The first time someone stuck a microphone in her hand and pushed her before a television camera, Ana Maria Canseco cried. Twenty-three years later, she’s still not sure if they were tears of joy or fear.
Either way, the show of emotion touched a casting director and won the cherubic Canseco a role in what would soon become one of the most popular telenovelas in Latin America. Two years later, though, she was crying again--this time in sorrow--after being cut from the cast for maturing too quickly.
Before Canseco had celebrated her ninth birthday, her acting career had gone up and down so fast it’s a wonder she didn’t get the bends. The experience did, however, afflict her with another malady.
“What it did is, it injected me with a virus, a TV virus,” she says. “Once you’ve tried it--the cameras and the pressure that comes with it--you just get hooked. There’s no way you can stop thinking about it.”
That obsession has fueled a remarkable 10-year run that has taken Canseco to five stations in four cities and two countries--the latest stop being KVEA-TV Channel 52 in Los Angeles, where she works as a news and entertainment reporter and a backup anchor for the station’s twice-nightly Spanish-language newscasts.
Along the way she’s knocked on more doors than a traveling salesman, been fired almost as often as the manager of the New York Yankees and struggled to understand a painful family secret worthy of a Mexican novel.
But she wouldn’t trade one step of the journey for the world.
“It hasn’t been easy,” she says, “but I think if you have a dream and you want to achieve it, you have to fight for it.”
Canseco’s latest dream is to anchor the news, a dream she realized briefly when one of KVEA’s regular anchors, Teresa Quevedo, went on maternity leave last November. But the experiment proved short-lived when the station imported Gabriela Zavala from Mexico City to fill out the rest of Quevedo’s leave.
“It’s part of her own development,” KVEA station manager Eduardo Dominguez said of Canseco’s changing roles. “It’s about developing the talent that we have so that she can be able to fit into other responsibilities and not be pigeon-holed.”
For Canseco, 29, it still sounds like a demotion. “It was a disappointment,” she says. “Oh, you bet it was. But in this business, you have to learn to take something positive from the disappointment.”
Disappointment, after all, is hardly a novel experience for Canseco. In fact, it’s fitting that her television career began with a telenovela because her life since then reads like a soap opera. Pushed into television by a grandmother who never realized her own dream of acting, Canseco landed her first TV job at age 6, playing a supporting role behind Graciela Mauri in “Mundo de Jugete” (Toyworld), a mid-1970s Mexican soap opera.
The show, which followed the trials and tribulations of a handful of bright-eyed students at a private elementary school, yielded a successful singing and acting career for Mauri. Canseco, however, was cut loose halfway through the show’s five-year run; by the age of 8, she was told, she had become too old for her character.
To help support her family, she accepted a number of minor roles in other telenovelas, filmed commercials and did radio work. The money wasn’t much, though, so while the family moved frequently around Mexico City, it never rose above lower-middle class.
“It was very hard as a child,” Canseco remembers. “I used to be very nervous as a kid. [I had] so many pressures. At times it seemed very sad because I didn’t have that many friends. I was a loner.
“But right now I see that as a very valuable experience.”
The problems Canseco experienced on the set, however, were nothing compared to the heartache she would later endure at home. When she was 13, the woman she had lived with since birth died, and only then did she learn that the woman was her grandmother--not her mother, as she had been told. The men she had come to know as brothers were actually uncles and her real mother, who she would now rejoin, lived in the Mexican state of Morelos, far from the television and radio studios of Mexico City.
In one fell swoop, Canseco had lost her grandmother, found her mother and been forced to give up a career she was just beginning to enjoy. The experience was overwhelming, and it left deep wounds. Adding to the pain was the fact that Canseco’s mother refused to discuss the whole affair until her daughter became an adult.
“We were a classic Mexican family [and] we didn’t talk about this,” Canseco says. “But then we got to talk and it was very emotional. At the time I was born, she was very young. I understand what she went through.
“I’m very, very close to her now.”
While Canseco’s family history has left her wary, it has also imbued her with a fierce drive to succeed. As a teenager in Texas, just months out of a Mexican high school and with only a rudimentary knowledge of English, she knocked on the doors of so many Spanish-language radio stations her knuckles almost bled. “And,” she admits, “many doors closed. [But] finally someone gave me an opportunity.”
Two years and four radio jobs later, she joined a Spanish-language television station in Houston, the first step in a rapid career progression that peaked two years ago when, at 27, she was named the full-time entertainment reporter at KVEA, the flagship station of the national Telemundo network.
“I’ve done it by myself,” she says proudly. “Fighting for the things that I want, taking risks. By myself.”
Canseco’s greatest on-air strengths, KVEA station manager Dominguez says, are her delivery and presence. Rather than simply reading a story from the anchor desk or reciting pertinent facts from the field, Canseco frequently plays to the camera, employing a wide variety of facial expressions and hand gestures to give each story a unique texture and feel. It’s a style unusual in television news but one that comes naturally to someone whose first on-camera experience was as an actress.
“The skills that you learn in acting are the same skills that you need in order to be a reporter and to be in the news field,” she says. “For [the viewers] to understand what you’re saying, you have to work with your voice, your facial expressions. That is what actors do. You are feeling their story.
“Sometimes that is not that natural, just a little bit of acting. [But] it is not a game. You are talking about real people.”
Only time will erase her most obvious weaknesses--youth and relative inexperience as a news reporter, although neither is considered a major drawback in the Spanish-language market, which, demographics show, draws a younger audience. But it could be a factor if Canseco tries to jump to an English-language station as Christina Gonzalez did when she left KMEX-TV Channel 34 for KTTV-TV Channel 11 seven years ago. Toward that end, Canseco plans to begin voice and diction classes, and she’ll also have to cure a tendency to slip forgetfully into Spanish during conversation.
“I think there are many possibilities and I don’t want to narrow myself to one thing,” she says. “I think what I have right now is part faith, part ganas [guts]. Things happen for a reason and if I’m doing this, it’s for a reason.”