Longtime NBC journalist Cecilia Alvear, who opened doors for Latinos and women, dies at 77

Cecilia Alvear, a longtime television journalist and former president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists who crusaded for greater opportunities for young Latino journalists throughout her career, died Friday at her home in Santa Monica after battling breast cancer. She was 77.

Alvear had bounced around local Los Angeles news stations until 1982, when NBC hired her to run its Mexico City bureau. She remained at the network until her retirement in 2007.

During that time Alvear covered wars and revolutions in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and produced multiple interviews with Cuban President Fidel Castro, said George Lewis, her partner of 23 years.

“She would go into war zones and she would always insist on being with the camera crews because she felt that if she was sending those guys into danger she needed to share that with them,” Lewis said. “So she was always right close to the action.”

Alvear broke into journalism in the 1970s in an era when women had difficulty landing hard-news assignments. Often, she was the first or only Latina or woman in the newsroom.

“When she went to KNBC, someone was holding a beauty contest for the women in the department where she worked and the women decided to rebel, ” Lewis said. “And Cecilia was part of that rebellion.”

When she did push for equality, Alvear was never strident, instead employing a more low-key approach, slowly working to change people’s minds and open doors for women and minorities, said Lewis, who met Alvear when he was working for NBC in Los Angeles.

“She was a relentless campaigner for more diversity in newsrooms,” Lewis said. Later in life, as her prominence grew, she pushed for scholarships and training programs for young journalists, particularly young Latino journalists.

Anne-Marie O’Connor, a former L.A. Times reporter who, along with Alvear, covered many Latin countries in the revolutionary era of the 1980s. She called Alvear “a true pioneer as a professional woman in journalism.”

“I met Cecilia in 1982 when she was sent, as an NBC producer at the height of the Cold War, to run the war coverage of NBC in Latin America,” O’Connor said. “At the time it was rare to even meet a female producer, much less an Ecuadorian-born Latina who spoke English with an accent. Cecilia broke the mold.”

Alvear was born on the island of San Cristobal in the Galapagos on Nov. 5, 1939, and though her family moved to Ecuador’s mainland when she was 3, Alvear maintained a close connection to the islands. Her father had been a governor, and she was treated as something of a celebrity when she returned, Lewis said.

She would often return to visit the elementary school her father had established, hauling computers to the classrooms. Lewis said Alvear later established a computer lab at the school.

The second of five sisters, Alvear came to the U.S. in 1965, green card in hand, “ready to make a fortune,” Lewis said. Instead she found work in a congressman’s office until he became a production assistant at NBC in 1971.

She never earned a college degree, but completed a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University from 1988 to 1989.

Alvear was on assignment in Mexico in 1994 when she got a call from her doctor, urging her to return as soon as possible, she said in a 2010 interview for ThinkCure, a nonprofit that raises money for cancer research. When she got back to the states, she learned she had breast cancer.

Alvear asked to pursue the most aggressive course of treatment available. “They take out your own stem cells, they subject you to heavy doses of chemo and then they reinfuse the stem cells,” she said in the 2010 interview.

“I had been reading that one of the things that help people stand these challenges is love and the support of friends and family, and I certainly had that,” she said

Her co-workers held blood drives for her, she said. “We just have to keep going and trying to find a cure,” she said.

Alvear’s cancer had been in remission for 18 years, but returned in 2012, Lewis said.

She died in her home while in hospice care. She is survived by Lewis; four sisters, Alexandra, Magdalena, Montserrat and Rocio, and two half-brothers, Eduardo and Alfredo.

Reach Sonali Kohli at Sonali.Kohli@latimes.com or on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli.


UPDATES:

6:45 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Anne-Marie O’Connor.

This article was originally published at 4:45 p.m.

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