reader, I tend to now almost exclusively read some 3,000-word article instead of the 500-word Teflon-like article. I don’t know where to put that in my head anymore. I pardon myself from having to know about things in the next hour. I’m okay with learning things in the next month. I tend to get around to it because some long article gets me into it.
How many years of your life do you think you’ve spent traveling?
There was a period where I traveled and it was about a three-year period. I would get back, have post-holiday blues, and I’d start saving up to go to the next place. I’d be here for two weeks and start looking at my backpack.
How many countries have you been in?
More than 20: The U.S., Mexico, Columbia, Argentina, England, Ireland, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, The Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, China and Thailand. I’ve also visited Palestine (the West Bank).
What’s one thing you did for money to extend your travels?
I worked at a couple of nonprofits. I was a security guard in the parking lot of the airport. There’s a term for these jobs: sinecure. (Definition: a position requiring little or no work but giving the holder status or financial benefit.) It’s the perfect job for a writer because you get paid and you have no stress after work and you have the freedom at work to read. In all cases, my bosses knew that I was reading and they were okay with it. At a homeless shelter I’d read overnight.
How many books do you read in a week?
It depends on the week. Now I’m struggling to get through a book a week. But it used to be four for a couple of years. It’s just because I’ve gotten into watching sports.
How many hours a week do you write fiction?
Less than one. I’m trying to set a routine. I feel guilty about writing fiction while there’s daylight. I know it sounds Victorian. The way I grew up, it’s weird to be reading something that’s pretend when there’s work to do.
What’s the prize you’ve promised the concussion team when we cross the finish line?
Tacos. I will use my mother’s recipe. Me and mother worked together, she owns a business, she’s always been a business woman. She’s never been the kind of mother to make me cookies. She cooks very few dishes. And the only dish of hers that I like is her salsa and it’s my favorite thing in the world. I only eat chicken to put salsa on it. For her skills as a cook, it really punches above her weight class.
Anything you want our members to know about you?
I really work hard so that a reader never feels like they are wasting their time when they’re reading sentences by us. That’s my mission. I hope to never waste your time. If you’re giving me some of your time to read, I’m grateful already. I won’t waste it.
— Lee van der Voo