Jorge Ramos' destiny is inextricably linked with that of Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States. The assassination attempt on Reagan in 1981 presented Ramos, now anchor of Univision's Noticiero Univision, with the opportunity that would forever alter the course of his life.
Ramos was 22 years old, working and taking college courses in his native Mexico when he landed a job as an assistant at a radio station in Mexico City. To say his talent for broadcasting had yet to manifest itself would be an understatement.
“I was a news assistant helping other journalists,” he says, which meant getting coffee and supplies, and keeping an eye on the wires. “I had never even written a single story. I had never been on the air.”
He took the job to earn money for college, where he thought he would study for a career in politics, academia or psychology. But when John Hinckley Jr. shot Reagan outside the Washington Hilton Hotel on March 30, 1981, Ramos was fortuitously at work at the radio station.
“The news director came out to the newsroom and said, 'Ronald Reagan got shot. Who speaks English?'” Ramos recalls. “And out of 20 or 30 people, only a few of us raised our hand. My English was very basic,” he admits, “but I could get myself understood. And then he asked, 'Who has a passport ready?'”
Only Ramos' hand went up. He was off to Washington that afternoon.
It was a frenetic introduction to the news business. “I really had no experience whatsoever,” he says. “I didn't even know where the press conferences were being held.”
It was only his second trip to the United States; the first had come years earlier during a family vacation to Disneyland. But what he lacked in experience, he made up for in doggedness. Reporters gathered across the street from George Washington University Hospital, where Reagan was being treated, waiting for White House officials to emerge with news of the president's condition. Ramos noticed a friendly looking nurse coming and going, so he followed her. His instincts were dead-on: she was one of the nurses caring for the president.
“She didn't even give me her name,” he says. “She knew it was wrong for her to be talking to me. But I trusted her and she sort of trusted me.
“It's not that I got great information,” he continues. “But back then, nobody knew if Ronald Reagan was going to die or not. So to have this kind of information other than what we were getting from the press conference was great. That sort of compensated for my complete lack of knowledge of the profession.”
After his trip to Washington in 1981, Ramos landed a job at a Mexico City television station. But his first report, about the corrupt government of President José López Portillo, was deemed unacceptable. At the time, the notion of an independent press was anathema to Mexico's political elite. “Mexico back then had a horrible tradition of journalistic censorship and political pressure,” he says.
So he left, gaining a student visa to take classes at UCLA's extension school. “I had two choices: stay in Mexico and probably be a very poor, frustrated journalist, or to come to the United States.”
Ramos was the only one in a family of six children to emigrate. “I was completely alone,” he adds. “I know that now it may seem very courageous and adventurous. But back then, I saw no other option. If I wanted to become a journalist, there was simply no way for me to stay in Mexico. And that's what led me to make one of the most difficult and important decisions in my life.”
Ramos has been delivering the news on Univision for 23 years. He has written 10 books, almost all of them, including his autobiography No Borders: A Journalist's Search for Home, exploring the immigrant experience in America. He has interviewed every American president since George H.W. Bush and sat down with everyone who is anyone in the Hispanic political and cultural arenas: from Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez to Isabel Allende and Carlos Fuentes. He invariably tops polls of the Hispanic community's most influential people.
For Maria Elena Salinas, Ramos' Noticiero Univision co-anchor for 21 years, first impressions belied the towering figure he would become. “I remember a skinny guy, kind of short,” she says. “He didn't look like a powerful man. He looked very innocent. But when he started reporting, you began to see this warrior come out in him.”
Ramos' passion for the causes and issues affecting the Hispanic community, as well as his perch at the top-rated Spanish-language network, has made him an invaluable source and a trusted interlocutor for an increasingly influential American constituency.
“We are going through a demographic revolution in this country. We Latinos are changing the face of the United States,” says Ramos, citing the recent confirmation of Sonya Sotomayor as the first Hispanic woman on the Supreme Court and the influence of the Hispanic voting block in the last two presidential elections. “Absolutely no one can make it to the White House without the Hispanic vote.”
Indeed, Univision is a critical stop on the presidential campaign trail. Ramos interviewed all of the major 2008 candidates: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden, and John McCain and Sarah Palin.
In fact, Ramos is being inducted into the B&C Hall of Fame at a time when it is not unusual for Univision's news program to out-rate some of its English-language broadcast competitors in markets with large Latino communities such as Houston and Los Angeles. This “Latino wave,” as Ramos calls it, is giving Spanish-language media ever more influence and reach.
Nielsen estimates that Hispanic TV homes will increase by 2.3% for the 2009-10 TV season to 44.3 million, compared to only a 0.3% increase for total U.S. TV homes.
According to Joe Uva, CEO of Univision, Ramos has become the voice of that community: “He's so compelling because he's so committed to making sure that issues that are of great importance toHispanics in this country are accurately told and presented.” —Marisa Guthrie