With the appointment of rock star news journalist Ilia Calderón, to co-anchor the primetime “Noticiero Univisión,” racial justice and media activists have scored a monumental victory.
Starting in December, Calderón will succeed the legendary María Elena Salinas to host alongside the iconic Jorge Ramos. This is unprecedented here, and probably everywhere, except in parts of Africa and the Caribbean. Noticiero Univisión’s new co-anchor is Black.
Calderón and I were teens when, in 1987, Salinas became co-anchor to Ramos, who took the post just a year prior. Both are white and of Mexican extraction. Growing up, neither Calderón’s native Colombia nor my Dominican Republic had news anchors that reflected us.
But guess who became her own hero on national Colombian television? Calderón eventually landed in Miami and at Telemundo in 2001. A decade later, she was hosting Univisión’s late news edition. Next month, that will be her old job.
Victoria Arzú, from Proyecto Más Color (PMC), reacted to the news happily but with caution. Since its founding in 2014, PMC has targeted Univisión and Telemundo, the two largest Spanish language networks in the U.S. The organization protests degradation and invisibility in the portrayal of Afro and Indigenous Latinxs, and others, and demands change. As Arzú puts it, “the media is the window to the outside world for so many of our people. It has a responsibility to show the reality, the true colors of Latin America.”
“I’m content about it but not satisfied,” says Arzú. “[Ilia] has already been broadcasting on national news and it’s a face people know. I think they’re trying to do that to appease critics but they’re not doing enough.”
Arzú believes that the media will “suffer the consequences” if they fail to include Afro-Latinos, especially considering the African influence “that has made Latin America what it is today.”
While there is cause for celebration, many factors were likely involved in the decision to hire Calderón. The bottom line is that the policies, practices and programming of these networks have attracted attention. And advertising dollars, shareholders and the race to stay relevant in the digital era are at the heart of their priorities.
I suspect many influences that include the activism of PMC, bloggers such as NegrawithTumbao and other issues at play, like:
1) The reputation of racism that led an executive in the early 1990s to warn Cuban-born veteran reporter for Telemundo, Lori Montenegro, then a newbie, that “when those Mexicans [at her new job at Univisión] saw a Black woman, she wouldn’t last six months.”
2) The outstanding Telemundo miniseries “Celia,” about Celia Cruz, which featured a respectably-sized cast of Afrodescendants. It created the expectation in non-white audiences of greater representation.
3) Former Univisión host and fashion reporter Rodner Figueroa’s temporary downfall in 2015 after making an infamous joke live on air comparing then First Lady Michelle Obama to apes. He was fired at Univisión, but just hired at Telemundo.
Lastly, Calderón’s weekly news journal, “Aquí y Ahora,” produced “En la Boca del Lobo” (in the wolf’s mouth) this summer, exposing the twin evils of anti-Black racism and xenophobia.
Many viewers found themselves witnesses and vicarious targets of Calderón’s ordeal.
CREDIT: Credit: Univisión
Facing a vicious KKK leader, who had agreed to be interviewed apparently unaware of the anchor’s identity, she endured hate speech via the N-word, hearing that immigrants deserved death and getting threatened with arson if she didn’t leave the premises—all while exhibiting unimaginable restraint. In an era of white supremacist savagery, both networks also compete to improve their own long-tarnished image on diversity, equity and progress.
This is not to take away from Calderón, who is impressive in her own right. Her qualities have been demonstrated by her Emmy, the successful juggling of three simultaneous and challenging roles at Univisión and the love and respect of many.
Ilia’s impassioned and extensive March 2015 letter, written in Spanish and soon after translated to English and shared widely, was triggered by Figueroa and earned her a loyal base. She wrote:
I worry about the world in which I live, but I worry even more about the world in which my daughter will live. One day, in a park, a boy tells a girl: ‘You’re ugly, you’re black’. Her response was more intelligent than we could have imagined, ‘then your heart is the color of my skin’. What grief to know that at seven years old, she had to learn to answer like that. Once, the 5-year old daughter of the manager of a company for which I worked told me, ‘Do not touch me, you are black’…
We are full of ‘little phrases’ that have become so common, that we accept them without thinking of the consequence and the damage it can cause others. Dr. Maya Angelou said it right: “People will forget what you do. People will forget what you say. But never forget how you made them feel.“ And it happens every day, at all times, and without us noticing.
Through the statement, she challenged Latinxs to watch out for hatred and discrimination while demanding respect and dignity for groups aggrieved by casual prejudices, including same-sex couples and her own daughter, who is of Black and East Asian parentage. The journalist becomes the conscience of the marginalized, along the way asking more of her followers as humans and parents.
She said to People Chica that it’s a great responsibility knowing she’s opening doors for other generations. Not only for journalists, but for other girls and women who want to succeed at what they do.
“My commitment is not only to the Afro-Hispanic community but to the Hispanic community in general,” she says.
It’s obvious that Calderón has earned this, and that, like us, has been waiting. Given what she’s shown us so far, we’ve never needed her more. In so many ways.