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Looking back on Lulu Garcia-Navarro's long career at NPR

SCOTT SIMON, BYLINE: Hi. Scott Simon here, host of Weekend Edition Saturday. But I'm here on a Sunday because it's Lulu's last day on this show and her last day at NPR after a remarkable 17 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST MONTAGE)

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

NPR News, Baghdad.

Ecuador.

Cairo.

Kiryat Arba.

Lima.

Mexico City.

Buenos Aires.

Benghazi.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, dancing in the Sambadrome - I never thought I'd say that - Rio de Janeiro.

SIMON: Now she's headed off to new adventures. Our colleague Ian Stewart takes it from here.

IAN STEWART, BYLINE: Working with Lulu, there was a common refrain - a request - well, sometimes, it was more like a demand - for, quote, "real people." With apologies to think tank policy directors and media-savvy CEOs, what she was looking for were the voices of the people most affected by whatever was happening in the world that week. And that's the way she's always covered the news.

DIDI SCHANCHE, BYLINE: I was Lulu's first editor at NPR.

STEWART: That's Didi Schanche, NPR's chief international editor.

SCHANCHE: She's got an incredible eye for detail and an ear for the sound that really brings a story to life. A Lulu broadcast story helped start the movie in your head.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm standing on the side of the train tracks. The migrants are perched on top of these trains. They're carrying backpacks. They're - it's chilly. They're wearing woolen hats as the train rumbles north.

STEWART: That's Lulu's reporting from Mexico on the Trump administration's zero-tolerance immigration policy.

Covering economic hardship in Cuba, she profiled a plus-size dance troupe that was defying convention.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "I'm so happy," she says. "I didn't have to frustrate my dreams. Fat or thin, I can do it. I am doing it. I feel divine."

STEWART: Amidst the chaos of the Iraq War, she told us how women were struggling with a more domestic challenge - a surge in divorces.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But the hardest part, she says, is the stigma of being a divorced woman. She has no job, and whenever she tries to find one, she gets propositioned.

STEWART: And when we traveled to Wisconsin ahead of the 2018 midterms, Lulu made a spur-of-the-moment decision to cover a messy but beloved local tradition.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We are in the Cream Puff Pavilion, which - just saying those words together makes me so excited.

STEWART: But it wasn't all cream puffs. Lulu has covered some of the world's toughest, thorniest issues with clarity and grace. Here's NPR correspondent Leila Fadel.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: In reporting, she stays away from explosive rhetoric and gets to the nitty-gritty of what's happening on the most complicated topics. She gets to the precise language that needs to be used to get away from labels that can stop a conversation rather than start a conversation.

STEWART: From fiery immigration debates at the U.S.-Mexico border to unrest and natural disasters in Haiti and deadly clashes between Palestinians and Israelis, Lulu helped guide listeners and us, as colleagues, through critical history and fraught politics to a more nuanced perspective. This was hard-earned wisdom.

And Lulu's been candid about how high the stakes have been, not just her pants slipping off during that samba parade in Rio de Janeiro - true story - but the dangers of reporting from the Iraq War or the chaos of Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring or from Libya as a regime collapsed. Little did she know, that was all just practice for the riskiest assignment of them all.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEWART: One overeager hint, one misworded clue, and the WEEKEND EDITION inbox would explode. Turns out the Sunday Puzzle is not just fun and games to its most zealous fans. For our part, the WEEKEND EDITION staff repaid Lulu with the chance to talk to lots of celebrities. Am I allowed to share that her husband made her fridge magnets with pictures of her and George Clooney and Brad Pitt? Whoops. Too late.

Hearing Lulu's name, her voice on Sunday mornings, represented something more, too.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Having a Latina in the host chair is a really big deal. It made all the difference in the world.

STEWART: That's Felix Contreras, host of NPR's Alt.Latino.

CONTRERAS: She expanded the opportunity for Latinos to be heard, not just as it related to Latino issues. And for a lot of people that I know, inside and outside Latino cultures all over the country, that stood out to them, too.

STEWART: A focus on the big things, like pushing for representation without tokenization on the air and within NPR, and the little things that feel big, like pronouncing a place or a name correctly. What so many of us also noticed - Lulu's gift for empathetic listening.

EILEEN ALTMAN: I think her presence shows compassion, care for the last, the lost and the least. She seems to want people to bring out their best self.

STEWART: That's Reverend Eileen Altman of Palo Alto, Calif., who's tuned in most Sunday mornings before her services.

And you can hear Lulu's compassion in this extraordinary conversation with Susana Alvarez, who survived the collapse of the Surfside condo building in Florida this June.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SUSANA ALVAREZ: The building was covered with smoke - smoke everywhere. It's just so emotional. I - and I just want my cat back. I mean, I know that sounds silly, but that's all I want, my cat back.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It doesn't sound silly. Your cat's name was Mia (ph), right?

ALVAREZ: Yes. Yes. And I should've gone back for her.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But you know if you'd done that, you might have lost your life.

ALVAREZ: I know that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You did the only thing you could.

ALVAREZ: I was only thinking of myself. I was only thinking of getting out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It was an unimaginable situation.

STEWART: I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding on what bias is, Lulu told NPR's public editor in 2006. As journalists, we do not check our humanity at the door. What we must do is try and give an accurate representation of what is happening before us to the best of our ability, leaving aside our prejudices.

Lulu's human presence in that clip we just heard, like in the so many thousands of conversations and pieces she's filed for NPR, didn't undermine the journalism - far from it. It was because she was there that this enormous, messy world feels a little bit easier to understand. Ian Stewart, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THOSE WHO RIDE WITH GIANTS' "THE PROMISE OF THE SETTING SUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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