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Balancing Act

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Laura Diaz, the KABC-TV news anchor, is standing in her modest kitchen in the Valley.

She and her assistant are planning this year’s Christmas Eve party at her house. There are invitations to be printed, RSVPs to be counted, caterers to worry about, flowers to be arranged. Carolers? Laura asks. Carolers are in the Rolodex, her assistant says in the next breath.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 16, 1998 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 16, 1998 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Family mix-up--KABC-TV news anchor Laura Diaz, who was profiled in Sunday’s Southern California Living, has three godchildren. She has no grandchildren.

This isn’t just any gathering. More than 30 family members and friends have come to expect blowout celebrations at this large, Spanish-style house.

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“If I didn’t have help,” Laura tells her visitor, “this house would be in chaos.”

*

Eight years ago, Laura needed an assistant.

She had just been promoted to 6 p.m. anchor at KABC. She was also filling in for the lead anchors at 5 and 11 p.m. And she had begun a busy schedule of public speaking--especially to Latina groups--often between the 6 and 11 p.m. broadcasts.

For seven more years, she also subbed as anchor on other shows.

She needed an assistant, but it had to be someone who could understand the news schedule, who wouldn’t mind if Laura stood up midsentence and said, “They want me in now!”

And she needed someone she could trust like a sister.

Around the same time, Nena Diaz was getting out of the jewelry business. She agreed to do her sister’s books for a few hours a week, as long as she could leave any time she wanted to get home to her kids in Santa Clarita.

Eight years later, Laura, 42, is the lead anchor with Harold Greene for the coveted 5 and 11 p.m. shows. And Nena is Laura’s assistant, with expanded duties that include everything from keeping track of Laura’s frenetic schedule, calling the plumber, organizing parties, even running extra pairs of pantyhose to the news station.

And occasionally, Nena, 41, gets to very unprofessionally say to her boss, “Go out for a run, you’re impossible today.”

*

A sister offers a rare bond. She may be the only person you’ve ever punched, but she probably was the one who held your hand when you were punished for it.

She was there a long time before your husband and will outlast even your kids in loyalty. Your adult friends may know you as a professional, polished grown-up, but your sister sees the unspoken signals that you are nervous.

“Your sibling is a touchstone,” Laura says.

In repose, the two slight women look like they might be related. When they interact, however, a tangible connection emerges. They share an almost shy, quiet demeanor that barely conceals a burning intensity and warmth.

“She’s my confidant, she’s my best friend, she’s my helpmate. She’s my sister,” Laura says of Nena.

It’s not hard to imagine the two as little girls who started life, barely two years apart, in a Ventura County farm workers camp.

“When I was born, were you jealous of me?” Nena asks.

Laura doesn’t remember that she ever was.

Nena was so sweet, she says, that the older girls used to dress her up like a doll.

For a long time, Laura Diaz kept her private life private, until a few years ago when she did a 30-year update on the farm workers union. For the retrospect, she focused on the camp in Ventura and especially a man who worked two jobs while building his family a house in Newhall. This man, she revealed at the end of the report, was her father, Rafael.

Rafael Diaz came to this country at 15. His wife, Maria Lupe, came here from Mexico as an infant, and at age 10, with the death of her mother, became the surrogate mother to her six younger siblings.

The couple met in a farm workers camp and had four children, Eddie, Maria, Laura and Nena.

Laura has fond memories of the big backyard and how many other children there were to play with.

“Life was rich and it was hard,” she says.

Nena’s memories are more vague, except for a very distinct recollection of the day 4-year-old Laura sat her and a friend down and “read” them a book she had memorized.

“I was always so bossy,” Laura says.

Their father took a second job as a mason. On weekends, he built the family home in Newhall (now Santa Clarita), determined to move to an area with a better school system for his children.

It took him three years, Laura says, and when she was 4, the family moved in.

“That was the catalyst for my life--their vision that we would have a better education,” she says.

*

This day, a few weeks before Christmas, Laura and Nena reminisce in the anchor’s home in the hills of the Valley. The rooms are rich and warm with wood floors, rich fabrics, scented candles. Poinsettias greet visitors as they walk up the steps.

