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María Elena Salinas

Unraveling family mysteries

En español | Covering wars, natural disasters, elections, and papal visits is Emmy Award-winning journalist María Elena Salinas's job. But these stories paled when the Univision anchorwoman took on her toughest assignment. That story came just days after her father died in 1985. In one of his tattered files was a document that left her speechless: it said her father once had been a priest. A priest?

That revelation led Salinas on a vast search of her father's past. I was fortunate to accompany her on part of that journey, as a collaborator on her memoir, I Am My Father's Daughter: Living a Life Without Secrets (April 2006).

Working with María Elena, I saw a journalist who was determined to unravel family mysteries. In the process, she discovered fundamental truths about herself. That same dogged pursuit of the facts has marked the rise of Salinas's career, one that reflects the growth of her U.S. Hispanic viewership. Her own roots as a child of South Central Los Angeles have given the Miami-based reporter a unique connection to her public.

This year, at 51, Salinas celebrates her 25th year as an anchorwoman. But her greatest sense of accomplishment is her family: daughters Julia, 11, and Gaby, 8, and her husband, Eliott Rodríguez, an anchorman for Miami's WFOR (CBS 4).

In this interview, Salinas gives us a glimpse into her multifaceted world. (Excerpts are from I Am My Father's Daughter: Living A Life Without Secrets. Copyright © 2006 by María Elena Salinas. Published by arrangement with Rayo, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.)

When I began my career in television, the U.S. Hispanic population numbered about 14 million. Today there are some 40 million with a combined buying power of over $600 billion. At times, watching this explosion from the inside has been nothing short of mind-numbing. The numbers carried with them echoes of lands I came to know well in my travels throughout Latin America, as well as phrases and dialects that would open up the American vernacular. But here was the frustrating part: the soaring numbers did not translate to proper representation for Hispanics in the larger society...

I realized that we in the Spanish-language media carried an enormous responsibility to reach this audience, not just for the sake of our ratings but for the sake of their survival.

Q: As a U.S. Hispanic journalist, what makes your mission different from that of mainstream U.S. journalists?

A: My mission is not only to inform the Hispanic community but also to give them the information to help them adapt to life in this country. What are their rights as Hispanics? What is their potential as a community? What are their challenges? 

The main problem any community faces is the lack of information. Whatever we can do to provide people with crucial information—about education, vaccinations, immigration, voting rights—is very valuable. I can provide information without telling people they should do this or that. I think it's using my visibility for a good cause.

Q: What insights did you gain while writing this book?

A: I realized that a lot of the things that shaped my way of being, my personality, my values, have so much to do with my father.

Another thing I learned, which is sort of controversial, is that my own personal relationship with my faith, with my God, had a lot to do with my father. I had all these doubts, all these questions. I felt liberated after finding out so much about him. I understood that it's okay to have doubts. There's nothing wrong with questioning.

I remember her with a pin cushion around her wrist and scissors in hand, cutting through fabric on her sewing table, or seated at her sewing machine pedaling away, a piece of thread dangling from the edge of her mouth. She always brought extra work home. My mother was not only accomplished at her duties; she was loving, patient, kind, witty, strong and comforting. I dreamed of the day when I, too, would be a mother. And I wanted to be just like her.

Q: What's the most valuable thing you learned from your mother?

A: My mother, que en paz descanse, taught me so many things. Good work ethic, certainly. But the first thing that pops into my head when I think of her is her positive attitude. She took on every challenge she faced—as a professional, as a woman, as a mother—with a positive attitude. She was not a complainer at all. One thing I learned from her is that you can multitask. And another thing I learned was to always take others into consideration.

My love for him ran as deeply as the mysteries surrounding his life. Disciplinarian, pacifist, intellectual, undocumented. He had been an enigma, even in our small, tight-knit family. He bounced from job to job, enterprise to enterprise. He worked as a Realtor, an accountant, a bowling alley manager, a professor. But it wasn't big bucks or salary bonuses he seemed to be after. Instead, he was driven by a sense of mission and charity.

Q: What valuable lessons did your father teach you?

A: Discipline. Formality. Respect. Self-respect.

Motherhood became the lens through which I contemplated the world. It became increasingly difficult to leave my daughters at home while I went away on assignment. Everything about them crept into my time away, their voices, their tears, their pictures...

For the most part my daughters were oblivious to my traveling until they got old enough to realize that "good-bye" sometimes meant it would be days before they saw me again...

I still get choked up when I have to say good-bye before going on assignment. I call them morning, noon, and night. I need to hear their voices and, more importantly, I don't want them to get used to my absence.

Q: What lessons would you like to pass on to your daughters?

A: To have emotional balance in their life. To be considerate and have a good heart. To be giving. What frightens me more than anything is the thought that they could turn out to be selfish, or greedy, or materialistic. I remind them every single day that we are fortunate to have the things we have.

I know the rules of journalism, particularly the unwritten one that forbids reporters from getting too involved in the stories they cover. Don't get involved politically, of course. Don't get involved socially. Don't get involved emotionally. But it is that last part that I often wish I could erase with makeup.... How does one cover up the feelings stirred by stories of loss and love?