How Spanish-Language Broadcasters Gave Voice to America’s Hispanics

In a country where more than 37 million people speak Spanish, stations like Telemundo reach under-served communities

A common thread to this huge collection of materials—time-worn press credentials, painted tennis shoes, photographs, mic flags, scripts—is that they represent decades in the making of the Spanish-language broadcasting network Telemundo. NMAH

When Marilys Llanos helped found Miami’s Telemundo station WSCV-TV in 1985, she wasn’t thinking about all the tools that would accompany her time there as museum artifacts. She used at least a dozen different microphone flags when the station changed its design, accumulated photographs from reporting trips and even won the station’s first Florida Emmy award for her reporting on cocaine trafficking in Miami. She’s a senior reporter now, but she only started thinking of these objects as historic a few years ago when a coworker teased her about how quaint her handwritten television scripts seem today.

“My scripts are all on paper because I’m no good at computers,” Llanos told an audience at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “And I have a colleague at 51 who said, ‘Listen, someday these scripts will be at the Smithsonian.’”

The scripts, mic flags, photos and Emmy all lay on a nearby table along with an assortment of other artifacts that appeared odd at first glance: time-worn press credentials, a glittering dress, painted tennis shoes, pocket squares, a battered USO hat and an assortment of photographs. All of them had a common thread, though; they represented decades in the making of the Spanish-language broadcasting network Telemundo.

Preserving the history of Spanish-language broadcasting and the stories is the overall goal of the Smithsonian’s initiative “Eschuchame: the History of Spanish-language Broadcasting in the U.S.” More than 40 Telemundo employees contributed some of their signature possessions from their careers at the network and at local member stations in Los Angeles, Miami, New York and Puerto Rico. Museum curators and staff also conducted 38 oral histories with the station’s reporters, anchors, traffic directors, engineers, camera operators, art directors and staff from the sales and marketing teams. At a donation ceremony on October 4 that coincided with Hispanic Heritage Month, some of the participating employees came to reflect on what it meant to be part of Spanish-language broadcast history.

Before the ceremony started, though, Florida Democratic Congressman Darren Soto took the stage to speak about what was on the minds of a lot of people in the room: Puerto Rico. Following the devastation of Hurricane Maria, which left most Puerto Ricans without power, Telemundo 51 had also helped their reporters send supplies to their families back on the island. For example, Llanos had been able to send things like water, pasta and toilet paper. Soto thanked the journalists in the room for reporting on the hurricane, as well as the National Association for Broadcasters who had helped get thousands of radios to Puerto Rico.

Soto said that the network has been crucial in documenting the stories on the island, good and bad: papal visits, Miss America pageants, hurricanes and controversial events surrounding the presence of the U.S. Navy on the island of Vieques. “If we don’t know our history, both oral, written and of course in broadcast and video,” he said, “we won’t be able to learn the lessons of history and we won’t be able to progress onward.”

Three reporters—José Diaz Balart, Allan Villafaña and Llanos—later took the stage to talk about some of stories they covered for Telemundo, explaining the backstories for many of the objects on the table.

Balart donated more than 30 press credentials to the collections from the early days of his career, and marking the formative years of Spanish-language television in the U.S. They represent, he says, just a sliver of the stories he covered between 1985 and 1988: political conventions, the Central American civil wars and politics in the nation’s Capital.

There are a lot of stories that have really remained with him, he says, but they’re not the ones involving “princes and presidents.” Instead, they’re the ones, he says, about people doing works of service beyond the public eye. He remembered a woman he met in Mexico while covering the recent earthquake there who was giving a handful of oranges away to strangers who were helping people trapped in the rubble. He met a paramedic in Chile in the wake of the 2010 earthquake who lost most of his family in a tsunami, but who was helping injured children in a makeshift hospital.

Ever since Telemundo launched in Puerto Rico in 1954 and expanded to the U.S., he said, they have spoken directly to a community who were never properly served by English-only stations. “Those people are the people we are privileged to give a voice,” he said. “Those are the people who have been instrumental in weaving American culture for decades.”

By that point, some members of the audience were blinking away tears. One of the panelists, historian and Smithsonian curator Mireya Loza, said that stations like Telemundo were everything to her. The anchors spoke her language, and they even looked like her. This was a big deal to her, especially in a country where 37 million people are Spanish speakers. “I am of that generation that knows no other world than the world where Spanish-language television exists in the U.S.,” she said. “Journalists in Spanish-language television are our champions, our guardians, our advocates.” She thanked the reporters onstage for doing that work on a daily basis.

That work hadn’t been happening when Marilys Llanos first started her job. The design on her first mic flag resembled the red, white and blue design of the Cuban flag to represent Miami’s growing Cuban population during the 1980s. Now, though, Telemundo 51, is the top-rated news station in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area.

At first, she thought she’d stay for a couple of years and then move on from the station. Now, she’s gotten a handful of offers to move up to work the national news, but she’s stayed firmly in place in Miami because of how much she loves it there. “Miami viewers are my real bosses,” she said. “They like me a lot. I like them a lot.”

One of the objects that Allan Villafaña donated was a telephone he used when he was a correspondent in the command center in Doha, Qatar. The members of the armed services would also use the phone to call their families, which he mentioned once on-air. The next day, he got a bunch of emails from viewers who wanted to pay off the phone bill and told him to keep doing a good job. It felt like a tremendous honor at the time, he said.

He also addressed a question at the heart of the “Escuchame” initiative: the relationships that Spanish-language journalists have to their audience, as opposed to English-language ones. He said that they like to feel a part of the story and the conversation, which he knows first-hand. Growing up in Puerto Rico, he remembered watching Telemundo’s news and television programming like Tio Nobel. He even recalled seeing Llanos anchoring Telemundo 51 when he was a college student in Miami.

Now, he gets to be a part of what he saw growing up. “Being a journalist is being a custodian of history,” he said.

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