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María Elena Salinas is a record-setter. When she wraps up her final Noticiero Univision evening newscast at the end of this year, she will have served as a network anchor for 30 years — far longer than broadcast icons Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite or Peter Jennings, none of whom made it to a quarter-century.
Only her co-anchor, Jorge Ramos, has been on a network broadcast as long: the two teamed up for Noticiero in 1987.
Salinas’ longevity, her personal style and her commitment to Hispanic civic engagement have made her not only the face of Univision news, but a role model among Latino journalists in Spanish- and English-language media. And her tenure has coincided with huge increase in her potential audience: The U.S. Hispanic population has grown from 14 million in 1986 to 59 million today.
“We’ve grown together,” Salinas said. “There’s a whole generation of young Latinos who watch [Noticiero] because they were forced by their parents to watch at dinnertime. A lot of kids say to me, ‘I watched you growing up.’ ”
Salinas also hosts Univision’s newsmagazine show Aquí y Ahora, and she doesn’t just stay on the set. “I can’t stay behind the anchor desk for too long without going out and reporting a story.”
She’s done the prestige stories: She has interviewed every president since Jimmy Carter, with the exception of Donald Trump, whose promise to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border has put him at odds with many Hispanics. “I don’t think he wants to give Univision an interview,” Salinas said.
She’s done the grim stories too — Hurricane Mitch, the 1998 storm that killed 11,000 people in Central America; earthquakes in Haiti and El Salvador — and felt the pain of the devastation.
“Reporters are not supposed to get emotionally involved, that’s the unwritten rule, but you think, what can you do? The only thing you can do is tell the story,” she said. Leaving behind people in distress and returning to the United States “to hug your children in your air-conditioned home — that’s a really tough thing.”
In 2012, Salinas received a Lifetime Achievement Emmy, and in 2014 a Peabody and an Emmy for Entre el abandono y el rechazo (Between Abandonment and Rejection), about the thousands of unaccompanied children coming to the United States from Central America. In 1984, she played a role in founding the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) to help young journalists climb the ladder. She also funds an annual journalism scholarship through the organization.
“She worked her way up from local news to network news,” said Brandon Benavides, NAHJ president and an executive producer at KSAT in San Antonio, Texas. “She’s been someone to look up to.”
But when Salinas started at KMEX Los Angeles, the city’s Spanish-language station, in 1981, she says her goal was to get into ad sales. “I was very shy. It was very difficult for me to be in front of a camera. I worked in radio and I had the kind of hair you have for radio,” she joked.
To her surprise, she was drawn to TV. She liked “the rhythmic and beautifully condensed language of broadcast TV,” as she called it in her 2006 memoir Yo Soy La Hija de Mi Padre. She also saw a huge demand for information in the Spanish-speaking community.
“At the time we were sort of like the lifeline to the immigrant community, the one that wasn’t bilingual,” said the L.A.-born Salinas, a child of immigrants from Mexico. “A lot of people watched us, a lot of people depend on us. And I saw that. These people were hungry for information. I became very passionate about it.”
During a 1985 race for Los Angeles City Council, Salinas did “man on the street” interviews about the possibility of electing the city’s first Latino council member in 25 years, Richard Alatorre. To her dismay, she said, “I interviewed 16 people and 15 weren’t voting.” She thought she had come back without a story, but the news director thought otherwise.
“He said, ‘The story is right in front of you. Here’s an opportunity to elect a Latino and they’re not voting,’ ” Salinas recalled. “I thought, the political empowerment of the Latino community is really up to us.”
It’s a mission she’s been pursuing ever since. Salinas has worked on civic engagement projects with the National Association of Latino Elected Officials Educational Fund (NALEO). With support from Univision, she promoted citizenship application and voter registration through campaigns such as the Peabody-winning Ya Es Hora in 2007.
“She has essentially been our national megaphone,” said Arturo Vargas, NALEO’s president. “She’s always been ‘authentic.’ She’s obviously somebody with a very glamorous life … but she has no qualms about connecting with those who have the biggest struggles, whether they’re undocumented immigrants or people suffering from disasters.”
Salinas is leaving Univision at a time when the policy debate over immigration is intense. Media stories about the potential for the Trump administration to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, have highlighted the undocumented young people known as “Dreamers,” whose parents brought them to the U.S. when they were children and who now face deportation if DACA is ended. Salinas feels more needs to be done to “bridge the gap between the Latino community and the rest of the country.”
“We are Americans,” she said. “I don’t understand why when we’ve been part of this country since its inception we have to keep constantly reintroducing ourselves.”
Her next venture may help do that. Earlier this year Salinas launched an English-language show on Investigation Discovery called The Real Story with María Elena Salinas. “I have a very close relationship with the Latino community; now I want to tell their stories to an audience that doesn’t know them,” she said.
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