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PAPER TRAILS: Journalist from state takes prize

by Sean Clancy | February 9, 2020 at 8:52 a.m.
Sean Clancy, Paper Trails columnist

Darcy Courteau is a freelance journalist who grew up in rural Madison County. She splits time these days between Washington, D.C., and Arkansas, and reports on life from America's nooks and crannies.

Courteau, 42, has written about and photographed dog sledding in Alaska, Arkansas' Hmong community and life in a low-income, high-crime D.C. neighborhood. Her 2019 article, "Mireya's Third Crossing," published in The Atlantic magazine, tells the epic and at times harrowing story of a Mexican woman and her journey to get a visa after living unauthorized in the U.S. for 25 years.

Her work has appeared in the Oxford American, The Washington Post Magazine, The American Scholar and other publications.

On Feb. 5, Courteau was awarded the 2020 American Mosaic Journalism Prize by the California-based Heising-Simons Foundation. The award, also given to Oklahoma journalist Rebecca Nagle, is presented "to freelance journalists for excellence in long-form, narrative, or deep reporting about underrepresented and/or misrepresented groups in the American landscape," according to the foundation.

Neither Courteau nor Nagle knew they were being considered for the honor. Judges included journalists from the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, NPR, Vice News and the Oxford American, among others.

The award comes with $100,000, which is quite the windfall for Courteau, who side-hustles as a bike messenger and part-time editor between reporting projects.

She sold off parts of a Volkswagen Passat and borrowed from friends to finance the reporting of "Mireya's Third Crossing." After repaying loans, she ended up with $1.77.

"It feels like an angel is sitting on my shoulder," she says of winning the prize. "I am so humbled by this."

Courteau is the fourth of nine children. Her parents were back-to-the-landers who settled in Madison County, and her family sometimes shows up in her work.

"I feel comfortable in marginalized, outsider communities because of where I come from," she says. "It was only a matter of time before I started photographing them and writing about them, but I also have to write about my place within them."

She plans to continue long-term projects like photographing and collecting oral histories of her D.C. neighborhood and the Hmong community in Northwest Arkansas.

She also hopes to revisit Mireya's hometown in Jalisco, Mexico.

"I fell in love with her village, and I fell in love with the family I stayed with. I've been plotting my return ever since."

The prize money will lessen the financial strain of producing new stories, but Courteau says she'll likely keep her bike messenger job, though there is a caveat.

"I won't go out when it's cold," she says.

email: sclancy@adgnewsroom.com

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