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In Any Language, It's More Than Idle Chat

Frothy and educational, the 'Cristina' show brings once-taboo issues into millions of Latinos' living rooms. But its popular host has plans for a bigger crusade.

November 01, 1998|KEVIN BAXTER | Kevin Baxter is a Times staff writer

A suite on the top floor of a luxury hotel might seem like a strange place to be broaching the subject of respect, but then Cristina Saralegui has rarely taken the conventional approach to anything she's done.

"I'm not afraid to say I'm a very intelligent woman," she says. "[Latinas] cannot say that they're intelligent. They can be beautiful, but they cannot be intelligent.

"And they cannot brag about it and say, 'Yes, damn, I am smart and I am a woman,' because we couldn't get married. . . . I've been called an egomaniac so many times that's it not funny," she goes on, her voice rising in indignation. "Would you call Emilio Estefan self-absorbed? Would you call him too ambitious for his own good? Would you actually dare to interview somebody like Emilio and tell him, 'Hey, man, what else can you want?'

"No. Because he's a guy. But all this stuff gets dumped on me because I'm a woman."

Respect. Aretha Franklin sang about it; Cristina Saralegui craves it. And as the principal player in a multimillion-dollar media empire, the Spanish-language talk-show host certainly seems to have achieved it. But this battle stopped being about one woman's fight for recognition long ago. Now it's a quest, a crusade, on behalf of women--and all Latinos--everywhere.

As the host of the top-rated U.S. show on Univision, the nation's fifth-largest television network, Saralegui is arguably the country's most influential Spanish-language media personality. Once a struggling magazine writer sharing a cramped apartment with her sister and choosing which debts to pay by drawing them from a hat full of overdue bills, Saralegui now draws an annual salary of more than $6 million and lives in a mansion called Villa Serena on Miami Beach's exclusive Palm Island.

But money, she'll tell you, cannot buy respect. That's something she's had to earn. And she's done that, her supporters say, by doing more in the last 10 years to dismantle damaging Latino cultural norms than anyone else in the United States. Since 1989, when "El Show de Cristina" debuted, she has used that platform to preach, cajole, console and educate her 100 million viewers worldwide on such subjects as infidelity, homosexuality, incest and AIDS, subjects that were largely avoided in the Latino community before Saralegui made them respectable topics for discussion.

"There's no one really doing what she's doing," says Alex Nogales, chairman of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, a broad-based organization that tracks portrayals of Latinos in the media. "Is she sensationalistic? Yeah, to a degree. Has she done her job in trying to educate? . . . She has done precisely that."

She's done it so well that Nogales will present Saralegui later this month with his group's Impact award for educating while entertaining. "Once you meet her and you are around her, you realize that this is a woman of integrity," he says.

And accomplishment. A 50-year-old self-exiled Cuban with an iron-strong will who didn't finish college, Saralegui took control of one of the most-read magazines in the Spanish-speaking world by the age of 30. And it's that kind of dichotomy that still defines her television persona.

On one hand, she's the caring friend, the understanding neighbor, the faithful confidant never too busy to lend a sympathetic ear. And please, call her Cristina, the name she's affixed to her TV show, her monthly magazine and her daily radio commentaries, which are heard in more than 90 countries. At the same time she's also the strict parent, the unsmiling schoolmarm, the stern boss who--shall we say it again?--demands respect.

"She's very strong and she knows what she wants," says Marcos Avila, a founding member of the Miami Sound Machine and Saralegui's husband of 14 years. "She doesn't go around and try to get an answer. She'll ask you point-blank. But she's very fair."

Still, she has her detractors, critics who argue that she's done little more than debase her race with frank, nationally televised discussions of promiscuity, homosexuality and women's equality, still controversial subjects in many Latino homes.

"I have to teach Latinos it's OK to talk about this stuff," she has said. "I have strong views. And I'm not scared of sharing them."

Not that others haven't tried to frighten her.

"I have had bomb threats in Barcelona [and] in New York. I've been picketed," she says. "I've had my children attacked, my parents attacked. All verbally.

"Also I have been able to speak in the United Nations in the General Assembly. [And] my kids get privileges because of me. So, in other words, it's a two-edged sword."

*

Saralegui's midday press conference at a trendy Westside club is already 30 minutes behind schedule, and the guest of honor hasn't even shown up yet. All the seats were taken long ago, so now gaps along the walls and between the tables are filling as late-arriving TV crews set up their cameras and sound equipment.

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