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I Am My Father's Daughter

Living a Life Without Secrets

I Am My Father's Daughter by Maria Elena Salinas
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Five nights a week, María Elena Salinas looks into a television camera and delivers the news to millions of television viewers. But when the newscast is over, she is like so many other women across the country: a wife and a mother, struggling to find balance between her personal and professional life. When María Elena accidentally discovers her recently deceased father had once been a Catholic priest, all she knew was suddenly thrown into question. Turning her investigative eye on herself for the first time, she begins a long, arduous journey for answers.

In I Am My Father's Daughter, María Elena tells the amazing story of her journey to the top amid her struggle to come to terms with family secrets. From her childhood in a poverty-stricken neighborhood of Los Angeles and her adolescent years spent working in a sweatshop, to her astonishing break into network television, along with her coverage of some of the world's major events and disasters, Salinas frames her life behind the camera in the same warm and straightforward tone that is her on-air trademark.

HarperCollins; May 2009
272 pages; ISBN 9780061931031
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Title: I Am My Father's Daughter
Author: Maria Elena Salinas; Liz Balmaseda

Chapter One

The Box of Secrets

I learned to tell stories from unheard voices, from the nameless Mexicans of my childhood streets. They spoke to me like my mother had spoken, in tender phrases that only hinted of the epic peregrinations they endured. They told me -- with some prodding, I confess -- about their children, their past loves, their daily hardships, their machista husbands, their fairytale dreams. We were kindred souls, linked by more complexities than I could imagine at the time.

We had worked side by side when I was fourteen, cutting loose threads from garments in a windowless factory. We met again and again, at random intersections in South Central and East Los Angeles, at the subtitled movies, at Sunday Mass, at the charm school in San Fernando where I conducted classes, at weekend festivals where mariachis played our favorite songs.

In their stories I found all the key elements of compelling journalism. And when I became a television newswoman, I drew from that well of stories. Of course they seemed different when filtered through the detached lens of the evening news. They often seemed to take on telenovela dimensions. The things that happened to other people, namely my news subjects, always seemed to be more surreal than the things that happened to me. But I, too, had expansive dreams. I wanted to be some kind of self-sufficient businesswoman. But doing what? At first I had wanted to be a fashion designer or a beauty expert. Then, I took marketing courses and developed an interest in the budding Hispanic market, so I dreamed of being an advertising executive. My career path, I decided, would be defined by one requirement: that it never lead me to stagnation or mediocrity. And it never did, although it didn't exactly lead me to the sales office.

The road detoured at the old, musty newsroom of KMEX, Channel 34, Los Angeles's first and the nation's second Spanish-language TV station. It was an old two-story house converted into a humble, noisy news operation. The air conditioner was always busted, but the Teletype machines worked. In our rip-and-read days, they buzzed constantly, coughing up endless reams of codes, datelines, and bulletins, the hour's urgencies tumbling and curling onto stained linoleum. KMEX was, as then station manager Danny Villanueva called it, "that little Mexican UHF station down the street." But that little station, reflecting the Latino explosion of the 1980s, grew dramatically during my first few years there, and as it did I came to master a new language, one that had been alien to my Spanglish-fluent world. It was the rhythmic and beautifully condensed language of broadcast TV. I was moved by its pace and economy, by the intensity of the breaking news it captured. Here I found a true challenge, a new world to conquer. I wanted to learn everything, so I plunged right in. Soon, I was delivering those familiar Latino stories, the ones I had memorized since childhood, to our viewers, not only during the evening newscast as a reporter and anchor, but also in the daily public affairs show Los Angeles Ahora and a weekend entertainment show as host. After a few years and some initial on-air stumbling and bouts of stage fright, I had it down -- without a TelePrompTer, for that trusty device came into the picture only much later. I had wanted, more than anything, to make my father proud of me. And he was. In private, he'd counsel me about my new profession. Keep reading, he'd advise, never stop learning.

"Think before you speak," he'd warn. "Read the background of the story that you're covering. You have to be very careful. You have to do this right."

But in public, as my name emerged in the local television world, he'd point to my news reports with pride.

"Esa es mi hija," he'd boast.

I was beginning to embrace this new profile of myself as a newswoman, to feel secure in this identity. And then my world was rattled to its core.

My father died. August 6, 1985. That's when I came upon the most daunting story of my life, the one that would challenge my own identity and redefine me.

I got the call on a busy news day, in the morning rush for assignments. Days later I stared numbly at my father's coffin from across the room. A kind of force field slammed me against the opposite wall. I couldn't move. Something powerful kept me glued to that wall, away from my father. It felt like gravity. I now understand what the distance between us was about: My father was dead and I didn't know who he was. My father, José Luis Cordero Salinas, was the first family member I had ever lost. He had been in the hospital for six weeks, battling the consequences of a circulatory disease. I had watched him slip in an out of a semicomatose state, gasp for air, and wither away. His death certificate listed about six causes of death. 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, tightknit 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. He charged his accounting clients paltry fees. For this, I used to scold him:

"Papi, this is your business. You need to charge them more."

But he'd shake his head.

"No, m'hija, they don't make very much money."

Once, he spent all his savings to write and publish a bilingual consumer guide to the real estate market, because he believed the system was unfair to the buyer. I remember another time he took us to a German restaurant. He had never taken us there before, but clearly he was a regular. . . .