Telemundo anchor María Celeste Arrarás poses at the 2015 Latin American Music Awards. She will will take the debate stage to question the Republican candidates. | AP Photo
The race for the GOP presidential nomination seems to be boiling down to two Hispanic candidates – who’ve argued about, among other things, the quality of their Spanish — and a man who repeatedly bashes Mexico and undocumented workers.
Yet only now, on Thursday, after six months of debates, a member of the Hispanic and Spanish-language media — Telemundo anchor María Celeste Arrarás — will take the debate stage to question the Republican candidates.
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“I’m looking forward to having the candidates answering more specific questions about Hispanics, not as broad as when they’re asked by other media,” said Arrarás in an interview hours after she landed in Houston for debate prep with hosting network CNN on Monday. “We’ll ask them a bit more pointed, more specific issues.”
Then there’s the matter of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, each of whom have Cuban lineage, yet are frequently at odds on the trail.
“Our audience is trying to figure out the two Hispanic candidates in the Republican party and trying to see how Hispanic they are or are not,” Arrarás said. “Not that that’s going to make them vote for them or not….but I think they’re trying to understand these two candidates that at times speak very tough on immigration. They’re trying to reconcile those two seemingly opposite views and postures, but they’re being considered [by Hispanic voters].”
That’s just one of the animating issues making this year’s GOP primaries a boon for the Spanish-language media. For networks such as Telemundo and its higher-rated competitor Univision, the 2016 election has been a ratings bonanza. Interest in the election by Hispanic electorate has never been higher.
In the fall, “50 percent of Latinos were tuning into the elections,” said Maria Teresa Kumar, director of Voto Latino, a group that aims to increase civic engagement among young Latinos. “That 50 percent you don’t see normally until six to seven weeks before actual voting day. People are definitely primed with the voting message.”
Donald Trump, who often claims that no one was talking about immigration before he came along, can take credit for some of the initial Hispanic media frenzy, bleeding into everything from popular radio DJs’ jokes and interviews to piñata sales.
But even without Trump, this would have been an occasion for intense interest on the behalf of Hispanic voters, more than 70 percent of whom voted Democratic in the last presidential election, a percentage swollen by anger over Republican rhetoric about illegal immigration. This year, in addition to the presence of Rubio and Cruz, a third candidate, Jeb Bush, often utilized his fluent Spanish in interviews. And Bush, who dropped out of the race last week, is married to Columba Bush, who was born and raised in Mexico.
Bush’s departure from the race left Rubio as the only speaker of fluent Spanish, though Cruz is boning up. Cruz has a strong following among his fellow Hispanic evangelicals.
“It’s a natural link for Hispanic media,” said Univision political director Carlos Chirinos. “We are paying attention to the constituents they are focusing on, for example for Mr. Rubio, it’s his past links to Nevada we covered specifically, the Cuban-American community in Nevada that was leaning toward him. Or in the case of Mr. Cruz, the Hispanic evangelicals that is part of his constituency as well. We do pay attention to those details that make the candidates more appealing to the Hispanic community, more interesting for them.”
At the last Republican debate on February 13, Cruz challenged Rubio in Spanish, a first for a presidential debate stage and a moment which led to intense interest in Hispanic media.
“That was a big moment. We presented the video clip on that and it was in high demand,” Chirinos said. “People wanted to hear Cruz speak Spanish because he’s not particularly keen to speak Spanish. It was a rare occasion.”
But don’t necessarily expect Arrarás to try and challenge Cruz and Rubio in Spanish on Thursday.
“I think people were amused [during the last debate], but Hispanics are going to vote for someone because they have a right platform,” not because they speak Spanish, she said.
Arrarás herself comes from a political background. Her father, Jose Enrique Arrarás, was the minority leader in the Puerto Rican legislature. Maria Celeste has been a highly recognized figure in Spanish-language broadcasting for decades, having started on Univision in 1986. She is now the co-anchor of Telemundo’s nightly newscast.
Arrarás said candidates should expect her questions to go beyond immigration, though it’s an important topic for the Hispanic audience.
“We all care about education, health care, good wage,” said Arrarás. “Immigration is important, absolutely, but it’s not the only subject by any means that Hispanics care about.”