Lending Her Voice to U.S. HispanicsUnivision’s María Elena Salinas Helps Inform, Empower Latino Audience 9/30/2013 12:01:00 AM Eastern
Guide to U.S.
Univisionâs MarÃa Elena Salinas is not just the most powerful Latina
journalist in the United States. She is also the face â and voice â of
millions of Hispanic immigrants who turn to her for information and
guidance on how to navigate their new country.
In the mid-1980s, when the Hispanic population of Los Angeles
surpassed 25%, the local CBS-owned station, KCBS-TV, launched an open audition
for reporters in the area interested in covering the so-called âtaco beat,â as
the Hispanic assignment was then known.
Among the aspirants was a budding reporter from Spanish-language station KMEXTV
who was fluent in Spanish â and English â and had a passion for reporting about
Latino issues. The reporter, MarÃa Elena Salinas, promptly sent an audition tape.
Her credentials and language skills made her perfect for the job, but she was
ultimately turned down. The reason? The station manager thought the fair-skinned,
short-haired reporter didnât look ethnic enough, but sounded a bit too ethnic.
âI was told my accent would insult the general audience,â Salinas recalled recently
about her short-lived dream of crossing over to English-language television.
PINNACLE OF PROFESSION
Itâs a good thing she didnât get the gig. Today, MarÃa Elena Salinas, co-anchor of
Univisionâs main evening newscast, Noticiero UnivisiÃ³n, and co-presenter of weekly
newsmagazine AquÃ y Ahora, is one of the nationâs most influential journalists.
Throughout a 32-year career with Univision, Salinas has interviewed every U.S.
president since Jimmy Carter and has covered wars, hurricanes, earthquakes
and coups dâÃ©tat throughout the world. She has faced off with U.S. presidents Bill
Clinton and George W. Bush and has confronted such former dictators as Panamaâs
Gen. Manuel Noriega and Chileâs Gen. Augusto Pinochet. When she was seven
months pregnant, she pounded on the door of the newly deposed president of
Ecuador, begging for an interview.
She has won multiple Emmy Awards and has co-hosted the first ever Spanishlanguage
Democratic and Republican presidential candidate forums.
Salinas, 59, will add another trophy to her case on Wednesday (Oct. 2) when
she is presented with an Outstanding Achievement Award in Hispanic Television
by Multichannel News and Broadcasting & Cable at the 11th annual Hispanic
Television Summit in New York.
Born in Los Angeles to Mexican immigrant parents, Salinas spent part of her
childhood in Mexico City, where her mother worked as a seamstress while her
father left town for work for long periods of time. The youngest of three daughters,
Salinas moved back to Los Angeles in 1963, where she and sisters Tina MarÃa and
Isabel grew up in a modest two-working-parent household in the cityâs South Central
Salinasâs first gig in Hispanic television came in 1981, when KMEX, the Los
Angeles affiliate of the Spanish International Network (now Univision), hired her as
a news reporter and anchor for the daily public-affairs show Los Angeles Ahora. But
being a TV personality was never in her original plans.
Earlier in life, Salinas dreamed of becoming a fashion designer and even worked
at a charm school for a while, teaching young women lessons on subjects ranging
from proper manners to makeup application. Salinas even had a stint on the
beauty-pageant circuit, winning second runner-up at Miss Mexico of Los Angeles.
She entered journalism through radio, a world that was introduced to her by her
first husband, a local disc jockey named Eduardo Distell. The marriage didnât last
long but gave her a taste of the Hispanic media industry.
From radio came the job at KMEX in 1981. In 1988, something happened that
forever changed her career: She was teamed up with Jorge Ramos to co-host Univisionâs
6:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts, working from Univisionâs studios in Laguna
Niguel, Calif., before moving to Miami, Fla.
The appointment of a male-female anchor team was significant during a singleanchor
era in which men such as NBCâs Tom Brokaw, CBSâs Dan Rather and ABCâs
Frank Reynolds and Peter Jennings dominated the network anchor chairs.
The rules governing their on-air partnership, Ramos said, were established from
day one. âTwenty-five years ago, MarÃa Elena and I made a pact that has remained intact,â Ramos said. âItâs very simple: Set up a series of clear, specific rules; maintain
a relationship of equals; and keep a distance from each otherâs personal lives.â
The anchors established that they would take turns reporting major stories or
conducting big interviews. One night, Salinas would open the newscast; the following
night, it would be Ramosâs turn. Another thing that has remained the same for
25 years: their places at the anchor desk.
