ABC News’ Cecilia Vega on Breaking Barriers as a Latina, Pressing the White House — and Her Ideal Day Off

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·10 min read
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ABC/Randy Sager Cecilia Vega

In mid-January, Cecilia Vega was named ABC News' chief White House correspondent — the first Latina in that role.

It's been a busy news cycle since: Joe Biden's inauguration and his subsequent wave of new hires plus Donald Trump's impeachment trial in the Senate, a nearly $2 trillion COVID bill and much more.

But when PEOPLE recently caught up with Vega to talk about her new role, it was on an atypically quiet morning for her.

"I have an insanely adorable but crazy puppy, and I just walked him to the dog park — you're going to realize my life is super glamorous and super exciting," Vega said with a grin.

Below, the 44-year-old journalist, who started at ABC News in 2011, talks about the value of representation, what she'll be watching closely in the Biden administration and what she does with those moments to herself.

• For more on Cecilia Vega, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week's issue, on newsstands Friday.

Cecilia Vega

This is not really a new role for you, being the chief correspondent at the White House. You've covered Donald Trump back to 2016. What's different now and what's not?

There is a little bit of a routine to covering the White House. It involves briefings and the Oval Office, questioning the president when we get that opportunity, and still just the day-to-day grind that is Washington reporting. The difference is a personal level — it's the chief role. I'm working with a great team, a new team that came on with the transition, and the briefing room itself looks a little bit different. There's a lot more women this time around. The other networks predominantly have women in the chief roles there. So that's been kind of a fun stage.

On the ground level, what is the big difference between the Trump administration and the Biden administration from the perspective of someone who is there inside the building and around the president and his aides all the time?

There's definitely the sense that we're not drinking from the fire hose every single day, that it is not as intense in terms of the storyline that changes day in and day out. In the Trump administration, we could easily end up covering a minimum 10 different storylines on a given day. There's sometimes even more than that. You could end up doing one thing in the morning and 12 things later by the time you're on the evening news.

Now there's a consistency to this administration in terms of their messaging. They are very COVID-centric. You start the day doing COVID, and you mostly end the day doing COVID. So just from a personal level, it's a little less frenetic. I don't know how long that's going to last, though.

As a reporter, what are you keeping your eye on?

I think my attention is where the nation's attention is: It is COVID. Are they [the Biden administration] going to fulfill their promise of getting kids back into school, of vaccinating all Americans who want a vaccine by the deadline that they've set? He campaigned on bipartisanship. Will he actually pull that off?

But there are a lot of other really big storylines that are just kind of starting to emerge. I think immigration is and is going to be a huge problem for the Biden White House [Vega reported from the border this month]. A lot of people who are at the border right now firmly believe that we are in full crisis mode given the number of refugees that we're seeing trying to cross, the asylum-seekers that we're seeing, trying to cross. And the Biden administration has put forth this immigration bill where they really want to do sweeping immigration overhaul. I don't know that they're going to be able to pull that off.

There's just a lot of holding their feet to the fire, I think, in terms of campaign promises that were made that we're going to have to stay on top of in the next weeks and months.

The chief correspondent has a national microphone for the news of the day. That doesn't mean the facts change, but I'd think each person has a slightly different touch on how they tell stories.

I always said, I approach my role in that briefing room — I always have my mom in my mind when I go in there. What would my mom want to know? What did my mom ask me about when I was on the phone with her the night before? My mom lives in Oakland, California. Most of my family lives in California. What's on her mind and what answers can I get that will help her make the decisions that she needs?

We talk about in newsrooms that representation matters. This is why representation matters, because I can bring a perspective as a woman, as a Latina, that might not have been there before. And when immigration is a storyline that is important to me, personally, [and it] starts to kind of go off the radar a little bit in terms of the news of day, that is one of the benefits of being able to sit in that briefing room. I can ask a question that might not be front-burner that is still important.

I was watching a video you did for ABC last year for Hispanic Heritage Month talking about the legacy of people who'd come before you, trailblazers, and you touched on the journalist Ruben Salazar. Now you are one of those firsts, in a way.

