Univision anchor Ilia Calderón still can’t quite believe that she is featured in a museum exhibition in Washington, D.C. But the award-winning Afro-Latina journalist knows what it means to her, and to those who may follow in her footsteps one day.
“It’s a great honor for me. I feel more than honored, humbled to be in that privileged place,” says Calderón, the primetime co-host of Univision’s popular newsmagazine “Aquí y Ahora.” “But it means a lot for kids, Hispanics and Blacks to see someone like them in a museum.”
Calderón says she wants young women in high school and college, watching television, to think about their own potential when they see her in front of the camera.
“I want [them] to see what I didn’t see when I was growing up. I never saw someone like me, doing something important or playing an important role in the news in Colombia,” she says. “I want them to see that this is possible, that I can represent them, and that they can be me one day.”
Calderón is one of seven Latina journalists featured in the exhibition “¡De Última Hora! Latinas Report Breaking News,” a bilingual experience at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. All are legends in the world of Spanish-language TV, partly because of their dedication to journalism centered around their communities.
Exhibition co-curator Melinda Machado says the thesis for the exhibition is that Latina journalists often write the first draft of history for their community.
“The exhibition is organized in this gallery to look at the questions journalists ask—who, what, when, where and why—and then, as a history museum we paired each Latina journalist with one significant piece of American history,” Machado says, “from the Vietnam War; to the falling of the Twin Towers in New York, when Blanca Rosa Vílchez was one of the very first journalists on the scene; to the 2020 presidential debates; to Black Lives Matter, when Telemundo producer, now Washington bureau chief Lori Montenegro, who’s also Afro-Latina, was shot at in the protests.”
The idea for the exhibition began with the museum’s seven-year project “Escúchame: the History of Spanish Language Broadcasting in the U.S.,” when curators documented the business of Spanish-language TV, collecting artifacts and conducting some 100 oral histories—interviewing on-air talent, as well as employees working in marketing and sales, production, engineering and management.
Machado says when the bilingual curatorial team looked at all the material they had collected, the conversations seemed to focus on the reporters in front of the camera. A multimedia presentation at the center of the 1,000 square-foot gallery is narrated by ABC News contributor María Elena Salinas, whom the New York Times has described as the “Voice of Hispanic America.”
On a recent visit, Machado points to a video playing in the exhibition, addressing events in San Antonio, where she grew up. Very few people, she says, seem to realize that San Antonio was the birthplace of Spanish-language television in the United States. “Here’s Channel 41, in my hometown, and now here we are in Puerto Rico,” she says, pointing at the screen set in front of comfortable chairs.
“In both San Antonio and San Juan, you have entrepreneurs who own radio stations and apply for FCC licenses. A man named Raoul Cortez is finally approved in 1954 and goes on the air in 1955. So, a Mexican American, who has been a longtime journalist and radio owner, really advocating for the community since the pre-World War II era, now is licensed for television.”
“¡De Última Hora!” delivers a rich history of Spanish-language journalists dating to the 1800s, when El Misisipi was the earliest such periodical published in the U.S. Then there are the early 1900s, when Mexican American journalist and suffragist Jovita Idar faced dangerous situations as part of her job. In September this year, as part of the United States Mint’s initiative to recognize the contributions of American women, it featured Idar on a newly released quarter.
Latina journalists have faced many challenges, from sexism to motherhood to dealing with prejudices over their accents. Machado, who is half Cuban American and half Mexican American, points out that there is no single Spanish-language accent, and television stations were looking for what would appeal to most of their audiences. She uses the example of Gilda Mirós, one of the seven Latina journalists who are the focus of the show. Mirós began her career in Mexican films in the 1960s, and, besides being a famous actor, she was also an author and journalist.
“Mirós was born in Puerto Rico, raised in New York, and by 18 decides to go to Mexico to be in the movies. It’s still the ‘Golden Age of Mexican Cinema,’ and they say, ‘You can’t be in the movies with that accent.’ … So, she takes elocution lessons, learned how to adapt her accent and is in the movies,” Machado says.
Mirós was then invited by the USO to perform for the troops in Vietnam, did a documentary on Latino and African American soldiers, and then another about Rikers Island, in the 1970s, and was invited to do a four-hour political talk show for Univision. But Machado says the journalist told the station she couldn’t work on the show because she was pregnant. They hired Mirós anyway.
Dunia Elvir, the evening news anchor at Telemundo 52 in Los Angeles, says she also had to work to make her Spanish accent as generic as possible. Like Mirós, she used tongue twisters to learn how to pronounce each letter and word to have the “right” kind of diction.
