Photo by Chris Johnson.©
Can you imagine a newsroom in the United States in which being a journalist of Hispanic origin is an asset? Where being bilingual is a requirement? Where covering Latin America along with the rest of the world is a must? Where you don’t have to lobby your producer or editor to do stories that are relevant to the Hispanic community? Where newsmakers have last names like Chávez and Martínez in addition to Bush and Powell?
Welcome to the evening news en Español.
There was a time when Spanish-language media attracted two types of journalists: those whose English-language skills where limited and those who saw it as a steppingstone for better things to come. After all, back then you hadn’t made it unless you worked for mainstream media. I remember those times. It was 1981, and I was just beginning my television career at KMEX-TV (Channel 34) in my home city of Los Angeles. I was young and inexperienced, but so was Spanish-language TV. I had just been hired from a radio station where I was a disc jockey spinning romantic Mexican boleros and reading wire copy on the air. My bilingual skills attracted KMEX management. I spoke enough English to cover news in an American city, and enough Spanish to translate, write and present those stories on the air.
KMEX was the largest station owned and operated by SIN (Spanish International Network), now known as Univisión. It was a network with many missing links. Affiliates in Los Angeles, San Antonio, Miami and New York were strung together by Mexican soap operas and the news program “24 Horas,” also imported from Mexico. Our stations were low budget, low power outlets considered by many to be low quality stations. Very few people took us seriously. To ask for a Spanish-speaking spokesperson while covering a news event, particularly a political campaign, was considered a joke. On more than one occasion a janitor was brought out to translate.
A couple of years into my career, I considered a crossover to an English-language network affiliate in Los Angeles. After taping an audition, I was turned down for the job. I later found out the station manager thought my accent would be “insulting to the general audience.” Ironically, one of the station’s anchors at the time had a British accent. I never understood why a British accent was considered acceptable but not a Spanish one.
I’m glad things turned out the way they did, not only because I’ve been lucky enough to travel the world covering historic events, but because there is a very important job to be done in Spanish-language media. I learned that lesson early on in my career. In Los Angeles, Latinos were about 25 percent of the population yet we had no political representation. There were no Latinos on the city council, the board of supervisors, or even the board of education.
I’ll never forget the time when redistricting opened up the possibility of electing a Latino to the City Council. On the day of the special election I went to the neighborhood of Lincoln Heights to cover the story. I conducted an informal person-on-the-street poll asking for whom people would vote and what they thought about the prospect of having the first Latino in city hall. To my surprise, 14 of the 15 people interviewed had no idea an election was taking place, and most were not even registered to vote. When I got back to the newsroom I told my news director, Pete Moraga, that I could not do the story.
How could I do a story about an election no one knew about, cared about, or was participating in? Pete was quick to point out that my story was right in front of my nose: An important election was about to take place and the majority of Hispanics did not even know about it. That’s when I realized that my job as a reporter, and later on as an anchor, would be different from my English-media colleagues. I not only had a responsibility to cover news, I also had to help enlighten and empower an entire population of people who felt disenfranchised from mainstream American society. Throughout the years, it’s a responsibility I have taken very seriously.
Every journalist has challenges. Every newsroom in the world has a goal to meet. But when you are catering to millions of viewers who are in a country that is not their own and whose first language is different, those challenges and goals change. In addition to getting the daily world headlines of news that might affect and interest all of us, Hispanic viewers in the United States have specific issues that interest them. First and foremost they are interested in news from their countries of origin, but they also care about what is going on in their newly adopted country. Hispanics care about changes in immigration laws, and they need to understand how the social services, health and educational systems function in this country. They also need to know how they can make a difference by knowing their rights and participating politically in their communities.
One of the biggest challenges in catering to a Spanish-speaking audience is that, even though they are united by one language, dialects and expressions vary from country to country. And, of course, there are strong political differences. A Cuban who fled communism, for example, might see the world differently than a Guatemalan who fled civil war, a Mexican who fled poverty, or a Colombian who fled drug violence.
It is a misconception that most Latinos in the United States are undocumented recent arrivals who don’t speak English. Out of nearly 36 million Hispanics living in the continental United States, about 10 million are believed to be undocumented. That means some 26 million are either citizens or are living in the country legally. Research shows that about 25 percent of them are Spanish dominant, 20 percent speak mostly English, and the rest are bilingual. They have the choice of getting their news from either Spanish- or English-language media. The tremendous growth of Spanish media outlets—be they television, radio, magazines or newspapers—only shows that Spanish is the preferred language of most Hispanics, particularly when the news that is presented is relevant to them.
One example is the 2001 presidential election. Univisión’s coverage was comparable to that of other broadcast networks. However, in addition to giving results on the balance of power between Democrats and Republicans, we focused on how Hispanic congressional candidates were doing in their races. We also placed heavy emphasis on election results from states that have large Hispanic populations. I had an opportunity to interview former Vice President Al Gore and now President George W. Bush while on the campaign trail. In both cases, I spoke to them with a different focus than the other networks. My questions were about amnesty for undocumented workers, the naming of Hispanics to the cabinet, the high-school dropout rate for Latino students, military aid to Colombia, the expansion of the Free Trade Agreement, and a possible change of U.S. policy toward Cuba.
Probably the most interesting thing about interviewing the presidential candidates is that they both spoke Spanish, albeit grade level Spanish, but the effort says a lot more than their words about how important the Hispanic vote was to their campaigns. Finding a Spanish spokesperson is no longer an ordeal, since most campaigns in which the Hispanic vote is a factor have full staffs to deal with the Hispanic media.
My, how things have changed in the past 20 years. These days some journalists are switching from English-language media to Spanish. My coworkers include former staffers who left NBC, ABC, CBS and CNN for better jobs at Univision. We’re no longer considered low power, low budget, and low quality stations that nobody watches. And even though we still attract some journalists with limited English skills, our newsrooms are no longer seen as just steppingstones for those who want to make it in mainstream media. It’s possible that those who thought there was no future in Spanish-language TV because Hispanics would “assimilate” figured assimilation meant leaving behind our language and our culture. Now I realize how wrong “they” were. Hispanics are now the fastest growing ethnic minority; our numbers have more than doubled in the past 20 years. And that is not the only thing that has more than doubled: so have our ratings. Univisión’s network newscast now competes with ABC, CBS and NBC, many times beating them in major markets like Los Angeles, New York, Houston and Miami.
We are informing and empowering the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population, giving them news that is relevant to their lives in the language they feel most comfortable in. And now when we show up on the scene of a story no one brings out the janitor to translate.
María Elena Salinas is the co-anchor of Univisión’s nightly newscast, where this year she celebrated her 20th anniversary with Univisión Network. She also cohosts the weekly prime-time newsmagazine “Aquí y Ahora,” and does a daily radio commentary on Radio Única, a nationwide Spanish-language radio network.