Martha Tijerina: The First Female Hispanic Anchor
By: Ramón Hernández
Before Martha Tijerina there were no female reporters or anchors in Spanish-language television. Therefore this trailblazer went down in television broadcasting history as “The First Female Reporter and Anchor in Spanish-Language Television.”
Others have laid claim to this honor and shame on the writer that believed them. For example, in Barbara J. Love’s book, “Feminists who Changed America,” she cites Theresa Gutiérrez as “the first Hispanic woman to break into television journalism, then became host of a weekly television program in Chicago,” in 1978.
Tijerina is also the first Latina talk show host and first director of public affairs.
Everyone wants to be ‘the first,’ as Lucy Pereda touts herself as the first Latina anchor in Miami. Others claim to fame is being the first Latina anchor in Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities. In fact Minerva Pérez, who was Houston’s first Latina anchor even published her own autobiography, “I Gotta Story – My 30 Years in TV News,” and the list goes on and on.
It was downright sad when this writer read that María Elena Salinas was the first Latina TV reporter to receive “Premio Leyenda Del Périodismo” for being the most recognized in the entire nation. With all due respect to this fine, talented, superb reporter, I am not knocking her, but she didn’t become a TV reporter until eleven years after audiences first saw Tijerina on television and this makes Tijerina a genuine “living legend.” Again, someone did not do their homework.
Google “First Latina anchor” and who pops up? Daisy Fuentes, who became MTV’s first Latina NJ, eighteen years after Tijerina made her television debut.
Not only was Tijerina “the first,” period, but she also created the mold for all others to follow. She set the path and opened the door for the next generation of young Latinas and that is of monumental importance.
Before Cristina Saralegui began her TV career (in 1989), María Antonietta Collins, Lili Estefan, María Elvira Salazar and Bárbara Bermudo to name a few, Tijerina was already a seasoned veteran.”
When Martha Tijerina went on the air, María Celeste Arrarás was ten, ABC 20/20 anchor Elizabeth Vargas was eight, former sportscaster and “Inside Edition” anchor Lisa Guerrero was six, former CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien was four, and Natalie Morales, who anchors the “Today Show” and appears on “Dateline NBC” and “NBC Nightly News” was two.
Yes, it was in May 1970 that local viewers saw a beautiful, very classy, yet gutsy, energetic, inquisitive, ultra-intelligent Tijerina for the first time.
Today, Latina TV reporters number in the hundreds, but since sex sells, stations are seeking out the hottest looking, the sexiest Latina with the longest legs and great cleavage to hire as news reporters, traffic reporters, weather girls, sportscasters and anchors. If you don’t believe me and you want to get an upset stomach, check out http://thechive.com/2010/11/10/2-assets-to-boost-your-television-ratings-and-by-assets-i-mean-breastzszsz-22-photos. Okay, enough ranting and raving.
Incidentally and for those readers whose inquiring minds want to know, it’s a toss-up between Tamron Hall and Carole Simpson being the “first African American woman television anchor,” since both made their debut four years after “the first Mexican American television anchor in the United States.
When I first contacted Tijerina about being selected to receive the Alberto Alegre Award and that I was going to write an article on her, her biggest concern and request is that I keep the piece simple and above all, in tune to the humble person that she is. But how could I comply when I realized that during her television career, she was interviewing people that pupils now study in textbooks, people that now have schools, clinics, recreation centers, parks, streets and highways named after them; and that makes her a contemporary historian.
She interviewed Raza Unida/Chicano movement activist leaders, advocates, a Mexican president (Luis Echeverria), an American vice president (George H.W. Bush), first Ladys (Barbara Bush and Mary Esther Zuno) plus local to national politicians, judges, clergymen (bishops and archbishops), national and international luminaries, prominent businessmen and women, military war veterans, Hispanic soldiers who earned a Purple Heart, VIPs, movers and shakers, but most important, she reported on the social, economic and cultural issues in the Alamo City.
