Telemundo news anchor Maria Celeste Arraras has a high-pressure assignment tonight: Grilling Donald Trump and the rest of the GOP pack on issues of interest to Latino voters during the presidential debate presented by CNN, Telemundo and Salem Media Group.
Arraras will be one of four panelists questioning the candidates alongside moderator Wolf Blitzer of CNN, CNN’s Dana Bash and Salem’s Hugh Hewitt.
The 9-11 p.m. ET debate will air on Telemundo in Spanish, with dubbed real-time translation, and streamed at Telemundo.com and the network’s YouTube channel. The gathering at the University of Houston is billed as the only Republican National Committee-sanctioned debate to address Latino issues. It’s also the final TV face-off for the GOP candidates before next week’s Super Tuesday primaries in 11 states.
Immigration policy has been a hot topic for Republican candidates on the stump so far. The 2016 campaign also marks a milestone for U.S. Hispanics in featuring two top GOP contenders of Hispanic descent: Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. Trump, Cruz and Rubio are participating in the debate along with Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
Trump stirred outrage at the outset of his campaign when he asserted that many Mexican immigrants were criminals and rapists. Trump’s vow to build a wall along the Mexican border to combat illegal immigration has been a pillar of his “Make America Great Again” platform. Cruz and Rubio have also taken strong stances on policies for dealing with undocumented immigrants and border control.
Arraras, a native of Puerto Rico, is prepared for a tough room tonight, especially as the candidates have been quick to criticize the questioners in past debates. Trump’s campaign has publicly sparred with another prominent Spanish-language TV anchor, Univision’s Jorge Ramos.
“It is important that we have participation in this debate,” Arraras told Variety. “We represent Hispanics and their interests. There is no doubt it’s important for the Republican Party to talk to Latinos in this election. This is a voting block that has incredible power.”
But the nation’s fast-growing Latino population is hardly monolithic. Arraras sees the debate as a prime chance for the candidates to explain their positions to undecided voters.
“They’ve said a lot of things about immigration,” Arraras said. “This time by having Telemundo in the room they know they’re speaking directly to Hispanics. It will be a matter of wait-and-see if they soften up (their messages) or stand their ground. The medium is going to be different; we will see if the message is going to be different.”
Arraras is a news veteran who joined Telemundo in 2002 after working as a news anchor for Univision. At present she co-anchors Telemundo’s nightly newscast and anchors the daily news and entertainment magazine show “Al Rojo Vivo.”
Arraras has been scouring polls and focus-group data to determine the biggest concerns for Latino voters this year. She emphasizes that those issues are not so far removed from the concerns of other voters. And there is little evidence that voters will support a candidate strictly because he has a Latino surname, Arraras said.
“Most people feel all Latinos care about is immigration,” Arraras said. “Of course they care about immigration tremendously, whether they are citizens or undocumented or have a green card. Our community is a very compassionate community. We care about being humane to families in this country, whatever their circumstances. But we are also interested in education, health care and the minimum wage — things that will bring up our families.”
Arraras’ role in the debate forced her to shift her anchor duties this week from her home base in Miami to studios in San Antonio and Houston. Cramming for the debate on top of her regular gigs has taken a toll, she admitted.
“The biggest challenge was preparing the debate while doing two different shows for Telemundo,” she said. “There’s a little bit of dark circles under my eyes. But other than that, I’m ready.”