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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Gloria Rojas, trailblazing Latina broadcaster, dies at 82

An undated photo provided by WABC shows Gloria Rojas, who was billed as New York City’s first Latina broadcast journalist when she was hired by WCBS-TV in 1968.

By Sam Roberts

Gloria Rojas, who was billed as New York City’s first Latina broadcast journalist when she was hired by WCBS-TV in 1968, and who went on to work as a journalist for every major network affiliate in the city for 23 years, died Feb. 2 in Cambridge, Maryland. She was 82.

The cause of her death, at a nursing facility, was complications of cancer and kidney failure, said her son, Chris. She had moved to Maryland in 2012.

In 1974, after working at other stations in New York and Chicago, Rojas was recruited by Al Primo, an innovative news director who created the ethnically and racially diverse hometown “Eyewitness News” format on WABC-TV, at a time when even female newscasters were still something of a novelty.

In addition to being a trailblazer herself, Rojas was credited with helping to launch the broadcasting career of a 20-something anti-poverty lawyer when she told him that WABC was seeking a bilingual reporter. In 1970, the station hired the young lawyer, Geraldo Rivera, who later became a national TV host and commentator.

Rojas and Rivera later joined Gil Noble as hosts of his minority-oriented public affairs program, “Like It Is.”

In an email, Rivera called Rojas “a true pioneer as New York’s first Latina reporter.”

In tributes on social media and elsewhere, former colleagues praised Rojas as a professional who was less concerned about appearances than about the warmth, depth and impact of her reporting.

“‘The story’s the thing,’” she told me,” Bob Lape, who was a fellow reporter and a restaurant critic at WABC, recalled in an email, “as we argued one day about the importance of how being well dressed was vital to the video news ‘package.’”

Joan Lunden, a former host of “Good Morning America,” wrote on Facebook that Rojas “epitomized the no-nonsense street-smart reporter.”

Gloria Mercedes Rojas was born April 1, 1939, in New York to Agustina Rojas, a housekeeper and nanny, and Rafael Astolfo Rojas, who died when she was 10.

She graduated from Hunter College High School and received a degree in education from what is now the State University of New York at Albany.

In addition to her son, from her marriage in 1974 to Arthur J. Maier, her survivors include two brothers, Ralph and Bill; and two grandchildren. Maier died in 2003.

Rojas began her television career circuitously in 1964. After nine years as an elementary and junior high school teacher, she came to the attention of WNDT (now WNET), the PBS station in New York, and was given her own one-woman bilingual education program. Her viewing audience included Puerto Ricans learning the language of their adopted city and English speakers brushing up on their Spanish.

Watching a taping of a nightly news program sparked her interest in journalism and led her to enroll in a Ford Foundation-funded summer program for minority students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, which Rivera also attended.

“Being born in a ghetto led me to consider only those careers that members of minority groups traditionally follow: library work, nursing, teaching,” she told The Associated Press in 1970.

“I used to be assigned strictly Hispanic stories when I first started, and that changed,” she was quoted as saying in “Women in Television News Revisited,” by Judith Marlane (1999).

“I remember thinking that if they hire another Hispanic, they’ll have to let me go, since who needs two?” she added. “That’s changed. Sure, it’s better. I’m not patting myself on the back, but it’s better because a little girl named Mina Morales could turn on a TV and see me and know that it’s possible for her.”

After Columbia, Rojas was originally hired as a reporter trainee by WCBS and went on to work at WLS-TV, the ABC affiliate in Chicago, and at WNEW in New York before joining WABC, where she covered news in the metropolitan area and headed coverage of New Jersey. She remained until 1986 and later worked for WNBC. She retired in 1991.

Last year, she wrote “Fire Escapes: A Fictional Memoir,” which she described as an autobiographical novel.

Of the many stories she covered, Rojas said, her favorites were those that made a difference in the lives of ordinary people, like the one about a little boy with muscular dystrophy.

His mother wrote to Rojas about their life on the 14th floor of a housing project with broken elevators. She sometimes had to call the Fire Department to get her son to the ground floor to go to school.

“So we went with our cameras, climbed up to see this boy,” she was quoted as saying in Marlane’s book. “I said to him, ‘What’s your problem? Lots of kids don’t want to go to school and would be happy.’

“‘No, school is so important to me,’” he said. “‘I need to go to school.’”

“‘Well, how would you solve this?’”

“‘They should give us an apartment on the first floor.’”

The story aired that night. A week later, after years of waiting, the family was moved to the first floor.

“And I realized how powerful a tool this was,” Rojas said, “to take the plight of a little boy in front of the city of New York and embarrass somebody who wasn’t doing their job. That gave me the greatest satisfaction.”

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