I recently attended an event to honor peripatetic educator, journalist and broadcast executive Frank Cruz. The evening at downtown L.A.’s LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes (they insist on the upper case “A” in LA as part of its branding) drew lots of stalwart Latino leaders of the last couple of generations. Kind of old home week for lawyers, journalists, and others who – to one degree or another – were formed by the turbulent, scary and exciting developments of what we’ve come to regard collectively as The Chicano Movement. The focal point of the evenings activities was a discussion of Frank Cruz’ just-published memoir. It was an evening of respectful conversation about where we were, how we got here and potentially where we’re going, as seen through the prism of Cruz’ long and varied career.
The complete title of the book (are you sitting down?) is “Straight Out of Barrio Hollywood: The Adventures of Telemundo Co-founder Frank H. Cruz, Chicano History Professor, TV Anchorman, Network Executive, and Public Broadcasting Leader.” Honest. The co-author is Rita Joiner Soza.
It is certainly a worthwhile read. In case you weren’t aware of it, the term “Barrio Hollywood” refers to a ramshackle but hospitable working-class neighborhood in Tucson, Arizona. That’s where Frank Cruz was born and raised. He, of course, eventually made his way to the “other” Hollywood, the one that houses the film and broadcast industries.
His story is both simple and complex. And it is a story worth knowing, worth examining. His story is not a linear one. He didn’t start out with one dream or goal, and then overcame every hurdle necessary to achieve that goal. It was more of a zig-zag career. One that responded to new opportunities (and adversities) along the way. As he and his co-author detail in the book, he began as an educator and his experiences there led to an opportunity to be a television reporter in L.A. and that, in turn, opened other doors for him.
As it happens, I was a student at Lincoln High School in L.A.’s Lincoln Heights neighborhood when Frank Cruz was a student teacher, fresh out of college. He then immersed himself in Chicano history and taught the subject at Cal State Long Beach. The Chicano Movement was rumbling, beginning to shift social-cultural tectonic plates in California and the country.
While working on his planned doctorate at Cal State Long Beach he was recruited into a team of educators and broadcasters to produce a television series on Mexican American community affairs. The series aired on a major station in Los Angeles and was well received. And that experience got him a call from the news director of a rival station. He told Cruz he liked what he saw in that series. He offered Cruz a gig as a reporter on the spot. Cruz protested that he wasn’t a journalist. “We’ll teach you,” was the reply.
And so Cruz abandoned research on his dissertation and signed up at Channel 7, KABC-TV. At the event the other night he was not shy about conceding that the salary he was offered, which was way beyond his teaching salary, helped seal the deal pretty quickly. He learned journalism.
I was a witness to all of this, as was the rest of L.A.’s Chicanada. He became a solid reporter. And beyond that, he became a respected, reliable voice when it came to developments in the Latino community. For example, he did excellent work in exposing the story of the horrific forced-sterilization polices of the USC-Los Angeles County Medical Center (the General Hospital, which is located smack dab in the middle of Boyle Heights. As it happens, I was born in that hospital; the youngest of nine kids and the only one born in a hospital.
It was revealed that gringo doctors had routinely performed “tubal ligations” on Mexican and Mexican American women. They were sterilized without their consent and often without their knowledge of what had been done to them. We don’t want no more wetback babies in this country!
That issue stirred valiant battles by young Latina attorneys, including Antonia Hernández, and young fiery activists, including Gloria Molina. Protests. Court trials. Corrective legislation. Ultimately, the process of forced sterilization was put to an end. And Cruz, along with other Chicano reporters, covered the issues surrounding that near-genocidal practice by white doctors in white coats.
The issues Cruz covered as a reporter and the issues he affected as a broadcast executive are emblematic of the arc of a generation of Chicano social, political and cultural history. His has been a steady voice of reason and he should be commended for that.
Much of his memoir deals with the creation of Spanish-language station KVEA in Los Angeles, which lead to the start of the Telemundo network. He writes that an entrepreneurial drive he inherited from his mother was the catalyst that drove him to take a leap from a secure gig as a reporter to the founder of a new Spanish-language institution.
In the book Cruz explains: “I’m not one to ruminate on, or second-guess, my motivations, but as I look back on the last 50 years, and even now with this project, I clearly see that throughout my career my purpose has been to provide knowledge to and about the Latino community in the hope of correcting misinformation and defying injustice. That passion has propelled me through several successful leadership roles.”
One of those roles was as the co-founder of the California Chicano News Media Association (known today as CCNMA: Latino Journalists of California). Along with Frank del Olmo and Frank Sotomayor of the L.A. Times, TV reporters Joel Garcia, Bob Navarro and Joe Ramirez, Cruz established the association of professional Chicano/Latino journalists. The association grew throughout California and spawned a national association of Latino journalists.
Writes Cruz: “The idea of an association emerged from the activism of the sixties. We witnessed the absence of people of color in the media, and we recognized how professional organizations had helped improve diversity among the ranks of doctors and lawyers. We thought we could do that same thing for journalists. The goal was that we would help foster fair and accurate portrayals of Latinos in the news media.”
Following the success of the launch of Telemundo, another opportunity beckoned. He was appointed by President Clinton to take the helm of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He served actively in that capacity from 1999 to 2001. He continued to nurture and support programming beneficial to Latinos.
Frank Cruz continues to support the Latino community through a number of venues, including membership of several corporate and educational boards of directors. It’s been a big of a zig-zag road, but clearly a path that led to positive accomplishments along the way, for him and for the Latino community.
In his memoir Cruz reflects that, all in all, it’s been a pretty good professional life. “In the process of avidly pursuing five very distinct careers, I have been thrilled and fulfilled by each and wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
Cruz came a long way from Tucson’s working-class mexicano neighborhood known as Barrio Hollywood.
Copyright by Luis R. Torres. Veteran Los Angeles journalist Luis Torres is the author of “Doña Julia’s Children.” He is at work on a biography of political pioneer Gloria Molina.