Latina journalists shine in a Smithsonian exhibit
Spanish-language television plays an important role in immigrant communities who don't speak English, as well as bilingual families. Each relies on it as a source of news. Now, some of the female broadcasters who pioneered Spanish- language television are being recognized in a new exhibit at the National Museum of American History, at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
"¡De última hora! Latinas Report Breaking News" is a bilingual experience. The exhibit includes names that may not be familiar to many TV viewers, but who are household names in Spanish-language and bilingual families. It highlights the work ofMaría Elena Salinas,Blanca Rosa Vílchez,Dunia Elvir,Marilys Llanos,Gilda Mirós,Lori Montenegro, andIlia Calderón – former and current TV journalists.
Melinda Machado is a co-curator, she says these women "serve as the face, the trusted source and voice for Spanish-speaking communities in the U.S." Their stories embody those of many hundreds of women who work in broadcasting, she says.
The idea for "¡De última hora! Latinas Report Breaking News" began about seven years ago with a project called "Escúchame'' or "Listen to Me," which documented the history of Spanish-language television across the country through oral histories from former and current TV station employees.
Travel for the curatorial team came to a halt when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, but the team continued its work virtually. And though the museum has done significant research and documentation on the origins of Spanish-language broadcasting, it's the first time it features female Spanish- language television journalists.
When the curatorial team came back together, it was clear that the focus should be on the impact of women journalists in their communities. Machado says Spanish-speaking communities see themselves represented in Spanish-language TV news and that's one reason people trust the information much more than they trust English-language news, "trust is a singular difference between mainstream and Spanish-language TV news."
News in Spanish serves their community
On a recent early morning, Dulce Vida Bakery in Hyattsville, Maryland, is bustling with activity.
Customers pick up pastries and tamales and a long line snakes to the back waiting to pay. Most here are not aware of the Smithsonian exhibit a few miles away, though when asked about their Spanish-language TV news habits some are eager to share them.
"I can't imagine life without Spanish-language news," says María Torres. She watches both Univision and Telemundo news. "I trust them. That's one of the best things you have living in this country – you have access to reliable information."
Honduran-born Torres has lived in Maryland for more than 20 years.
"I'm interested in news about immigration, healthcare and social security, among other things," says Torres, in her native Spanish while holding a bag of semitas, traditional Latin American pastries made with unprocessed sugar cane and raisins.
According to a Nielsen study, "Attitudes on Representation in Media," 72% of Latinx say that it's very important to watch content in their own language and 69% of Hispanic adults say local TV news is a reliable source of information. Nielsen measures audiences and media consumption trends around the world.
Miguel Camacho, a plumber who lives in Takoma Park, Maryland, is at Dulce Vida to get chicken tamales. He says, "I've always liked watching the news."
He too watches news on the two main Spanish-language networks, he says.
"If we didn't have Spanish-language TV news, we wouldn't know anything that's happening," Camacho says. "We wouldn't know what the government is doing in terms of immigration, the borders, politics. We wouldn't know about the (current) war in Israel!"
Mexican-born Camacho says he studied English when he first came to the United States about three decades ago, but he prefers to watch news in Spanish "because I understand all the nuances of what's being reported and I can miss somethings in English."
He says he trusts Spanish-language TV hosts and reporters. "They look like us. It also makes me feel like I am home, in my country."
When asked who his favorite personality is, he doesn't skip a beat.
"I miss María Elena Salinas," he says. "She's thoughtful and conscientious, she inspires trust in me," Camacho says. Salinas is a former Univision News anchor and one of the most acclaimed Spanish-language television news personalities.
Latina journalists get their due, but not without struggle
Back at the Smithsonian exhibit hall you hear the authoritative, yet warm voice of Salinas.
"Latina journalists are always there, covering breaking news," she says in a Spanish video with English subtitles. "We feel a deep responsibility, not only to inform, but also to help the community understand and navigate our complex reality."
Salinas spent 37 years with Univision and says that Latina journalists have reached far, "but they still face unrealistic beauty standards, gender discrimination and different expectations than male reporters." She's currently a contributor to ABC News.
In the video, Lori Montenegro, Noticias Telemundo Bureau Chief in Washington, D.C., says, "Every time they reach an important position, they begin to be scrutinized." She is talking about women in the business.
"And there is still sexism and racism on and off camera," Salinas adds. "Despite the many barriers Latina journalists on television have broken, there is still a long way to go, but I know we are up for the challenge because our community deserves the highest quality news."
Exhibit organizers didn't have in mind a particular target audience, but co-curator Machado says, "We want to reach across audiences."
Vedant Trivedi is visiting from New York City. He says he's here because he's a "huge history buff" and feels lucky to have stumbled onto the exhibit.
"I think it's a really beautiful exhibit, and it's nice to see the Smithsonian giving representation to our country's diverse communities," says Trivedi, whose parents emigrated from India in the 1970's. He's a trained economist who studied Spanish for more than a decade.
