Raúl De Molina has been on U.S. television for nearly three decades. In that time, he’s seen a lot. He has worked for both Telemundo and Univision. He has watched as the Spanish-language U.S. broadcast audience grew in size and in importance to advertisers. And as the host of daytime“El Gordo y la Flaca,” which he hosts with Lili Estafan since 1998, he has embraced his reputation as the self-described “Latino Regis” Philbin.
De Molina’s nuanced understanding of Latinos in the U.S. meant that, on Tuesday night, he was unsurprised to see gains for President Donald Trump in Miami, home of a large Cuban American community, and also for Democrats in Texas with its large Mexican American population.
“The Cubans, the Venezuelans and the Colombians here in Miami voted for Donald Trump. That is different from how the Mexicans voted in Los Angeles and in Texas and in New York,” De Molina says. “It’s like when I do my TV show every day, people have to like it everywhere — but they are different cultures and different people.”
The biggest changes De Molina has seen over the course of his time in the air have been cultural — particularly in the way that Latinos have embraced their economic and political power and identity in the U.S.
“When I used to travel to places like Los Angeles and Texas, say, 25 years ago, I would be in a hotel and the people who worked in the hotel wouldn’t want to talk to me in Spanish,” says De Molina. “I would talk to them in Spanish, and they would respond to me in English.” Such exchanges always came as a shock to the Cuban-born De Molina, who has lived and worked since he was a teenager in Miami, where Spanish is spoken widely and unapologetically in all parts of the city. “Things have changed in so many years. Now, anywhere you go in the United States, anyone who is Hispanic will speak to you in Spanish. Now, when I’m in L.A., everyone talks to you in Spanish.”
Understanding the many layers of the Spanish-speaking TV market has been critical to De Molina’s longevity.
In practical terms, that has meant making programming decisions for the show with the understanding that the largest Spanish-speaking audience in the U.S. is in Los Angeles and its communities with roots in Northern Mexico. But it also means not catering exclusively to that group for risk of alienating viewers of Cuban, Ecuadorian, Puerto Rican and Dominican descent.
“Even the companies that advertise, they try to reach one market and say, ‘Oh, it’s all the same for the Hispanic community,'” De Molina says. “No, it’s not all the same.”
De Molina began his career as a news photographer. After attending the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, he got a job at the Associated Press, then worked as a freelancer in Miami during an enormous period of upheaval in the city during the late ’70s and early ’80s.
“I would be out on the streets all night covering shootings, riots, and sporting events,” he says. But with success of the television series “Miami Vice,” De Molina began picking up paparazzi gigs lurking around sets, snapping photos of the show’s stars. Soon he was working full time as a celebrity photography in South Florida, primarily for the British tabloids.
De Molina eventually found his way to making the rounds on daytime talk shows, talking with hosts such as Maury Povich, Geraldo Rivera and Joan Rivers about celebrities.
A few appearances on Univision’s “Sábado Gigante” led to his breakthrough in Spanish-language television, first as an entertainment reporter for Telemundo. Then, in 1998, he began hosting “El Gordo y La Flaca,” an entertainment news and interview show, alongside Estefan. De Molina describes the show as “a mix of what ‘Regis and Kelly’ used to be with comedy.”
The show has evolved over the years with its audience. “It changed as the Latino community changed in the United States,” De Molina says. In the beginning “we were just going after the Mexican community in Los Angeles. Now every day, we go after the mainstream market.” Celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, Justin Bieber and Cardi B are now often regular topics on the show. On a given day, the show can throw live to correspondents in Mexico City, Los Angeles, New York or San Juan to cover breaking news.
De Molina, who is in early development on a new television food project and a travel project, believes that the English-language entertainment industry’s understanding of Latino audiences has improved in recent years. But he sees mainstream successes such as Sofía Vergara and Eva Longoria as still being outliers.
“I believe with 50 million Latinos living in this country, you should have more Latinos working in Hollywood,” he says. He believes better representation in mainstream entertainment would improve TV ratings and box office. “Even though there have been a lot of celebrities who are Hispanic, there are not as many as there should be — I’m talking about in Hollywood, in the movies and in mainstream TV shows. And I think if you talk to any Latino, they would feel the same.”