By Joanna Talabani
If you’ve seen Érika Maldonado anchor the nightly news on Univision Chicago where she’s been for 16+ years, you’ve grown accustomed to the flawless woman she presents in HD. You might be surprised to learn that beneath the glamour, the broadcaster has struggled with self-image as a result of it. This is why she advises against getting into the industry if you are drawn by the cameras and the adoration. “That might satisfy you for a while,” she cautions.
But after her broadcasts, she describes going home and removing the makeup and feeling like she was wearing a mask. It left her questioning which version was the real her. She understands that’s part of the business, telling me “It’s a two-way street and this is a visual media.”
Érika had an image that was carefully curated by the news director, image consultants, and makeup artists that consisted of hair extensions and fake eyelashes that did not feel like her. But she tells me that when you work for a network, it’s a reciprocal relationship and one can’t just do what they want. “I agreed to that. And when I didn’t like it anymore, I found a way without being rebellious, with working with them, to make them understand that I didn’t feel comfortable wearing that anymore.”
Érika did not get into the business to be fawned at. To her, being a journalist means, “that you are in a life of service. You serve the community, by giving them information and empowering them.” But she cautions that she has learned to not give all of herself away, especially during the pandemic.
She was working 18-hour days and going home and trying to respond to the 200+ messages a day on social media she’d receive from people who reached out to her asking for help or information or just to vent to someone they saw in their living rooms every night. She continues, “So it’s about service, but you have to learn …to draw the line, because it cannot become your life. Because then you are consumed and then you have nothing else to give, because if you’re exhausted, how can you help? And so, like always, you have to take care of yourself first to be able to take care of people. And so that’s very profound. That’s the balance.”
Balance is something that comes up a lot in our conversation. She tells me that is what I should strive for in my pursuit of objectivity as a journalist, while acknowledging my bias. “We are always permeated in the story, whether we like it or not. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing either.”
This is what allows her to connect with people as a journalist. “If you totally remove yourself from it, then there is no human component in it. And it’s way harder to connect to the people that you’re trying to reach.”
She worked hard to get to where she has from her native Venezuela, and she’s seen a lot of colleagues burn out along the way. She has coworkers who show up to the same tragedies she does that consciously detach themselves from what they are reporting on. “They arrive to places and they’re super cool and they just want a sound bite, and they get out and that’s it. And the story doesn’t touch them, but they also don’t touch the story or have an impact in people’s lives. And to me I have always forced myself not to be that way, not to get closed.”
Not being closed has taken a toll on her emotional and physical health, though. “You pay a big price for it,” she tells me. She had a hormonal imbalance due to stress that led to a weight gain where she was viciously attacked on social media by viewers who noticed. She has been on antidepressants for depression and anxiety. She reflects on this period of her life, saying “My life was perfect. I have my dream job in Chicago. I have no real tangible problems. Why am I depressed? And somebody came to me and said, Érika, how many shootings have you covered this week?”
That was a particularly rough week where she had covered over 10. In one of the instances, she was even the one to deliver the tragic news to the family. “And then I realized, Oh my God. But of course, I’m depressed. I’m dealing with death all the time.” She knew she had to change something if she was going to continue in this career.
“I always now go back to my meditation when something has affected me deeply. I can find back that center and the balance. I found that way late in my career. I would have embraced it in my twenties instead of my fifties, but so be it.” She tells me gracefully, “It arrives at the moment that it’s supposed to arrive.”