Striking an Ethnicity/ Assimilation Balance

Jun 12, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Minerva Canto

Special to TelevisionWeek

The letters were direct and to the point: “Go back to Mexico.” “You’re too Latina.” “We can’t understand what you say.”

The hate mail rattled Minerva Perez when she was news anchor for KTLA-TV from 1986 to 1992, sometimes prompting tears as she drove the Hollywood Freeway to her Burbank, Calif., home. Ms. Perez, a fifth-generation Texan, has always spoken perfect English. The issue wasn’t the way she presented the news but rather how she said her own name.

“People roll their eyes when I roll my R’s,” said Ms. Perez, now an anchor at KTRK-TV in Houston who still pronounces her name the way it’s pronounced in Spanish and in the Rio Grande Valley, where she grew up. A KTLA news supervisor complained that the way Ms. Perez said her name “jarred the ear,” but Ms. Perez refused to pronounce it differently during her six-year tenure at KTLA.

For Ms. Perez, pronouncing her name the way she does is a matter of accuracy. Just as TV journalists are expected to correctly pronounce the names of foreign dignitaries, she argues, these journalists shouldn’t be penalized for pronouncing their own names correctly. The controversy she encountered then highlights a battle some Latino TV journalists say they still face in an industry where image is everything.

“They hire us because they want their on-air staff to appear more like the communities they serve, but they don’t want us to look too dark, too foreign or speak with an accent,” said Ysabel Duron, a local news anchor for KRON-TV in San Francisco and a 36-year veteran of the TV news industry.

Certainly, not all Latino TV talent encounter these types of difficulties. Catherine Garcia, an anchor and reporter for nearly three years at NBC affiliate KNSD-TV in San Diego, obtained her job after answering a call for a female reporter/ anchor at the station. The opening was not necessarily for a Latina, though she said, “I think that definitely didn’t hurt.”

The fact of the matter is more TV news stations are hiring Latino talent in an effort to better reflect the burgeoning Latino audiences they serve. What many news managers are just discovering is that there is as much diversity within that talent pool as there is in the Latino community, said Raul Mateu, who heads the Miami Beach, Fla., office of the William Morris Agency.

Take, for example, Carlos Ponce, a Puerto Rican entertainer with blond hair and blue eyes who grew up in Miami. Then there’s Julissa Bermudez, a host on BET who grew up in the Dominican Republic and was raised in Queens, N.Y. Both are Latino, though they don’t fit a preconceived mold that some believe still exists among many newsroom managers.

Once while working as an anchor in Chicago, Ms. Duron decided to put her dark hair up in a chignon for what she thought was a “very classic look.” Her station manager disagreed it was the right look, telling her, “Ysabel, I think you need to take your hair down. It would be good for your career.”

The station did not renew her contract when she requested her salary be raised to match that the highest-paid reporter at the station, she said. While job-hunting, she called on a news manager she heard was looking for a Latina.

“I’m looking for someone who can anchor as well as report,” Ms. Duron recalled being told. “I can do that,” she replied.

“Someone who’s between the ages of 24 and 36.” “I can’t do that,” said Ms. Duron, who was then in her 40s.

“Someone who looks like Giselle Fernandez,” the manager told her, referring to the former ABC and CBS network anchor who got her start in local news. “I can’t do that,” Ms. Duron replied, knowing she wouldn’t even be considered for the job.

Ms. Duron got her start in journalism in 1970, at a time when new Federal Communications Commission regulations on diversifying TV and radio newsrooms were just taking effect. She remembers newsrooms in Los Angeles and elsewhere courted her and 59 others enrolled in a minority journalism program at Columbia University. Just four others in the program were Latino, she said.

One of those colleagues was Geraldo Rivera, who, Ms. Duron recalls, went by the name Gerry Rivera back then. According to his biography, he later decided to use the name “Geraldo” to better reflect his Latino heritage on his father’s side. It was a move that continues to haunt him to this day as some critics charge that he and other journalists adopt Spanish surnames only to capitalize on hiring opportunities for Latinos.

Bilingual Skills a Plus

TV talent agents say there’s far more to hiring TV talent than whether the journalist has a Spanish surname. “I think Latino TV talent might be more in demand in some markets than others, but at the end of the day, I think what they are looking for are good journalists,” said Ezra Marcus, an agent at New York-based N.S. Bienstock and a former TV reporter for eight years.

Good writing skills, the ability to work well under deadline pressure, good style of delivery and a strong work ethic are among the characteristics Mr. Marcus and other agents cite as necessary to clinching any job.

“Their look is very important. It is TV,” said Mendes Napoli, founder of Beverly Hills-based Napoli Management Group, which represents about 400 clients. About 10 percent of those clients are Latino. “[But] I don’t think it’s any one look,” he said. “I think it varies, depending on who’s looking.”

Bilingual skills are always a plus, though not a necessity, for Latino talent working in English-language television. Speaking fluent Spanish means that a journalist such as Ms. Perez is able to pursue stories in Latin America.

But there is one characteristic that many agree has held back aspiring Latino broadcasters: speaking English with a Spanish accent. In past years it has been difficult for TV talent working in Spanish-language news to cross over to English-language news. But a few have been able to do it, and some say the times may be changing. “We’re starting to have some success where some of our clients who do have accents are able to do this. … It’s easier than it was two years ago,” Mr. Mateu said.

At KNSD in San Diego, a reporter who works for the sister Telemundo station sometimes does on-air reports for the English-language station.

After more than 25 years in the business, Ms. Perez has no regrets about refusing to bow to pressure not to pronounce her name differently. She said she felt it was a lonely battle because she had little support from her colleagues, even Latino ones. Larry McCormick, her co-anchor at KTLA, was one of the few who didn’t mind, she said.

After a 12-year absence Ms. Perez returned to Los Angeles for Mr. McCormick’s funeral a couple of years ago. She was amazed at the demographic transformation of Los Angeles. Latinos were everywhere, she observed.

“The culture itself is changing the vernacular,” she said. “More Latino journalists coming on board are saying their name correctly.”