Yeah. I don't think of it as legacy at all. If anything, I feel a real sense of pressure to make sure that I'm doing everything I can to help people who are coming up or trying to get in the business who are new, who can't figure out a way through the door, to really help them try to figure out a way in and stay in once they're in. I honestly feel a real heaviness about that. It's one thing to get in the door. A lot of people get in the door. It's another thing to stay and succeed. So I really make it a point to try to keep an ongoing conversation, at least internally at ABC, but externally, too. I got an email the other day from a random reporter in Denver saying, "Can you look at my reel? Can you help?" And I was like, "Absolutely." I had so many people like that along the way who gave me the critical feedback that I needed.

But legacy. I don't know. You just don't want to be the last one, right? That's the legacy.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from viewers since you moved into this role?

I think that's where I was surprised. I just looked at this as a new job. The magnitude of it hadn't really hit me until ABC announced it, and I heard from so many young Latina, particularly Mexican American, female reporters who reached out and said, "Wow." And it sounds so trite, but I think it still really matters. It's crazy that we even have to say this, but they reached out and said, "Wow, if you can do it, I can do it."

And I hate to trivialize it that way because I don't think my situation is unique in any way. I mean, you work hard, hopefully you get rewarded for that, but they reached out. They were really hit by seeing me in this job.

There's nothing special about my background. I didn't go to fancy schools. I didn't have a lot of money. I didn't know people on the inside, and it happened. And it really was overwhelming. There were a few times where I was in tears, just overwhelmed by people who reached out and were surprised and so happy for this job. It's really, really, really touching, but it also made me realize how far we have to go in terms of journalism diversity if that many people are reaching out saying, "Wow, if you can do it, I can do it." You know, we still have a long way to go.

You put it more eloquently than me, but the value of diversity here is that you don't realize what you don't know until you have additional voices in the room.

My friend Juju Chang at ABC, a Nightline anchor, said something today. She noticed — I hadn't even noticed — that the three people who really challenged the Trump administration on using phrases like "kung flu" and "China virus" … It was me, Weijia Jiang at CBS and Yamiche Alcindor at PBS. And I thought, "Wow, there's an example of why this matters." Because we caught that, and it really bothered us to hear those phrases, and we didn't let it go. Why is it okay that you're saying this? Do you see the effects of this?

I wanted to pivot to something just really lighthearted before I let you go. I'm always fascinated by TV anchors and correspondents, y'all's routines. Because you have crazy hours, you're traveling a lot.

I have like, a Netflix queue that's seven years back. I haven't seen anything, and I know nothing about pop culture. It's really embarrassing. There really is no routine. And so every day is "catch as catch can," and you feel like you're just barely surviving.

On a normal day, my alarm clock goes off at 4:45. The first thing I do, it's still stuck in me, the first thing I do is pick up my phone and scan Twitter. That's still stuck for me from the Trump days. I probably don't have to scan Twitter as much as I do anymore, but I just make sure the world hasn't exploded overnight.

And by 5, God bless my husband, he's got a cup of coffee in my hand and I am up and running into my day and at the White House. We have to get to the White House way early now because in the Biden administration, we all get tested. Which is good. So I'm going in early for testing. And then we're on air at 7 a.m. and the day can go 'til 7 p.m., 8 p.m., depending on how busy we are, if we're filing for World News. And hopefully I can squeeze in dinner and not check my phone throughout the entire dinner.

There's a little bit of shell shock, though. The pace isn't as crazy. I'm definitely able to have dinners with my husband now without feeling like I have to check my phone the entire time. The one thing I did do between Trump and Biden is turn off the Twitter alerts on my Apple watch so I'm not getting like, shocked all day anymore.

That's funny. I'd never even considered that.

Oh, we have a whole generation of White House reporters who are triggered by Apple watch [notifications]. There's going to be a whole generation of people who are messed up from a tweet.

When you do have a morning to yourself or some downtime or a weekend, what are your go-to pleasures to unwind?

You actually just caught me on a little bit of a slow morning. I'm traveling later today, so I'm not in the White House. So I have an insanely adorable but crazy puppy, and I just walked him to the dog park. You're going to realize my life is super glamorous and super exciting. So we went to the dog park.

For me, that is a good day. If I, on a Saturday, can kind of slowly ease into the paper, walk the dog and have a nice glass of wine with dinner and watch a movie at home — that is bliss in this day and age. If I can sneak in a quick Peloton ride, even better.

This interview has been edited.