Univision’s María Elena Salinas is not just the most powerful Latina journalist in the United States. She is also the face — and voice — 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 “taco beat,” as the Hispanic assignment was then known.
Among the aspirants was a budding reporter from Spanish-language station KMEXTV who was fluent in Spanish — and English — and had a passion for reporting about Latino issues. The reporter, María 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 didn’t look ethnic enough, but sounded a bit too ethnic.
“I was told my accent would insult the general audience,” Salinas recalled recently about her short-lived dream of crossing over to English-language television.
PINNACLE OF PROFESSION
It’s a good thing she didn’t get the gig. Today, María Elena Salinas, co-anchor of Univision’s main evening newscast, Noticiero Univisión, and co-presenter of weekly newsmagazine Aquíy Ahora, is one of the nation’s 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 d’état throughout the world. She has faced off with U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and has confronted such former dictators as Panama’s Gen. Manuel Noriega and Chile’s 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 Spanish-language Democratic and Republican presidential candidate forums.
Salinas, 58, 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 María and Isabel grew up in a modest two-working-parent household in the city’s South Central neighborhood.
Salinas’s 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 didn’t 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 Univision’s 6:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts, working from Univision’s studios in Laguna Niguel, Calif., before moving to Miami, Fla.
The appointment of a male-female anchor team was significant during a single-anchor era in which men such as NBC’s Tom Brokaw, CBS’s Dan Rather and ABC’s Frank Reynolds and Peter Jennings dominated the network anchor chairs.
The rules governing their on-air partnership, Ramos said, were established from day one. “Twenty-five years ago, María Elena and I made a pact that has remained intact,” Ramos said. “It’s very simple: Set up a series of clear, specific rules; maintain a relationship of equals; and keep a distance from each other’s personal lives.”
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 Ramos’s turn. Another thing that has remained the same for 25 years: their places at the anchor desk.
“From the very beginning, María Elena said she would sit to my left,” Ramos said. “It has been that way for 25 years. I don’t really know why!”
VOICE OF THE VOICELESS
As told in her 2006 book, I Am My Father’s Daughter: Living a Life Without Secrets, Salinas’s 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 “Voice of Hispanic America,” a journalist who has made it a choice to not only inform, but to help empower — and advance — her community, offering Hispanic viewers access to vital information.
“María Elena is a powerful searchlight in a world that needs journalism and truth,” said Diane Sawyer, anchor of ABC World News, who worked alongside Salinas in moderating events around the Democratic and Republican conventions in 2012. “With much confidence and clarity, she gives a voice to the voiceless. She is journalism at its most passionate and purposeful.”
This “purpose” 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. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with looking after your community and reporting on what’s important to them,” she said.
Her commitment to education led her to establish the María 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 Univision’s “Es el Momento” 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.
“María Elena’s impact on our community is impossible to overstate,” César Conde, executive vice president of NBCUniversal and former president of Univision, said. “For over two decades, our community has received much of their information and viewed the world through the eyes of María Elena […] She has contributed enormously to the growth and empowerment of the Hispanic community.”
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.
“If we are seconds from starting and there’s no pen around, there can be a revolution,” Ramos said. “I think it’s kind of a protection, a lifeline.”
Off the air, her friends said, Salinas is the warmest, most humble person they’ve ever met, someone who has not let fame go to her head.
“What strikes me about María Elena is that she doesn’t use her very high profile to advance in personal matters,” 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 Univision’s Sábado Gigante. “She doesn’t drink her own Kool-Aid.”
Machado, whose agency welcomed Salinas’s youngest daughter, Gaby, as an intern this summer, is quick to point out what he considers one of Salinas’ biggest qualities: “She is a Super Mom. I have not seen a professional as committed — and close — to her children as María Elena.”
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 assignment.
Salinas, whose three decades in journalism have taken her around the world challenging dictators, covering devastating hurricanes and interviewing war-torn families, doesn’t hesitate for a second when asked about the hardest thing she has ever had to deal with.
“Taking Julia to college,” Salinas said of her trip last month to Washington, D.C., to help her eldest settle in for life at American University. “Nobody had prepared me for that, and it was just so hard!”