“This is my career girl home,” Laura says.

It would be easier, she admits, to live in a high-rise apartment downtown, but Laura is, decidedly, a homebody when she’s not racing around at “60 miles an hour.”

“In some ways, my life has been nontraditional,” says Laura. “And yet, I think of myself as a family person.”

Her family includes her parents, her brother, sisters, 11 nieces and nephews, three grandchildren, and countless aunts, uncles and cousins.

Her family gives her a private place in which to relax and become a little sister to doting brother Eddie. She revels in her sister Maria’s exuberance. An actress and nurse practitioner, Maria is the most social one of the family, Laura says. And that’s fine with Laura, who isn’t comfortable in the spotlight anyway.

She identifies with ABC journalist Diane Sawyer when she says people are always surprised to find out that she is shy.

When Diaz was promoted to lead anchor last year, the family decided to throw a party. She kept putting them off.

Instead, she threw a reception to celebrate a niece’s wedding, her mother’s birthday and, lastly, her promotion.

*

The Diazes were one of a handful of Latino families in Newhall in 1960. Laura says any of the prejudice she felt was really curiosity about Mexican culture. Their home quickly became the central point for friends, thanks mostly to their mother. She was somewhat sophisticated, making ice sculptures when it was her turn as room mother.

“My mother has a very gentle spirit. She loves children and she loved our friends,” says Laura.

After high school, Nena and Laura took separate paths. Nena married early and, in quick succession, had three children, Micah, now 21, Aubrey, 20, and Laura, 18, named for her aunt and godmother.

Laura worked her way through Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, expecting to be a teacher. Older sister Maria was the first to go to college, and Laura often called her for support during her college years.

In the middle of college, though, teaching jobs became scarce, so Laura took an internship at IBM’s communications office in Rochester, N.Y. A boss suggested she try journalism because, he said, she was so good at what she did.

After graduation in 1980, she talked her way into an internship and then an $8,000-a-year job at the NBC affiliate, KSBY-TV, in San Luis Obispo. The station was small, and reporters were expected to produce, shoot and edit their stories. “We did everything but take out the garbage,” Laura says.

While working at the station, Laura waitressed to pay bills, “driving around in a Ford Fiesta, eating fast food and listening to the police scanner.”

Then, as now, her family provided her a balance in this craziness--and they visited often.

“Either I was going up there or she was coming down here,” says Nena, who by now had three children.

“We provided a balance to each other’s lives,” Laura says. “What I didn’t have, she had. What she didn’t have, I had.”

Then Laura got an on-air job in Fresno. She packed her Subaru and moved to Fresno in the middle of a July heat wave. Laura says, “I had a hard time convincing my family this was a promotion.”

Eight months later, Laura was back in Southern California to join KABC, where she has been for the last 15 years.

One of her first perks was a $1,000 clothing stipend (something not done today). She called Nena and they went shopping.

“I just know in times of joy and in times of sorrow, she’s the first person I turn to,” Laura says. “Hers is the first voice I want to hear.”

Nena, meanwhile, separated from her husband. She and her children moved back into the family home with her mother (her parents divorced when the girls were in high school).

After a series of jobs, she began designing and importing Mexican silver jewelry. “She is very artistic,” Laura says proudly.

And, like many single parents, Nena learned to do light construction work, a set of skills her sister envies.

Recently, Maria’s daughter, Raquel Zeller, joined the small staff to help Laura with her correspondence.

Laura, who does a lot of public speaking, gets loads of letters from young girls, particularly Latinas, who are encouraged by her life story.

“Eight years ago, we could go places,” Nena says. “Now, she doesn’t have a lot of privacy.”

But Laura says most people just feel like they know her and want to say hello. News anchors aren’t top fodder for tabloids or gossip columns. “I don’t think we’re that interesting--mostly we just work a lot.”

Recently, Nena decided she was going to hang all of Laura’s awards in the home office. Laura forbade it, declaring it tacky.

“Being raised Catholic,” Laura explains, “I was taught your good works are done privately.”

Nena says, “I also think she’s worked very hard and done of lot of nice things.”

Laura doesn’t agree.

Nena may still hang the awards. After all, she says, “it’s actually my office.”


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