History was being made and the former folkloric dancer was in the front lines reporting on their every move and action. Among her first interviews were those with the Good Government League (GGL) City Councilman/later Mayor Pro Tem Felix B. Treviño and Bishop Patrick F. Flores, the “first Hispanic Bishop in this nation.”
“I could have done a program on trivial subjects, but I wanted to know what made people tick, like asking a judge to explain, in detail, what they do. I also wanted to wake up people and teach on pressing issues as I spoke to the people that were the pillars of San Antonio,” Tijerina said over a cup of coffee and a taco at Mi Tierra Restaurant.
“I would spend all day on the streets with a cameraman, take notes, then run back to the station to report, and my thing was not reading the news, but being in the middle of it all.”
On the entertainment side, the bell-bottom pants wearing enthusiastic journalist interviewed internationally known singers, radio, television and film personalities such as Raúl Velásco, Rafael, Don Silvestre Vargas (founder of Mariachi Vargas), Vicente Fernández, Juan Gabriel and countless others who entered the doors of KWEX-TV to be interviewed by Tijerina because she was our own Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey rolled into one. It is also hard to image how many stars she spoke to when you consider she virtually covered every celebrity who set foot in the Durango Street Univision building.
And to think that her initial dream and goal was to be a Mexican consul.
“My first step in achieving that goal was to take a job at the Mexican Cultural Institute during Hemisphere ’68,” the television icon said.
Two years later, the institute’s director, Alberto Mijango told her that Emilio Nicolas, Sr. was looking for a young lady to put on-camera in what was the ‘first Spanish-language television network in the United States.’
“I was 23 when the first thing I did was a Lemon Fresh Joy TV commercial and that went well considering that I had no acting experience, but the most pleasant surprise is that because it was an American market Procter and Gamble product, I later got residuals,” the petite television pioneer said with a happy laugh.
“This was also a ‘first’ because it was the first commercial without lip sync, without someone doing a Spanish voiceover over an English-language commercial. Then I started reporting, doing commentaries and anchoring with Marcelo Marini.
“The Chicano (Civil Rights) Movement was in full swing throughout Texas, California, New Mexico and Colorado, Raúl Yzaguirre had already founded the Southwest Council of La Raza, MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund) was already in existence and that’s when I went on-the-air to host ‘En San Antonio.’
Hence, a then 24-year-old Tijerina with long loose dark-brown hair or braided pigtails down to her tiny waist went on to interview César Chávez and José Ángel Gutiérrez, who formed La Raza Unida Party; who were two of the ‘Horsemen of the Chicano Movement.” The others were Corky González and Reis López Tijerina, no relation to Martha.
Tijerina also interviewed Ramsey Muñiz, José A. Cardenas, Blandina “Bambi” Cardenas, Demetrio Rodríguez and some Brown Berets. “All those people were in the studio.”
“In 1974, Chicano movement organizer William (Willie) C. Velásquez founded the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, Yzaguirre became the CEO of the National Council of La Raza and all these founding fathers came to speak out on my show.
“I admired the way Willie project what he believed in; and I remember the Chicano movement so well because there were so many young lawyers, so many brilliant minds and I was blessed that I was placed in their path as an outlet by Divine Providence because all this fascinated me.”
By July 1974, the pretty Monterrey native had become the champion and informer of the city’s Hispanic community, had captured the hearts of San Antonio’s Spanish-speaking television watchers and this resulted in an article by Aziz Shihab in the SA Express-News.
In 1975, Henry Cisneros was elected to the city council and Tijerina formed a new alliance. Then there was Cecilio García-Camarillo, who founded and edited Caracol: La Revista de la Raza and they became more of the community-oriented journalist’s endless list of guests.
“It was when a gathering of different early Chicano groups united at the Municipal Auditorium that I chopped my hair and started wearing wigs,” revealed the still stunning former mini-skirted anchor.
“During that meeting, they stated that ‘the enemy of the Mexican American is the Mexican and Mexican American malista (basically translates to the Mexican crab syndrome) and the Anglo racist.’
