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CRISTINA SARALEGUI - A Woman Involved

By Gregory Von Dare

Throughout most of the Latin world, just say Cristina and you've identified her. For those who don't speak Spanish, Cristina Saralegui may still be a hidden treasure, but that won't last for long. The dynamic Latina entrepreneur, producer, journalist, and broadcaster continues to expand her audience and horizons.

First of all, she is a powerhouse of vibrant energy, full of robust Caribbean charm. To watch her long-running self-titled TV show is to be exhausted after 15 minutes. How does she do it? Her smile is charming and mature, her body solid, ready to withstand the hurricanes of her chosen profession. She's pretty and has a smoky Hispanic accent that never interferes with her perfect colloquial English. Her laugh is rich, mellow, knowingly ironic.

Every day, millions of viewers expect Cristina to make them smile and make them think. They are rarely disappointed. Each month, the readers of her magazine look for common sense and a dash of charm. They find it. ROAD & TRAVEL Magazine spoke to this beguiling and extraordinary woman to gain a better understanding of her life and views.

Born in Cuba near the half-century mark, Cristina is a success in as many media as you care to count. She is the granddaughter of an important publisher in Cuba, and like most members of her family, she became a reporter when she was quite young. Surprisingly, Cristina's first language was English; she learned Spanish later. She has written for newspapers, magazines and other print media. She hosts and produces her hit TV show, her autobiography (My Life as a Blonde) has recently gone into print, she has a long-running radio program ("Christina Opina"), and she has just launched a popular web site (www.cristinaonline.com) in addition to her successful magazine.

Cristina's career is a story of continued success, challenges met, and increasing visibility. But she is not an ambitious woman in the usual sense, out of touch with those working and living in less glamorous surroundings. She is deeply involved in women's issues and Latin causes and is recognized as a major supporter of both. But she also spends a large amount of time working for AIDS charities and was a spokesperson for Ford Motor Company in a sweeping breast cancer awareness program.

Despite all the triumphs, first and foremost she thinks of herself as a journalist. "I feel like I'm a communicator," she said. "I remember that when I signed my original Univision contract, what shocked me was the word 'talent.' They used the word 'talent' to describe me, you know? In television, it meant somebody who sat down and did whatever they were told. They were not allowed to have an opinion. They were a piece of furniture. So I was very shocked to find that out. I took out the word 'talent' from the entire contract and put 'journalist' in there."

Feisty, yes she is, especially in the sense that one has opinions of value and acts on them. Unlike many modern celebrities, Cristina is deeply involved in the lives and lifestyles of her audience, her "people." She clearly likes to think of herself as making a difference.

"It doesn't matter what your medium is as long as your message is the same," she said. "And what I've been battling all my life since I was 17, and now I'm 50, is a message of self-empowerment for what I call 'my people.' I happen to be a Cuban-American, but my people are Latinos from every country of origin who live in the U.S. and outside."

Her identification with the expanding Latino audience comes at a pivotal moment in history. Every projection shows that people of Latin heritage will be the leading minority, if not the majority population in the United States, some time in the next century, sooner rather than later. Cristina sees this huge constituency, this vast audience, as a trust rather than a pawn.

"In the United States, the Latinos are turning into the biggest minority, but what does that mean? What they call the 'browning of America' is very good because it means that all of us communities like in the urban centers, we're all together. What I see is, for example, we do not run around Cuban with Cuban, or Mexican with Mexican, or Italian with Italian, like when our parents came over. Everybody's together," she said.  

"But it is incredible how Latinos have grown as a market. Even though I like to say that we are not a market, we are still a people," she continues. "But it seems like everybody's trying to sell us something? It's become hot because of the numbers. But Latinos have been here all along, and we're just neighbors."

"We're all in this together." Cristina says this several times in a half-hour conversation. And it's not just lip service. "What have I accomplished with my communications — my show, my magazine?" she asks out loud. "We're all parents and we have the same problems. So I try to appeal to that common denominator, and at the same time I try to inform. I talk about a lot of gay issues; how to help the Hispanic kids not commit suicide. What I try to do is play down the differences and portray us as what we are — which is that everyone is in this together."

