Esther Renteria was moved by what she did not see on television.
With the premiere of “Ahora!” on KCET-TV in 1969, the journalist became the first Latina to appear in a nightly newscast. But in the years that followed, that success underscored a harsh reality: the near absence of Latinos from broadcast media.
Correcting the injustice became Renteria’s passion. For decades, she worked to increase the number of Latinos in news and other programs. She formed advocacy groups, met with general managers of stations, filed petitions with the Federal Communications Commission and raised scholarship funds for Latino journalism students.
Her watchdog efforts helped change the face of local broadcast news and laid a foundation on which many careers have been built, said Armando Duron, an attorney who worked in organizations with Renteria.
“A lot of people who don’t know who she was and what her contributions were are nonetheless benefiting from the fact that she was such an advocate,” he said.
Renteria died of cancer Jan. 8 at her home in Montebello. She was 67.
As an advocate, Renteria made people want to do what she wanted them to do, said Arnold Kleiner, general manager of KABC-TV. She spoke softly, he said, and didn’t carry a stick.
“If you talk to the general managers in this town, they’ll tell you of all the people they work with in the community, Esther is the one ... that you’d want to make happy.”
Much of Renteria’s work took place behind the scenes, but in 1986 she co-founded the National Hispanic Media Coalition, which filed petitions with the FCC seeking to revoke the broadcast licenses of stations that had not hired sufficient numbers of Latinos.
Under an FCC rule, the percentage of any ethnic group working at a station should be at least half of that group’s percentage in the local workforce. The coalition targeted stations that failed to meet that requirement.
“Initially within the industry we were not taken seriously,” Duron said. “But after you spent five minutes with Esther you took her very seriously.”
By 1992, her organization, along with others, had filed 36 challenges to license renewals of stations around the nation. “It’s becoming more prevalent because we as an ethnic group are becoming more sophisticated and [are] learning to use the system,” Renteria told the Dallas Morning News in 1992.
In the case of KTTV-TV Channel 11, the goal was to wrest the broadcast license from Fox TV Stations Inc. and place it in the hands of Rainbow Broadcasting, a company owned by Renteria, Duron and other Latinos. Their goal was to hire Latinos and to cater to a Latino audience.
Although the organization did not succeed in acquiring the Fox license, or blocking the renewal of any license, it did serve notice that the stations were being monitored. The National Hispanic Media Coalition, which started in Los Angeles, now has chapters in several cities.
Renteria was not only concerned with stations’ hiring practices, but also with the manner in which the Latino community was covered and portrayed. “They see us as illegal immigrants,” she told a Times reporter in 1992. “Their news coverage is so isolated and their Rolodexes so outdated.”
Renteria’s advocacy was an outgrowth of a career in journalism and public relations and concern for the Latino community.
She was born May 1, 1939, in East Los Angeles. After graduating from Montebello High School she attended East Los Angeles College and later earned a bachelor’s degree from Cal State L.A.
She began her career in newspapers in 1959, as a reporter for the Alhambra Post-Advocate.
Later she joined the staff of the East Los Angeles Tribune and Gazette, where she worked as a reporter and editor until 1968.
In 1971, she married Martin Renteria, who would later become chief of police for the Montebello Unified School District’s police department. Renteria is survived by her husband and the couple’s four sons: Richard of Ventura, Martin Anthony of Orange, Christopher of Las Vegas and David of Mission Viejo. She is also survived by a sister, Jane Locey of Kentucky.
Inspired by the civil rights movement, her goal was always to achieve more than personal success, friends said. In the 1970s Renteria worked as associate producers on “The Siesta Is Over,” a groundbreaking KCBS-TV series that addressed issues and people of significance to Latinos.
Renteria also spent 13 years as an information officer for East Los Angeles College, beginning in 1970.
She later founded Hispanic Americans for Fairness in Media, which awards scholarships to students.
“She was passionate about nurturing these young students and helping them to pursue their career goals,” said Diane Medina, KABC vice president for diversity and community relations.
As the years passed, Renteria witnessed the beginnings of change, as increased numbers of Latinos could be seen on local news broadcasts.
Sometimes she would watch television news with “a smile on her face,” as she remembered the struggles of the early years, said Martin Renteria. Having a Latino presence in news and other programs benefits all viewers, she told an Associated Press reporter in 1993.
“The importance of having visibility is this: My children need the self-esteem of seeing themselves on TV,” she said. “Your children need to see them to know how to interact with them, to know we’re all different, but we’re all the same.”