How Picking up WIC vouchers in a Mercedes Benz Jumpstarted Journalist’s Career
If you were tuned into social media last July, chances are you saw an article about what happened when Darlena Cunha “drove her Mercedes to pick up food stamps.” The iconic article inspired both controversy and an important conversation about the perception Americans have of poverty. Not long after the essay was published on the Washington Post, Cunha appeared on network TV stations across the nation.
Cunha was kind enough to share with us what inspired her to write that article, and how she manages her thriving freelance career while mothering twin daughters. Read on to see how this boss lady does it.
Darlena Cunha is a former television producer turned stay-at-home mom to twin seven-year-old girls. When she’s not parenting, she’s writing novels, freelancing, going to grad school or blogging at http://parentwin.com.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, and how you first got into writing?
A: I’m a 33-year-old freelance journalist who writes for The Washington Post, Time, Salon, The Atlantic, and many other publications. I’m also mother of seven-year-old twins.
I started as a television producer, then had to quit during the economic crisis due to family concerns. After a few months as a stay-at-home mom, I started a blog, just to keep myself from going stir crazy. We had moved to a new place where I didn’t know anyone, and I had two toddlers in my care, so I couldn’t make new friends easily. I worked hard on that, gaining a small but solid audience, and eventually, I thought it was time to start trying to get published in other places.
This decision coincided with The Washington Post’s acceptance of my essay about driving my husband’s Mercedes to pick up WIC vouchers
. When that went viral, I was thrust into the spotlight for almost a month, and I was able to capitalize on my noteriety by pitching other story ideas to multiple big-name outlets who suddenly knew who I was.
As more and more of them gave me assignments, I was able to build my credentials, and a year later, I’ve been published in more than 50 places nationwide for topics as varied as health, tech, science, politics, poverty, food, parenting and more. It’s been a really lucky adventure on my part, and I’m so grateful to have been given a chance.
Q: Can you tell us what inspired the Mercedes essay and the reactions (both good and bad) that you received?
A: Many months before the Mercedes piece was published, I’d gotten into a Facebook fight about poverty. It was the same old worn-out, “well, they have a nicer phone than me” line. So, I admitted publicly there that I had actually driven a Mercedes to pick up services and gave my reasons.
The response was eye-opening, and I saw then that it was a message that a lot of people needed to hear. I wrote it up and pitched it everywhere from The Atlantic to the New York Times to xoJane to Gawker. I pitched it everywhere to radio silence, I think because I was a nobody at the time. When the Post took it, it spiraled nearly out of control in terms of publicity that I wasn’t ready for. I hadn’t even told my husband I’d written it, so I had to hurry to let him know that it was a front page story all of a sudden. And by that night, I was on TV. It was surreal.
The reactions to the piece ranged from the expected, “why didn’t you sell the Mercedes?” line of argument to the more surprising “I can see now how this happens to people, and I’m sorry I judge so quickly.” It really started a firestorm of conversation across the nation, and I like to think it built a few bridges to understanding what looking at poverty can be like.
But what really stuck with me about the whole situation is the multitude of personal letters, notes, messages and comments I received from thousands of people who were going through the same thing. I had thought my situation was somewhat unique, but it was not. It was just hidden out of shame by tens of thousands of people yearning for an outlet and for understanding.
Q: Do you consider that essay a turning point in your life?
A: Absolutely. That essay made my career.
I could have gone two ways with it: I could have become reality TV fodder, or I could have become a journalist. I chose the latter. I used that essay for name recognition the next few months, but pitched new ideas to every publication I could think of.
I expanded my resume as a writer, not as “that lady who was almost poor that one time.” Until you have something that breaks through the ether, no one cares about your writing. You can pitch until you are blue in the face, but it requires the right editor looking at your words at the right time for the right publication. If you have a breakthrough, you need to use it to propel your path forward. Editors who let that Mercedes submission fall into their trash bag were suddenly all ears. Thank God.
Q: How would you describe a “day in the life” of Darlena?
During the school months, I work from home pitching, submitting, writing, editing and publishing while my girls are at school. During the summer months, I have an every-other-day TV rule, where I allow the girls to watch a few shows in a row every other day so I can get some work done.
My typical day goes like this: wake up and get the kids to school, write, make breakfast for my husband and I and see him off to work, write some more, pick up the kids from school and get them to do their homework and make them snacks, bring them to capoeira (dancing martial arts) practice for an hour and head to a nearby coffee shop to write some more, pick them up, make everyone dinner, get them to bed, and then write some more. In the summer, I can mostly work before they get up and after they go to bed. I have to pick my moments and make sure I’m still present for them and still being a parent first and a writer second.
Q: You mentioned you started a blog (parentwin.com) after becoming a stay-at-home mom. Do you still keep this up? If so, what motivates you?
A: I do still keep it going, but much more infrequently because I have so much else to write. I use it also to highlight other parent writers who may still have very young children and so cannot attempt to go full-time freelance at the moment, but still want their voices heard.
It’s also a landing place for a YouTube show I put on with my kids called Fail Kitchen
, and that’s been a lot of fun. But mostly I keep that blog up because I feel like I owe it my existence as a writer. I learned how to hone an audience and how to write clean, expressive essays, and how to build a platform during my kids’ naps through that blog. It was there for me when I had nothing else going.
Q: Who is your biggest female role model and why?
A: Oh, there are so many amazing women, I’m not sure if I can do them justice. There’s Frida, and Gloria Steinem, and Anne Boleyn, and Jessica Valenti, and Lindy West, and Anne Theriault in terms of feminists I aspire to be like. There’s Ronda Rousey, and Angela from Who’s the Boss, and Murphy Brown, and Hilary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and Bridget Jones for television influences. There’s my mother and grandmother and sister and all my aunts for strong women in my family.
My biggest role model, though, would be my mother. She worked her way up from nurse to supervisor to vice president of a hospital when I was growing up, and I saw through her that women could and should work hard and go for what they want no matter what.
Q: In your opinion, what is one of the biggest struggles about being a woman in your field?
A: Women journalists have a very unique and sometimes dangerous struggle. When we write something, our name is out there, our social media handles are out there. If we’re not careful, our address and phone numbers could be out there. And when we write something that goes against the grain, we endanger ourselves.
I’ve gotten death threats. I’ve gotten rape threats. People have threatened to maim my children. All because they don’t like what I’m writing. It’s all fun and games on the Internet, but there’s always that chance one of these trolls is serious. And it feels very unsafe and more than a little scary. Not scary enough for me to stop pissing them off though.
Q: Are there any new articles that you’re working on now that you would like to share?
Upcoming, I have a piece on why women should start beating up men who sexually harass them on Time, a piece on why Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky are modern-day heroes in the Washington Post and a piece on mastectomy tattoos for breast cancer survivors for Refinery29, amid others.
Q: What has been your favorite subject to write about so far?
A: I very much enjoy the new opinion-journalism that’s going on right now. It’s not as well paid as some other work, but it is very easy to take a stance on a topic and support your point of view, while also educating the public about the topic to begin with. My favorite specific topics to write about have to do with social justice issues like feminism and poverty, simply because I feel so strongly about equality for all people and human rights.