Emmy Award-winning journalist and pioneering Afro-Latina news anchor Ilia Calderón starts her new memoir with a dramatic scene—her 2017 interview with a Ku Klux Klan leader who called her the N-word and "a mongrel" and threatened to "burn her out" of his property in a dark, remote area of North Carolina.
Though she remained outwardly stoic as the white supremacist set a cross on fire in front of her camera crew, Calderón says was nearly overwhelmed by witnessing such an expression of hatred.
Calderón’s newly released book, "My Time to Speak: Reclaiming Ancestry and Confronting Race," tackles racism and issues of color head on as she candidly talks about how it's shaped her life.
“I decided to speak now because I feel comfortable, I have no fears,” said Calderón, 48, a familiar face to many as the weekday evening news anchor for the Spanish-language network Univision. “I have a voice, a space, a platform to speak louder and make myself heard, hopefully so others can benefit from my story.”
Ironically, during Calderón’s interview with the KKK leader, the smell of kerosene awakened her memories of growing up in Colombia.
“Back then, the smell of kerosene wouldn’t arouse fears and suspicion in me;” she writes, “it was the fuel that nurtured reading, imagination, and my dreams of becoming somebody.”
Calderón was born in Istmina, a tiny town in an isolated region of Colombia. Her upbringing was so rustic that she used a coal iron to press her school uniform, and she took a boat or a canoe to cross the river to school each day.
Though she was surrounded by a loving family, Calderón noticed how skin color could define a person. As a child, she saw that “the harder the jobs, the darker the skin of those who performed them.”
Once Calderón moved to Medellín for high school and college, she experienced racism herself. “Ugh, not even my horse is black,” a classmate once sneered as Calderón passed.
Looking back, Calderón realized that she compartmentalized such experiences. “At the time, I buried those moments, I didn’t want to want them to step in my way.” Revisiting her past, she said, proved to be an emotional experience. “Lloré rios— I cried rivers," she says.
At 22, Calderón was hired as a local news anchor in Medellín. She then moved on to a national news show before being hired in the U.S. as a weekend national news anchor for Telemundo News in Miami. Calderón began co-hosting the Univision weekday evening news in 2017, which made headlines because she was the first Afro-Latina to achieve such visibility in Spanish-language media.
When Calderón married Eugene Jang, who is Korean-American, she was stung by criticism from some Latinos on social media. “Gene is an amazing person, and we’ve always focused on the values we share, not our differences," she tells NBC News. "Where there is love, you decide what brings you together, not what separates you.”
In “My Time to Speak,” Calderón revisits a 2015 controversy, after then-Univision host Rodner Figueroa compared a photo of Michelle Obama to someone from “Planet of the Apes." He was fired and off the air and after several years and a public apology is currently an entertainment reporter for Telemundo. At the time of the controversy, Calderón tweeted and later penned an open letter on discrimination and expressed her concerns about the world her daughter Anna would inherit.
According to Pew Research Center, a quarter of U.S. Hispanics identify as Afro-Latino. However, diversity is not always evident in Spanish-language media, said Manuel Avilés-Santiago, associate professor at Arizona State University. “Afro-Latinos have made some progress in terms of visibility, for sure. Has it been significant? I would say No.”
Colorism, the preference for lighter skin tones, is still pervasive in Latino media, Avilés-Santiago believes. He pointed to telenovelas, where Afro-Latinos are rarely the main protagonists, as well as Spanish-language news stations around the country.
“The problem is not the audience; the problem is those who produce programming, who are making decisions," said Avilés-Santiago.
He pointed out that after the death of George Floyd, some viewers complained on social media about what they saw as a lack of nuance in live Spanish-language coverage of the protests. “This was the audience asking for the content to be improved,” Avilés-Santiago said. “This shows that the audience is more than ready to accept diversity, and ready for more discussions around Black identity.”
Veronica Villafañe, editor and publisher of Media Moves, said that it is difficult to accurately track Afro-Latino representation in broadcasting. “There are many factors that come into play, including how people self-identify, the commitment to local representation, the relatively low salaries, and how many people might be applying for positions.” Recruiters cannot specifically set out to hire Afro-Latinos, she explained, because that would run up against prohibitions on racial bias in employment.
In Villafañe’s view, such context is important because hiring on-air talent is often based on subjective factors. “But we are in a pivotal moment right now, with the growing awareness of representation. Within Spanish-language media, the decision-makers will have to pay attention to it; the question is seeing whether they can deliver.”
Afro-Latinos in mainstream media jobs face issues surrounding their identity. Corallys Otiz, a meteorologist and multimedia journalist for WBBJ-TV in Tennessee, was criticized by a viewer for wearing her natural curls during a broadcast. The viewer told Ortiz, “Change it back to something more normal.” Ortiz responded with a Facebook post that went viral, explaining that her hair was part of her heritage.
To Ortiz, this is as an example of turning a negative experience into a positive one, and she received an outpouring of support. Ortiz, who is of Dominican descent, likens being an Afro-Latina journalist to “doing double duty; representing the Latino side and African-American side of my community.”
Ortiz said she is used to explaining her background. “Some people here have a specific way of how they think Hispanic looks, so they will ask me where I’m from; I say Massachusetts.”
In an epilogue to “My Time to Speak,” Calderón writes about “the tears of pride” she felt when her daughter, on a trip to the American Girl store with her father, chose a Black doll.
“My daughter, heir of five different and beautiful ethnicities, had just identified with the one that most represented my mother, my grandmother, my sisters," Calderón writes. "At six, she had decided to be Black, without this meaning she was rejecting her other roots.”
Calderón hopes that her daughter can grow up in a more enlightened world, one in which diversity is celebrated. “Representation matters. When other kids see people like me on screen, it means they can make it.”
“Part of my job is making sure that the doors that opened for me stay open,” she said. “One day, when more Afro-Latinos reach positions, it hopefully won’t make headlines. It will be the norm. It has to be the norm.”