If ABC commentator Peter Jennings grows weary of fans hounding him for autographs, he could take a stroll through the neighborhood streets of Sylmar, East L.A. or Pacoima in complete anonymity.
That's not true for Eduardo Quezada, whom everyone seems to know by virtue of his anchoring one of the most-watched local newscasts in the country for the past 25 years. Each weeknight at 6 p.m., nearly half a million people sit down to watch his familiar face and listen to his gravelly voice as he brings them the day's news--in Spanish.
With his hair brushed off his face, Quezada resembles magician David Copperfield. As lean as a greyhound and as formal as an ambassador, he sits ramrod straight in front of the KMEX-TV cameras and trots through the news lineup in an almost dated style. And over the past three weeks, Los Angeles viewers have looked to him and co-anchor Andrea Kutyas to explain this bizarre process of naming a president-elect.
"My responsibility is to tell [my audience] that here, in this country, the vote counts," said Quezada, who has brought news of several controversial elections from the homeland of his viewers, many of them immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America. "[U.S. elections] cannot be manipulated like it can be in other countries."
The U.S. presidential election placed the Latino population into one of the prominent "swing vote" categories. When those votes were tallied in California, Vice President Al Gore had collected 77% of Latino votes, according to exit polls by the William C. Velasquez Institute, a nonprofit agency that studies Latino voting trends. Republican nominee George W. Bush was selected by just 23% of Latino voters.
It's uncertain what percentage of Latino voters rely on Spanish-language newscasts for political coverage, but by virtue of being the first-ever Spanish-language station in the market, and its longtime dominance here, KMEX and its senior news anchor are easily the leaders in this regard.
In February, Quezada hosted the first televised Spanish-language town hall with a presidential candidate. In this case, Gore's staffers were unable to schedule the vice president, and Bush was alone in the hot seat, aided by a translator. The event at Loyola Marymount University was carried live statewide.
"When Bush was in town, Eduardo really asked him some tough questions," said Enrique Arevalo, an immigration attorney in South Pasadena who went to the town hall meeting. "[Quezada] asked him if he favored amnesty, and Bush said, 'No.' But Quezada really put him on the spot.".
Quezada just seems honest, Arevalo added. "In terms of substance, he comes across as someone who can be trusted."
That trust has translated into ratings. More Latinos live in Los Angeles than in any other U.S. city, and the 6 p.m. newscast on KMEX has drawn more local adult viewers than any other Spanish or English newscast in L.A. since May 1993, according to Nielsen Media Research. Advertisers seek out those viewers, ages 18-34, but what is more telling about the newscast's viewers is that they represent a cross-section of the community, from professionals to immigrants just recently arrived. The newscast's ability to attract such a range of viewers has made it one of the country's longest-running, most popular local newscasts among adults--in any language.
In some neighborhoods where the majority are not only Latino but foreign-born, the names of commentators like Jennings, Walter Cronkite or Katie Couric might not provoke even a vague expression of recognition. Many, however, can pick Quezada out of a crowd--and do.
At a Fox Hills Mall coffee stand two weeks ago, a stone's throw from the KMEX newsroom, Quezada--whose thin face and lanky frame make him seem taller than his 6 feet--ordered a coffee two hours before he was due at the newsroom. The Latino vendor would not let him pay, so Quezada dropped the money into the tip jar instead, and waved to a small group of passersby who recognized him.
The modest but respectful reception paled in comparison to the greeting that Quezada received last winter in the Panorama Mall in the San Fernando Valley, where store signs and millennium exclamations were written in Spanish and several salespeople declined conversations in English, explaining they spoke Spanish better. Fans pointed, waved or approached him to chat or for an autograph.
A teenage girl approached his table, telling Quezada that her mother watches him every day. After a few seconds, Alejandra Valdez admitted that the autograph was not for her mother, but for her.
"I grew up with you," she said. Valdez was born in Sinaloa, Mexico, and arrived here when she was 7 years old. She is bilingual, but although she picked out the casually dressed Quezada at a coffee stand, she was unfamiliar with English-language news commentators.