âFrom the very beginning, MarÃa Elena said she would sit to my left,â Ramos said.
âIt has been that way for 25 years. I donât really know why!â
VOICE OF THE VOICELESS
As told in her 2006 book, I Am My Fatherâs Daughter: Living a Life Without Secrets,
Salinasâs first day in television started off on the wrong foot. Just as she was supposed
to deliver the news live, she had no voice. A bad case of laryngitis shut her
down for a full two weeks.
The setback is interesting, considering she would eventually be known as the
âVoice of Hispanic America,â a journalist who has made it a choice to not only
inform, but to help empower â and advance â her community, offering Hispanic
viewers access to vital information.
âMarÃa Elena is a powerful searchlight in a world that needs journalism and
truth,â said Diane Sawyer, anchor of ABC World News, who worked alongside
Salinas in moderating events around the Democratic and Republican conventions
in 2012. âWith much confidence and clarity, she gives a voice to the voiceless. She is
journalism at its most passionate and purposeful.â
This âpurposeâ has often put Latino anchors in the spotlight,
drawing critics who accuse them of blurring the lines
between journalist and advocate by encouraging viewers to
vote or become U.S. citizens, or by openly expressing their
views on topics such as immigration reform.
Salinas shrugs off such criticism, though. âI donât think
thereâs anything wrong with looking after your community
and reporting on whatâs important to them,â she said.
Her commitment to education led her to establish the
MarÃa Elena Salinas Scholarship for Excellence in Spanish-
Language News, administered by the National Association of
Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ). The program awards two $5,000
scholarships each year to promising journalism students.
Salinas has been an important spokesperson for Univisionâs
âEsel Momentoâ campaign (The Moment Is Now), a
national Hispanic education initiative hosted in partnership
with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. Department
of Education, educators, and civic and community
leaders from around the country.
âMarÃa Elenaâs impact on our community is impossible
to overstate,â CÃ©sar Conde, executive vice president of
NBCUniversal and former president of Univision, said. âFor
over two decades, our community has received much of
their information and viewed the world through the eyes
of MarÃa Elena [â¦] She has contributed enormously to the
growth and empowerment of the Hispanic community.â
ULTIMATE SUPER MOM
Every weekday, before going on the air at 6:30 p.m., Salinas
undergoes a sort of ritual that includes asking the camera
men to zoom in and out on her, making sure her hair, clothes
and accessories will look OK on camera that evening. And
she always makes sure to be holding a pen in her hand before
going on the air.
âIf we are seconds from starting and thereâs no pen
around, there can be a revolution,â Ramos said. âI think itâs
kind of a protection, a lifeline.â
Off the air, her friends said, Salinas is the warmest, most
humble person theyâve ever met, someone who has not let
fame go to her head.
âWhat strikes me about MarÃa Elena is that she doesnât use
her very high profile to advance in personal matters,â said
Manny Machado, CEO of MGSCOMM, a multicultural marketing and advertising
agency, who met Salinas 20 years ago while working as a commercial producer for
Univisionâs SÃ¡bado Gigante. âShe doesnât drink her own Kool-Aid.â
Machado, whose agency welcomed Salinasâs youngest daughter, Gaby, as an
intern this summer, is quick to point out what he considers one of Salinasâ biggest
qualities: âShe is a Super Mom. I have not seen a professional as committed â and
close â to her children as MarÃa Elena.â
Indeed, despite projecting an image of the ultimate career woman, Salinas has
said her most important gifts and achievements are her two daughters, Julia (18)
and Gaby (16), from her marriage to ex-husband Eliott Rodriguez. Despite her
busy schedule, Salinas said, she takes all the time she can to travel with the girls,
posting pictures on her Facebook page of the trio roaming the fields of Thailand,
walking along the Great Wall of China or shopping in Paris. Nonetheless, Salinas
said she feels a little guilt when she leaves the girls behind to go abroad for a news
Salinas, whose three decades in journalism have taken her around the world
challenging dictators, covering devastating hurricanes and interviewing war-torn
families, doesnât hesitate for a second when asked about the hardest thing she has
ever had to deal with.
âTaking Julia to college,â Salinas said of her trip last month to Washington, D.C.,
to help her eldest settle in for life at American University. âNobody had prepared
me for that, and it was just so hard!â