By Lori Harwood,
College of Social and Behavioral Sciences
When Carlos Parra was an undergraduate at the University of Arizona in 2006, he was trying to learn more about the immigration marches happening throughout the country and was not finding in-depth content on the major TV networks. He turned to Spanish-language television.
“Univision and Telemundo have been household staples in my family for decades,” Parra said.
Years later, when Parra was working toward his Ph.D. in history at the University of Southern California, he studied the history of Spanish-language newspapers in Los Angeles but noticed there was limited analysis of Spanish-language television.
“When you look at American television history books, Spanish-language stations are almost never mentioned despite the fact that, in terms of ratings, they are going toe-to-toe with mainstream TV stations in metro areas throughout the U.S.,” Parra said.
This year, Parra is a President’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the University of Arizona Department of History housed in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. During his fellowship, Parra will expand his dissertation research for a book, “Televising Latinidad: Latino Los Angeles and the Rise of Spanish-Language TV in the United States, 1960-2010.”
His research focuses on how Univision KMEX Channel 34 and Telemundo KVEA Channel 52 created a sense of identity and community among Latinos in Los Angeles. He also examines how Spanish-language programming impacted Latino culture while helping Spanish speakers better connect with broader U.S. society.
The rise of Spanish-language TV
In the 1960s, Los Angeles had the biggest concentration of Latinos in the United States, but the success of a Spanish-language station was not a foregone conclusion, Parra said. The first Spanish-language station in the continental U.S. was established in 1955 in San Antonio, but the station struggled to create programming and attract advertisers. In late 1961, Spanish International Network – which later became Univision – purchased the San Antonio station and launched KMEX Channel 34 in Los Angeles the following fall.
KMEX Channel 34 was the first station in the Los Angeles market outside channels 2 to 13. So, in addition to finding viewers and advertisers, KMEX had to convince people to buy converter boxes so they could receive a station broadcast on the ultra-high frequency band. Retailers used the KMEX launch to market UHF converter boxes, and KMEX staff held contests and street-side UHF conversion demonstrations.
KMEX Channel 34 launched on Sept. 30, 1962, in a live ceremony, with attendees including Academy Award-winning actress Rita Moreno and local politicians. Afterward, KMEX aired a newscast of President John F. Kennedy’s state visit to Mexico City, a bullfighting contest, and pre-taped performances from Palacio de Bellas Artes, a cultural center in Mexico City.
In 1985, in response to the growing Latino population in Los Angeles and increased public interest in more varied programming, KVEA Channel 52 launched, making LA the first U.S. city to have two full-time Spanish-language television stations. One of the founders was Frank Cruz, who grew up in Tucson’s Barrio Hollywood neighborhood and graduated from Tucson High School in the early 1950s.
Univision KMEX Channel 34 and Telemundo KVEA Channel 52 laid the groundwork for the expansion of Spanish-language TV stations across the country, Parra said.
“Both the Univision and Telemundo stations in Los Angeles were founded as smaller, independent stations but eventually generated so much viewership that they were able to generate profits for both of their respective networks and create the momentum for both Univision and Telemundo to become these national entities,” Parra said.
Spanish-language TV’s cultural influence
Spanish-language TV covered local politics and events, allowing Spanish speakers increased access to what was going on in the broader community. The stations also served as advocates for Latino immigrants, instructing them on how to sign up for health insurance or how to access library services, Parra said.
“For a lot of these folks who did not speak English and may not have had relatively high levels of education, they needed help finding services to help them feel more a part of American life,” he said.
“This really goes against a lot of the discourse we hear that Latinos don’t interact with broader American culture, which is not the case at all,” Parra added. “There are these barriers that exist, but there is interest in building these bridges between Spanish-speaking viewers and broader American society.”
Shows such as the 1980s-1990s Telemundo talk show “Cara a Cara” demonstrate U.S. Spanish-language TV’s function as a public sphere for Latinos to articulate their anxieties about life in U.S. society, Parra said. The show included a live audience and covered topics such as motherhood, LGBTQ issues, HIV-AIDS, immigration and anti-Latino workplace discrimination.
“Having access to historic programs like ‘Cara a Cara’ is crucial in helping scholars discern larger patterns of U.S. and Latino history,” Parra said.
Spanish-speaking television also impacted the wider cultural landscape, especially in sports, Parra said.
“What brought a lot of Anglo viewers was KMEX telecasting bullfights from Tijuana and Mexico City,” Parra said. “There are reports from the Los Angeles Times of white families from suburban Los Angeles having taco parties in their homes and watching bullfighting.”
In the 1970s and ’80s, KMEX Channel 34 was the sole broadcaster of the World Cup and various international soccer championships, at a time when there was little national interest in soccer, Parra said.
“A lot of non-Spanish speaking, non-Latino soccer fans had to watch major soccer events on KMEX Channel 34,” Parra said. “For the 1970 World Cup, KMEX held mass screenings at places like the Hollywood Forum.”
Spanish-language television provides millions of Latinos with information, entertainment and representation, Parra said.
“Some truly rich cultural experiences are only covered on Spanish-language TV,” Parra said. “For many Latinos, we cannot imagine life without it.”