“My spirituality developed with my father and mother (Magdalena), however, this gathering heightened mi espiritismo.”
While Tijerina credits Archbishop Flores as her then spiritual advisor, when it comes to television, she says, “My great teacher was Emilio Nicolas, Sr. who spoke to me directly on a daily basis. And I have great respect and admiration for him because he made Univision. The biggest Spanish-language television pioneer was him. I saw him visualize it. I saw him do it. He was like a football player going for a touchdown and I saw him realize his vision.
“He was the master builder of a television network and advertising agencies for the Hispanic market would not exist if not for Spanish-language TV. Therefore, he is above us.”
It was also in 1975 that KWEX-TV launched the Telethon Navideño to offer much needed help to needy families during the holidays.
“This came about when Archbishop Flores told Mr. Nicolas of the poor people’s plight; and what we essentially did was to help people pay their water and electricity bills at a time when utilities were very expensive,” said the San Antonio Women’s Hall of Fame inductee.
Emilio Nichols became the architect. He laid out his plans before her, placed her in charge of organizing the Catholic Archdiocese project. Now, as an event coordinator, she became the most instrumental person in executing his orders for what became an annual star-studded fund-raiser.
By 1976, the television journalist, who endeared herself to the people due to her heartfelt sincerity, had become the media darling of the San Antonio Express-News and San Antonio Light as her name popped up in writer’s columns and they wrote full-fledged articles on her. This was also the year that she received her first award.
A few years later, she went to Rome and had a private audience with Pope Paul VI.
By the 1980s, the popular anchor was cited as being the “most influential media representative in San Antonio.”
Today, her awards take up over one-third of her resume and that’s with leaving out “Woman of the Year,” lifetime achievement plaques, advocate plus humanitarian awards, trophies and other accolades. Therefore, they are too numerous to list, but one of the most prestigious was receiving Las Primeras Award in the field of communications and for making a national impact on the Hispanic community. This honor was bestowed on her in 2008 in Washington, D.C.
Somewhere along the way and during her busy schedule, Tijerina got her Bachelor of Arts degree in Public Administration from Our Lady of the Lake and her Master of Arts degree from UTSA. And slowly but slowly, her hair became progressively lighter, and just like Shakira, she went from brunette to blonde.
In 1989, she left KWEX-TV and moved to Los Angeles, then to Arlington, Virginia, where she embarked on a new career with the federal government as an interpreter for the U.S. Immigration Court. But before she left, on July 16, KWEX-41 purchased a full-page in the Express-News thanking the network’s biggest star for 20 years of dedication and loyalty. She returned in 1996 and to this day, has continued to serve as an interpreter.
It was also this year that she started as a volunteer talk show host producing program for Catholic Television of San Antonio (CTSA) and as she says, each time there’s a turnover in archbishops, I expect this to end, but they haven’t told me to leave yet.”
Once back in the Alamo City, the well-known community advocate, successful fundraiser/event organizer and strong believer in education continued to find causes and ways to help the community, the latest being to institute the fabulous Holiday Annual GED Brunch to raise funds to assist low-income students obtain money to take the GED test and also help them go to college.
This are but a handful of reasons that CPS Energy recognized her with a full color page ad in the Express-News.
Believe it or not, this article barely touches the surface of this role model’s accomplishments and achievements. Also, most impressive and for the credibility of the few that may challenge her, Tijerina has oodles of photographs and archives of all her television interviews, not to mention her gig as a circus ring master, as a Tejano music awards presenter and her early years as a professional dancer.
Furthermore, Tijerina has so many anecdotes and so many lessons to relate, she should take the advice of what everyone has urged her to do, to write her own book.
In gratitude from our community, this Good Samaritan and philanthropist, whose television career spans four decades will receive the Alberto Alegre Award during a dinner on Thursday, May 7. The event is open to the public with a cost of $10 for a delicious meal and meeting with the awardees.
For more information, call Alberto at (210) 584-7921.