Trabajando para Usted
Jaime Méndez anchors Seattle’s first local Spanish-language newscast.
By Ann Mary Quarandillo
Five minutes before airtime, the production room is frantic. A mosaic of more than 20 screens reflects every feed coming through the boards at Fisher Communications – home of KOMO news and KUNS 51/Univision Seattle. The cameras zoom in and out on co-anchors Jaime Méndez and Teresa Gonzalez, putting the final touches on their stories for Noticias Univision Seattle, the first regional Spanish language newscast in the Pacific Northwest, and Seattle’s only Spanish-language local newscast. Once the cameras start to roll, they lead off with “la nieve”—the snow that is expected to fall in Seattle.
Even for a native Spanish speaker, this is no picnic. The producer is constantly giving instructions (in English) through their earpieces, the text on the teleprompter is whizzing by at the speed of sound, and yet both Méndez and Gonzalez sound like they’re having a conversation with their invisible audience—which is exactly what they work for.
Jaime Méndez ’95 has been working in Spanish-language media since 1993; his background includes radio, video, TV and theatre. So in 2007, when Fisher Communications moved to supplement its national Univision station with a local Spanish-language newscast, he was a natural choice to anchor the program.
Méndez graduated from high school in Bogota, Colombia. He moved to New York City in 1987, where he spent three years taking English classes and working towards a career in business. When he moved to the Northwest, he started taking business classes at Bellevue College; needing an elective, he found himself in a theater class. “It’s the best thing I could have done,” he says. He switched to communications, and began looking for a four-year college where he could earn his B.A.
When he considered transferring to Evergreen, his friends “said I wouldn’t last a day!” he laughs. “They thought I was too preppy to fit in because I wore suits. But that was outside—not how I felt inside. Once I was accepted to Evergreen, I didn’t even look at other schools.”
Evergreen was very welcoming for Méndez. The traditional classroom system he’d been in hadn’t encouraged him to speak up. At Evergreen, it was different. “In seminar, your opinion counts. I could ask questions and it was ok,” he says. “What you say makes a difference, and I’ve found that is true over and over in my career.”
His first broadcast experience was on Evergreen’s KAOS community radio station, where he began helping out on a salsa music show, and soon began his own two-hour program, featuring talk, music and guest appearances in both Spanish and English. He was voted “Best New Talent” his first year.
After graduation, Méndez returned to Colombia for a short time before moving to Miami, where he got a job with Caracol Radio, a major Colombian station with a huge presence in south Florida. “It was such a great experience to work with people who really know what they’re doing and view their work as community service,” he says. “I’ve brought that way of thinking to my work in Seattle. It’s important to let the immigrant community know what services are available.”
His first show in Seattle was Café y Noticias on KXPA 1540 AM. Since Spanish radio hardly existed in the Northwest in the late ‘90s, he also worked as KXPA’s soundboard operator. But Méndez was in the right place at the right time. “The Hispanic community was really beginning to grow when I got here, and one morning, I opened the paper and there was an ad for a bilingual radio board operator at Radio Sol,” he says. Radio Sol 1360 AM was the first 24-hour all-Spanish radio station in the Puget Sound region. Méndez hosted Latinos Días, an all-Spanish morning radio show, and soon became the station’s program director.
It’s funny, he says, that he was the first host on the first 24-7 Spanish radio station, now called El Rey 1360, where he continues to host the weekday morning talk show La Voz de Washington, and now, the first anchor on the first all-Spanish TV newscast.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there are more than 753,000 Hispanic or Latino people in Washington state. Of these, about 600,000 are of Mexican descent. Noticias Univision Seattle works to balance news that is of interest to all Latino immigrants, reporting on major worldwide stories as well as local ones, but because so much of the target audience is Mexican, many big stories in Mexico are covered, including the current general elections, soccer teams, artists and entertainers.
Not surprisingly, the number one topic of interest with the station’s audience is immigration. So when Arizona passed its controversial immigration laws, Méndez and his show covered the story in depth. He and his colleagues know that there are people in Washington who share negative attitudes towards Latinos and question the need for Spanish-language media. “We did get some negative emails when we first started, but not very often,” he says. “This show has been a very welcome addition to Seattle. We’re always working to relate the news to what’s going on here in our region.” Méndez finds that Washington is very open to immigrants and grateful for the contributions they make, and Fisher Communications has been very supportive of his work.
Contrary to stereotypes about the Latino community and the authorities, Méndez and his coworkers have built relationships with local politicians, as well as the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the King County Sheriff’s office, collaborating on anti-gang programs and other outreach to the Spanish-speaking community. At the same time, “Our job is to question them—to find out what is really going on and how it can be fixed,” Méndez explains. “So we don’t always say just the good things. It’s our responsibility to emphasize the things our community cares for and that are important to them.”
Méndez finds that being a part of a large organization like Fisher Communications, which also runs KOMO television and a number of AM and FM radio stations, gives him and Gonzalez great opportunities to change people’s views about Hispanic people. They work closely with other KOMO newscasters on stories, and have gained respect for their news work and access to the Hispanic community. Méndez also takes advantage of the experience and connections of the KOMO newspeople when covering particular stories. “Fraud is a big problem in the Hispanic community—it’s easy to take advantage of people who don’t speak English well or aren’t familiar with ways of doing things here,” Méndez explains. “The investigative team at KOMO has really helped us to dig into those stories, give tips on how to solve the problem and protect our local consumers.”
It’s not all work and no play for Méndez, though. He is an avid soccer player (who played with Evergreen’s Geoduck team for two years). When Univision Seattle signed a multiyear agreement with the Seattle Sounders FC to broadcast a portion of the 2011-12 games in Spanish, he jumped at the chance to do play-by-play commentary and host a weekly highlight show, Sounders FC en Acción, which is broadcast throughout the Sounders’ season. “With the number of Central and South American players who have joined the Sounders, the fan base is growing quickly,” says Méndez. “I can cover something that’s a huge passion of mine, and also be a great resource for the Sounders’ Spanish-speaking fans.”
As Méndez and Teresa Gonzalez sign off for the evening, they slip away from the teleprompter and into some comfortable ad-lib comments. “Spanish-language news is one of the best resources for getting a message out to the Latino community,” Méndez says. And tonight his closing message is simple. “Ten cuidado en la nieve,” he says. “Y buenas noches.”