Trivedi says the exhibit does a good job of "telling stories of Latinas and the story of America."
And that's important, he says, because "You can't tell the story of America without including the stories of the immigrants who came here and built it."
Trailblazing Latina journalists shine a light in their community
The story of these seven female journalists is depicted with each covering a moment in history, including immigration marches, political debates, Cuban rafters, terrorist attacks, and Black Lives Matter protests, among others.
"Blanca Rosa Vílchez was one of the very first journalists on the scene in New York City, not only watching the Twin Towers fall," on the morning of September 11, 2001, says Machado, "but running for her life."
Vílchez is a Peruvian-born national correspondent for Univision News.
The outfit Vílchez was wearing on 9/11 is displayed in a glass case – a deep blue jewel-toned blouse with a black jacket.
"She picked it because she was going to do person-on-the-street interviews for a primary election," Machado says. "She ended up wearing it for about three days at ground zero."
The space is relatively modest, about the size of half a tennis court. But it does give you the sense that Spanish-language news is an intricate part of U.S. history. The exhibit displays scripts, press credentials, a can of hairspray, clothing, shoes – including a pair of hand-painted white tennis shoes that reflect the life of Telemundo journalist Dunia Elvir – and pictures of the women interviewing high-profile subjects as well as ordinary people.
There is Salinas' interview with Subcomandante Marcos in Chiapas, México, in 1998. He was the leader of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, a leftist guerrilla group that opposed NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement that created a free-trade zone between México, Canada and the United States.
Machado says that one of the exhibit's goals is to highlight the difference between Spanish-language and mainstream news.
"Latina journalists inform and advocate for their community," says Machado, who sees that as positive. She attended journalism school and says that she learned that objectivity in journalism can be ambiguous.
"If you really look across history, it is sort of its own myth," she says.
She pauses and chooses her words carefully. "Who's the first quote? Who's the second quote? Who's not quoted in a news report," she asks. "There are still human beings making decisions. We're telling two sides (of a story.) Well, maybe there are three sides."
Latinx still fighting for representation in mainstream media
"I'm a native of the border community of Nogales, Arizona. Nogales, Mexico," says Carlos Parra, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Arizona. "And I grew up watching Spanish-language news with my grandparents."
He says his parents watched mainstream news, but for him watching Spanish- language TV has always felt more like home.
"This is our news and they are talking about us," says Parra.
He is writing a book with the working title, Televising Latinidad: Latino Los Angeles and the Rise of Spanish-Language TV in the United States, 1960-2010. He also served as a consultant for the"¡De última hora! Latinas Report Breaking News" exhibit.
He says that mainstream news in the United States rarely includes Latinos in its coverage, and when it does, Latinos are not shown three-dimensionally. Parra is a third-generation American who's bilingual and bicultural, and says that who's in newsrooms matters because those are the people who make news coverage decisions.
"Who are the news producers, who's the editor making the assignments? The representation happens in the newsroom, behind the camera," Parra says.
"There is a lack of texture and context in English-TV news covering Spanish- speaking communities," says Parra, citing current coverage of Venezuelan migrants. "There is no discussion of how President Maduro became a dictator or the impact of U.S. sanctions on the country beginning in 2014," and how those sanctions impacted the country.
All we hear is the migrants are coming, says Parra.
Another difference between mainstream and Spanish-language TV news is the lack of coverage of Latin American and Mexican cultural celebrations in mainstream TV news, says Parra, "like marking (Spanish-speaking countries) Independence Day or producing obituaries of popular culture icons like Mexican singerJuan Gabriel."
Parra is thrilled that the contributions of Latina journalists in Spanish-language TV news are getting recognized though he says that as a consumer and researcher of the medium, the networks need to evolve, they need to produce programming to attract younger, Spanish-speaking recent immigrants as well as less Spanish-proficient Latinas/Latinos, often third or fourth generations removed from the immigrant experience.
"It needs to be more inclusive," 36-year-old Parra says, referring to coverage. Telemundo and Univision tend to be geared towards an older audience, he says.
Both Spanish TV networks have tried different programming in the past, says Parra. For example, in 2000 Telemundo launched Mund2, a subscription-based channel airing a mix of entertainment-oriented Spanish and English-language content. In 2015 Mund2 became NBC Universo and according to the Nielsen Company, Universo was the 112th most watched TV network in 2022, while Univision was 7th and Telemundo was 14th in the same year.
Univision ventured into English-language media in 2013 appealing to bicultural Latino millennials with its Fusion TV, but it failed to make the channel profitable, ultimately pulling the plug in 2021.
"Is there room on Spanish-language TV for Spanglish? Or even for occasional English-language programming that's Latino specific?" asks Parra. He thinks it can be done.
"¡De última hora! Latinas Report Breaking News" exhibit opened last month at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. and it runs through May 2025.
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