Jorge Ramos is Univisions star anchor. (Alexia Fodere/For The Washington…)
DORAL, FL — On Jan. 18, Univision’s star anchor, Jorge Ramos, arrived at the U.S. Supreme Court for a high-profile interview with special appeal to his massive audience. Ramos, by far the most recognized and respected face of Spanish-language news in the United States, greeted Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the self-styled “Wise Latina” who’d made history as the first Hispanic on the court.
Before the cameras rolled, though, Sotomayor — who was born into a Puerto Rican family in the Bronx — requested a small favor. “She asked me, ‘If I have a problem with my Spanish, please help me with my translation,’ ” Ramos recalls one recent afternoon in his spare corner office at the Univision studios in the Miami suburb of Doral.
“Sotomayor, she’s fantastic, but she struggles with Spanish,” Ramos says. “She spoke Spanish very slow.”
And, indeed, just minutes into the interview about her memoir, Sotomayor — who speaks good, but somewhat labored Spanish — was groping for a word. Rather than wait for a cue, she simply said it in English — “strengths” — and moved on.
Univision, already a goliath, sees another possible gold mine in the growing population of Latinos who, like Sotomayor, are more comfortable in English. The network is partnering with ABC News on a 24-hour news and information channel called Fusion set to debut in late summer.
The partners are especially interested in chasing second-generation Latinos, particularly millennials, the 20- and 30-somethings, who would rather communicate in English and may speak little or no Spanish. Witness Julian Castro, the boyish Mexican-American mayor of San Antonio thrust into national prominence by Democrats desperate for a Latino star, even though he doesn’t speak Spanish fluently.
It’s a risky and complicated endeavor but if they pull it off, they just might be creating a new cultural, economic and political force at the precise moment in American history when Hispanic power is in its steepest ascendance. The goal is no less than establishing the new network and the rest of Univision’s empire as the “Hispanic heartbeat of America,” says Cesar Conde, the silky smooth, 39-year-old president of Univision networks who was a White House fellow during the George W. Bush administration.
But beneath the grand rhetoric and the grand business plans, something much more subtle and much more interesting is at work. What they’re engaged in is a process of anthropological discovery. They’re trying to figure out who this new person is, this son of a Guatemalan maid who listens to the Black Keys and wants to be a doctor, this daughter of a Mexican fieldworker who watches “Girls” and is headed to Cornell in the fall. They’re trying to figure out what this new person wants to hear and, of course, what this new person wants to buy.
They’re trying to figure out how to talk to a new America. And they’re still not sure how to do it.
Making shows out of maybes
Walk down the back stairs of the modernist bungalow beneath the palms in Coconut Grove and your cellphone signal flags, sputters and dies. The downstairs room in the home of Isaac Lee, Univision’s 42-year-old news president, is a screening room now. But it was built by a previous owner as a fallout shelter during the Cuban Missile Crisis era. Welcome to South Florida.
A horseshoe-shaped couch is in the center of the room. But half the young broadcast and digital execs, some dressed in jeans and untucked shirts, flop on the floor instead. They wrestle with Lee’s brown Labrador Retriever — Chocolate — whose name they pronounce CHOKE-oh-latte, as if the beast was a new offering at the local Starbucks.
“Stop making out with the dog!” one of the programmers calls out as Chocolate licks one face after another.
A network is being born here, conjured during brainstorming sessions, such as this one, from an amalgam of assiduously curated data and sudden inspirations. The last time the group met, someone was making a presentation about their target audience, an evolving bull’s eye that wobbles in a range between 18-year-olds and 30-somethings and encompasses everything from artsy urbanites to buttoned-down professionals. Wait a second, I was just hanging with those people, thought Rayner Ramirez, a former Dateline NBC producer hired to help develop the new channel.
While Chocolate curls next to a young producer, Ramirez pitches a weekly program about the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on New York’s Lower East Side. Voila! A show, or at least, a possible show — conceived in a matter of weeks, complete with demo footage from the New York hot spot.
“Didn’t you used to spit there, Alejandro?” Ramirez asks an exec slouched deep in the folds of the big blue couch.
“Yeah, in college,” comes the casual-cool, ain’t-no-big-thing response.
Maybe the show will be a contest.
Maybe the show will have profiles.
Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.