Another one of Cristina's causes is breast cancer awareness and prevention. For her, this is a women's issue but also one that touches on her Hispanic roots.

"Latino women are so traditional," she said. "You're taking a bath, you're like a nun. You don't look at your body. You make love with the lights turned out! So we tell them you do look at your body, your breasts. You find out if there's a lump or a problem. Then you go to your doctor. So whenever I can go public with something like that, I'm very proud to do so."

Although Cristina is clearly a socially involved woman, she is equally unafraid to take a controversial stance on political issues, like bilingualism.

"I think that anybody who comes to the United States, for example, and doesn't learn English is suicidal," she said forcefully. "I think that not only are they killing all their opportunities for advancement, but they're killing all their kids' opportunities. I also think that if you come to the United States and you allow your kids to forget their roots, and you allow your kids to forget their Spanish, you are also doing them a disservice."

From there, global politics is only a short step away. Cristina understands that her beloved birthplace, Cuba, is still the center of intense debate in the United States. But it may not always be so. Again, she has a viewpoint that is reasonable and intelligent, even if many people would strongly disagree with it.

Measuring her words, Cristina says, "Castro is getting on. He's been a very wily man. I think that once he dies, the legend of the revolution that he created — that is based on an illusion — will be over. And then everybody is going to see the harsh reality of a country that is caught in a time warp. When you go to Cuba, it looks like 1950. Little by little, I think the country will go back to an economy that is based on dollars. If you go to Cuba now and you don't have dollars, you can't buy asthma medicine for your five-year-old. If you are a Cuban, you're not allowed to go to the beautiful hotels and the beaches, unless you go with a foreigner.

"I think Castro was such a charismatic person that once he passes, the reality is going to slap everybody in the face about what's been going on there for 30 years. Americans love to go to Cuba; we're close by. And I will go too, but I will not move! For me it would be like a second exile. When I was brought to this country, I was a little girl. And I just want my kids to be solid. This is their country; they were born here. So I will help rebuild my old country, but I want to be buried in Miami."

While we're on the subject of politics, I ask if the United States can elect a woman president. She laughs uproariously. "This country is a lot more machismo than all of the Latin American counties put together," she said. "They just don't realize it. And you can have a Margaret Thatcher or a Violetta Chamorro, even Eva Duarte Peron, but in this country, I just don't know. A woman vice president, sure. A token, why not? Maybe a Hispanic, maybe a black? A black Hispanic woman! You can kill all birds with one stone. Vote for her? Hell yeah!"

Like many successful women, Cristina has chosen her car carefully, yet her choice was one of the heart as well as the head.

"I've had a white Jaguar," she tells us, "this is my fourth in a row. The same car. My mother said, 'Weren't you going to change the car?' and I said, "I just did." So obviously that's my favorite car. I love it. I just do not thirst for anything else. In the beginning, many moons ago, they had an electrical problem, but they don't now. My car never breaks down. My daughter has a Ford Explorer, and my husband has a Rolls."

Talking about her car gets Cristina thinking.

"It takes a big-hearted company to help in the manner that Ford is helping," she said. "And let's face it: nobody does it because they have to. If you do it, it's because you want to. It always feels good to hook up with companies that you see pouring money back into the communities."

Typically, her future is planned and organized, with many remarkable possibilities.

"The internet has been incredible. Everybody just wants to talk, so they hook in and they tell me their life stories. That's a completely new world we're embarking on."

Journalist, entertainer, social reformer, wife, caring mother of three, and one of the Latin world's leading celebrities, Cristina is also a dreamer, a visionary of a better world to come. She says softly, "My dream is to see the Latinos and the blacks and all the minorities join hands with the Anglo Saxon Protestant Americans. In other words, instead of everybody dividing and creating more conflict of interest so you see more warfare and bloodshed in the cities, we all have to join hands. Or we're just gonna kill each other."

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