As horrific images of Haiti flashed across the screens, murmurs of recognition floated through the audience at Univision Network’s live celebrity telethon, many people nodding as they recalled disasters in their native countries.
To drive the connection home, host Mario Kreutzberger, aka ”Don Francisco,” brought out a recent earthquake survivor from Peru, reuniting him by video with his hospitalized daughter.
”The world has helped us many times. Now it is time for us to return that help to Haiti,” Kreutzberger told the millions of Latinos in the U.S. and across the Western Hemisphere who watched the special edition of his weekly ”Sabado Gigante” variety program.
The 5-hour, commercial-free show marks a coming of age for Spanish-language media in the U.S., which generally have stuck to reporting when it comes to large-scale human tragedies.
With a roster of stars rarely seen outside of awards shows — including singers Shakira, Ricky Martin, Daddy Yankee and Gloria Estefan, and video appearances by the presidents of Mexico and Panama — the Jan. 23 show raised more than $6 million and demonstrated the industry’s desire to take up the mantle of public advocate that mainstream English-language networks have held for years.
Hispanic media outlets have long provided in-depth coverage of international news, often to a greater extent than their English-language counterparts due to the international bent of their audience — and they have often acted as advocates for Hispanic immigrants, their core audience.
Yet even for events like the 2004 tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the 9/11 attacks, New York-based Univision Communications Inc. aired the same concert-fundraisers as the English-language networks broadcast, only with subtitles. It’s done telethons before but never on such a scale — marshaling all three of its TV networks, radio and Internet outlets.
”It’s an interesting sign of the maturation of the medium,” said Teresa Ponte, interim chair of Florida International University’s Department of Journalism and Broadcasting. Ponte also noted that the efforts were focused ”on behalf of a community that isn’t (even) part of their constituency.”
Despite Haiti’s geographic and historic connection to the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean, the country has had a complicated relationship with much of the region, due in part to language, culture and its unique political history as the first independent black nation in modern times. Most Haitians are descendants of African slaves imported to the former French colony and speak Creole, a mixture of French and African languages — isolating them from their Spanish-speaking neighbors.
The massive response to the tragedy comes in part from the magnitude of the quake and its proximity, particularly to South Florida, the hub of the nation’s Hispanic media.
Rival Telemundo, a Hialeah, Fla.-based subsidiary of NBC Universal, has set up its own ”Juntos por Haiti” campaign. Miami-based Spanish Broadcasting System, which operates radio and TV stations in major markets nationwide, says it will announce details of its own massive benefit concert later this month. Even the independent WJAN-America TeVe channel 41, whose company has organized fundraisers for Cuba-related causes in the past, held a fundraiser for Haiti.
There is a grudging recognition in South Florida’s Hispanic community that Haitians have ”been getting the worst part of the immigration process in the U.S.,” WJAN CEO Omar Romay said, ”especially compared to the Cubans who have so many advantages.”
Most Cubans who reach U.S. soil are allowed to stay and work, while Haitians, until the earthquake, were sent back. The 18-month temporary protected status they received after the quake allows those already in the country to work and send money back to help rebuild their country.
In Chicago, local Spanish-language radio stations were running public service announcements encouraging listeners to donate. In Los Angeles, organizers planned an event in support of the Red Cross entitled ”La Raza Esta Con Haiti,” loosely translated as ”the Hispanic people are with Haiti.”
”It is in many ways ‘There for the grace of God go I,”’ added Frank Flores, manager for SBS’ New York radio markets, of the feeling among Hispanics from the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.
Winnie Cantave, a Haitian-American community leader and director of a Miami-based nonprofit that provides leadership training to immigrant workers, says she is pleased but not surprised by the support from the Hispanic media. She credits in part work done over the last decade by activists to unite Latinos and Haitians.
”I think that spirit has been giving some fruit in this crisis,” she said.
As Colombian pop star Juanes stepped off the ”Sabado Gigante” stage, he said he hoped the response signifies a new affinity among Hispanics toward Haitians.
”I view Haiti as part of our community….It’s part of our region. Maybe that’s the small bright spot that comes out of this, that that is how people are seeing the country more,” he said.