“My Spanish, I can tell you, and people that speak Spanish can tell you, is super neutral,” says Elvir, who was born in Honduras. “You can’t tell from Honduran, Mexican, Guatemalan or from South America, and I did that on purpose. I just relearned the language because I didn’t want people to say, ‘Oh, is she from here?’ ‘She’s from there.’ I want people to think: That is a girl that is in the moment. I wasn’t even thinking for people to say: That is a Latina woman. I just want people to see: That’s a woman. We are as strong as guys!”
These Latina journalists have a lot to deal with, including persistent racism and colorism. Their complexions, like those of African Americans, range from café au lait to cinnamon to maple to mahogany, which can be a focus of discrimination in a nation where the color of one’s skin can still adversely affect your career or your life.
Calderón says it is a weird feeling. “For some people I am not dark enough to be Black. And for others, I am not white enough to be Latina. So, I’m like, in the middle,” she says. “I feel I am Black. I grew up in a Black community, and it is the way I identify myself, even though I have blood from other races.”
In 2017, in a contentious interview, Calderón spoke with Ku Klux Klan leader Christopher Barker at his home in North Carolina. Barker called her the n-word and appeared to threaten her, saying he would “burn” her off his property. The Colombian native says she volunteered to do the interview, partly because she was aware that Hispanic people were being harassed with racist slurs, and she wanted to try to get into his mind.
“I was expecting to be insulted, but I never expected that level of a threat. It was scary,” she recalls, “but our people saw who they really are, and that their ideas are not coming from a strong point. I think we showed our viewers in Spanish that racism is not a topic that only matters to Black people in the United States, but to all of us that look different than … the racists and supremacists.”
In September, Calderón was invited to be one of the moderators on Fox News for the second Republican presidential primary debate. The Emmy award-winning journalist, the first Afro-Latina to anchor a flagship newscast in Spanish, drew ire from the audience and on social media for the pointed questions she asked on issues from immigration to hate crimes.
“I think they lost a moment that they had to engage with the voters. … My role on that table was to ask questions [about] the topics that are important to my community, to the community that I represent. We need more people like me asking questions that are not usually asked,” Calderón explains.
Elvir feels a similarly deep responsibility to the Latina community, noting that she came from Honduras and represents a lot of people who came to this country just like her. She has received numerous awards, including 13 Emmys, a GLAAD Media Award and three Golden Mikes, and she was at the White House in February this year along with other leaders of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists to discuss issues ranging from immigration to Spanish-language press access.
Elvir and her husband have seven children. The couple also care for her nephew, and Elvir does a plethora of community service including volunteering as a teacher at InsideOut Writers, which supports incarcerated youth. But she never forgets where she came from.
“I was born in Honduras, and Honduras is a third world country,” Elvir says. “I have memories from when I was little of not having a floor, not even a floor. It was dirt, compacted. My grandma would brush it really nice, and when I think of it as a kid, you think it’s a floor until you grow up and you realize it’s just dirt, compacted and groomed.”
Elvir came to the United States on a tourist visa and cleaned houses with her grandmother in the Watts neighborhood of southern Los Angeles, earning about $10 a day. In the 1980s, Watts was a dangerous neighborhood where gang violence and drugs were common. But Elvir says it was a matter of perspective for a new kid who didn’t speak the language, didn’t understand the culture and didn’t understand the socio-economic infrastructure. Even as she and her grandma took two or three buses to get to the houses they cleaned, Elvir saw the city as a beautiful place.
“You have a kid from a third world country cleaning houses, thinking she’s rich because she has a carpet and toilet inside the house,” Elvir says. But then she ran into discrimination, which hadn’t been a factor growing up Afro-Latino in a very mixed city in Honduras. Watts was different.
“I was Honduran. The Mexicans did not like me. I was not Mexican. The African Americans thought I was Mexican, so they beat the heck out of me. And then there was one Salvadoran group, and they knew my accent wasn’t Salvadoran. So, all of those little things are complicated, because within the big macro situation of racism there are these micro differences, … and then you are entangled in the whole turmoil without knowing why,” she says.
That is one of the reasons Elvir finds it almost surreal to be featured in a Smithsonian exhibition, and why she feels like she has a bigger responsibility now. She says all the media outlets in Honduras picked up the story when they learned that her experiences were part of a museum show. And, she adds, it can make people in all of Central America feel proud.
Elvir hopes eventually to see people around the world erase their differences and see themselves as one race—the human race. “I tell my kids: It’s been a really difficult journey. But if it [had been] easy, I wouldn’t value the honors they are giving to me. It’s hard to process all of that stuff. Every time someone asks me about it, I get emotional, because it is very impressive,” Elvir says.
It is important, she says, that people, especially young people, see that hard work pays off.
“If they can see the exhibition, and say, ‘OK, she was able to do it, I can do it,’” Elvir says, “if I can inspire one kid, that will be magical. I’ll say, ‘My job is done.’”
"¡De última hora! Latinas Report Breaking News," is on view in the Nicholas F. and Eugenia Taubman Gallery at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.