By Debra Kaufman
Special to TelevisionWeek
For many Hispanic viewers, María Elena Salinas is the face of Spanish-language news. Throughout 25 years of journalism, Ms. Salinas, who will be inducted June 17 into the National Association of Hispanic Journalists Hall of Fame, has been a familiar presence for audiences in the U.S. and 18 Latin American countries. The three-time Emmy Award winner and author has interviewed dozens of world leaders, including Pope John Paul II and President Carter; has been honored with numerous awards; and has been a recurring guest on English-language news programs, including CNN’s “Larry King Live,” “Anderson Cooper 360,” “Lou Dobbs Tonight” and “Situation Room With Wolf Blitzer.”
Ms. Salinas, a founding member and former VP of the NAHJ, has spent her entire news career at Univision, the Spanish-language network that is currently on the market for $11 billion. “My career and Spanish-language media have grown up hand-in-hand,” Ms. Salinas said.
Raised in Los Angeles by her Mexican immigrant parents, the once-shy Ms. Salinas began her media work in radio and in 1981 fell into a job at KMEX-TV, then located in a crowded two-story house. Accustomed to the relative anonymity of radio broadcasting, she soon found herself, to her initial shock, in front of the camera-and in a whole new career.
“I became obsessed with news and wanted to perfect my skills,” Ms. Salinas said. “I saw a hunger for information in the community, and I knew we could make a difference in Spanish-language media.”
She enrolled in broadcast journalism classes through UCLA Extension and got involved in the nascent California Chicano News Media Association, serving on the Spanish-language committee. She credits her penchant for joining organizations and networking with helping her to understand the business. “That’s the one piece of advice I usually give to young journalists,” she said. “Get involved. The networking is important.”
Wearing Many Hats
Ms. Salinas also benefited from working at a station that was small enough to require her to wear many hats. She did two live public affairs programs a day, the daily newscast and a weekend entertainment program. In 1987 the company that owned KMEX, Spanish International Network, changed its name to Univision and began growing into the powerhouse it is today.
The transition from local to network news was a breakthrough moment in her career. “It was a big shift for me,” she said. “It was like starting from scratch, and the possibilities were endless.”
She had plenty of role models, including veteran anchor Henry Alfaro (who is also being inducted into the NAHJ Hall of Fame), Walter Cronkite and Diane Sawyer. Ms. Salinas also credited her news directors and colleagues at KMEX for helping her develop her skills. “One man, an editor, told me that the most difficult thing in TV is to be natural, and the most important thing in TV is to be natural,” she recalled. “He said, ‘Once you master that, you’ll be OK.’ I always kept that in the back of my mind.”
As Univision’s reach and stature grew, so did Ms. Salinas’ profile in the news community. In 2000 her coverage of Hurricane Mitch helped win Univision a News Emmy Award, the first ever for a Spanish-language network. She was honored with a second Emmy for moderating a network broadcast of a town hall meeting with Mexican President Vicente Fox. Ms. Salinas was also part of the Univision news team that received the Edward R. Murrow Award for its coverage of the Olympic Park bombings in Atlanta.
In addition to broadcast TV, Ms. Salinas is a weekly guest commentator on NPR’s “Latino USA” radio show and a syndicated columnist. Her weekly column, in both Spanish and English, on U.S. Hispanic issues and Latin America is distributed to more than 45 daily newspapers by King Features Syndicates. She also writes a weekly column on Hispanic issues for Univision.com.
Ms. Salinas is known as a passionate advocate for the Hispanic community. She has worked with the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials on voter registration and outreach efforts. She is involved in Digital Heroes, a Web-based youth mentoring program. She led a national radio campaign to motivate Hispanic students to stay in school, and she has worked with the U.S. Department of Health and Education on issues including the importance of immunization for young children and parental involvement in education.
She recently established the Mar%ED;a Elena Salinas Scholarship for Excellence in Spanish-language News, administered by the NAHJ, which awards two scholarships to promising journalism students. Ms. Salinas recently upped her contribution to the scholarship fund to $10,000 annually.
With the publication of “I Am My Father’s Daughter,” Ms. Salinas became a book author. Her memoir details the arc of her career and her search for the history of her father, who had once been a priest. The memoir debuted at No. 1 on Barnes & Noble’s Spanish best-seller list and has stayed in the top 10.
Out of this aggregate experience, Ms. Salinas has drawn some conclusions that fuel her continued efforts to bring news, information and support to her viewers and her community. “The future is still bright, regardless of whether or not our government makes English the official language,” she said. “People told me that there would be no future in Spanish-language media, and obviously that didn’t happen. Assimilation doesn’t mean leaving behind your culture and language. You just add another one on.”