Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Beginning: Familia Corporation—Univision/Televisa

Welcome to LatinoWood!
After 26 years living in Los Angeles and working in Hollywood, I have accumulated memories and experiences that at times I find hard to believe. Some are fascinating, some a bit bizarre, some painful, but most are glorious. At Latinowood you will read about my personal journey into the Hollywood odyssey, the people who have impacted my life along the way, Latino writers, filmmakers, actors, and executives. I will also venture into niche and Latino PR and marketing in Hollywood providing my own expertise and interviewing leading experts in this field. 

For this first post, I share with you my initiation into Latinowood. The following is an excerpt from a book I’m writing…think Lauren Weisberger’s “The Devil Wears Prada,” loosely based on actual occurrences.

The Beginning:  Familia Corporation—Univision/Televisa
Back in 1984, Emilio Azcarraga Milmo was the lion king of the Spanish TV jungle. Names like Fernando Diez Barroso, Jaime Davila, Larry Dam and Rosita Peru, were at the forefront working with Mr. Azcarraga, out-maneuvering the competition every step of the way.

When I first started working, my immediate supervisor was a beautiful and sophisticated woman who was the personal assistant and confidante to the Azcarraga’s. I was her assistant for about one year when she left the company and I was promoted to her position. This was a big deal, not just anyone got to work closely with the family. I became the Executive Assistant to the second in command, an Azcarraga nephew, and heir to the dynasty. Prior to the company moving to the Century City high-rise, we were on West Sunset Boulevard. Our move was delayed in the late 80's because the movie “Die Hard” with Bruce Willis was being filmed, on our very floor! Each time I see the film, I recall the elegant surroundings with mixed feelings. However, my best building stories come from the Sunset Blvd. building, where I remember riding the elevator with Mickey Rooney about once a week, he was probably visiting his agent. He and I shared some lovely elevator conversations, and on several occasions, he’d miss his floor to ride up to the top suite with me. When we finally moved to Century City, we were on the top floor, the penthouse being occupied by former president Ronald Reagan. I do recall seeing Mrs. Reagan, again the elevator, on several occasions. The former Ambassador to Mexico and Hollywood movie star, John Gavin, had an office right next to mine. The film classic, “Imitation of Life,” starring Lana Turner and John Gavin is one of my favorite movies. There were days I had to pinch myself trying hard not to stare like a lovesick puppy.

My bosses, the Azcarraga family was Mexico’s richest family and the third richest (at that time) in the world. Most of the heirs were individuals with the burden of having inherited way too much money. I admit, I was in awe of some of them. Working at Univision during this time exposed me to a world I only knew existed on film or TV. The TV hit Dynasty, was as close as I ever got to this type of monumental wealth. I credit this job for so many personal improvements: I learned to throw a hell of an impressive party! I learned to speak Italian! And, I will never forget that for a few years, I had my own personal shopper at Saks 5th Avenue, a beautiful woman named Margarita. It was a time when I fit in single digit sizes! It was not uncommon for me to accompany the wives of Mexican dignitaries or VIPs to Cartier or Harry Winston where they would select pieces they liked and later the store would suggest to the husband which trinkets to purchase. Beautiful, dazzling diamonds, pearls, rubies, emeralds, and stones I’d never even heard of before. Most of the time these jewels rarely left the vault. I always thought it was silly to spend so much money only to have the item safely stored away.

Tales of Another Time
There were so many memorable characters working during this era. There was the little man who was paid a lot of money who spent his time checking video property making sure that each tape had the appropriate copyright symbol and disclaimer. Later I found out that this strange gentleman was a person who practiced brujeria and rumor was his true function in the company was to protect one particular family member from bad spirits. The rumor was later confirmed when I received a call in the middle of night from the butler and cook, husband and wife, who worked and lived at the mansion owned by this “particular family member.” They were leaving immediately because of their devout Catholic beliefs. They insisted the little man was performing brujeria. The bosses were gone so I had to rush over to try and soothe things out. The couple showed me a tiny room under the garage area that they claimed was where the owners and brujo did their witchcraft. There was noting gory but lots of dark candles with emblems I didn’t recognize and other items that were clearly not religious. The woman kept giving herself the sign of the cross and chanting a prayer. I called the couple a taxi and they were gone.

The supposed brujo lived with his lover, a very nice young man who befriended me wanting my assistance in getting him enrolled at Santa Monica JC so that he could learn English. Well, the brujo found out about it and claimed that I was trying to steal away his lover. He made a huge brouhaha and tried to get me fired. He threatened me, and then proceeded to call my mother and threatened that he was putting a spell on me, well that was about as much as I was going to take from him. I had no choice but to go to my boss and he immediately straightened out the mess. I laugh at this now but at the time I was married and getting accused of trying to steal someone’s lover was no laughing matter. My mother fought back during one of the brujo’s phone call tirades when she threatened the brujo back by telling him she was casting a major curse on him if he dare hurt me. My mother was joking, but the brujo took the threat seriously. In the end, I had to promise to have my mother remove whatever spell she had cast on him. Ay, Diosito, this was a most interesting period during my employ.  Officially, however, he was the colorful and eccentric Copyright Verifier.

The staff that worked at the private residence and in the office was a group of hard working individuals, mostly Mexicano or Central American. The maids, cooks, butlers, drivers, and gardeners were wonderful people who performed beyond the call to duty. They bent backwards to please the jefes. At times I recall thinking that this reality was just as it is portrayed in the telenovelas. The rich stood high on the level of society while the working poor rarely ventured out of their lower level standing. I have nothing but fond memories of the domestic staff. They had more class and dignity than many of their rich bosses.

Another memory I have is being summoned to the mansion in Beverly Hills, and then was sent to Thrifty’s drug store (in a limousine) to purchase aspirin. It had to be me. It couldn’t be the butler or any other employee. I was an executive administrative assistant to the main muckety mucks with several of my own assistants, but when someone in the higher up, the wife, for instance was a little ticked off at me for some minor infraction, I would be sent on these meager errands, as sort of punishment. To remind me that I was nothing more than just another servant, a disposable hired hand. 

I remember ordering Avon for one wife…she couldn’t bring herself to ordering it herself because it was beneath her to be purchasing such a cheap product (her description not mine). But there was this one particular cream she wanted. She had sampled it during a vacation stay at the Betty Ford Center. I ordered about a dozen bottles with my next personal order.

Then there was the time when the same wife wanted to take golf lessons and she wanted me to locate a place that sold designer golf wear. Well, the only golf clothes available were whatever was sold at the sports stores. Valentino or Carolina Herrera or any other high profile designer did not have a line of golf clothes. I know because I had to call every top designer I could get a hold of. More than once I was laughed at. But it was my job even when they asked the ridiculous.

While I’m sharing the ridiculous, I remember this one time when the Avon-Designer Golf-wife was furious because there were no blooming flowers in her garden. She wanted to wake up every morning, open her elegant French doors that exposed the entire garden, and see flowers all the time. It was the dead of winter and the only flowers that bloom just about year round is a delicate plant called Impatiens. They are popular for ground coverage because they tend to bloom from summer to frost. Sometimes. The poor gardener didn’t know what to do, he couldn’t control and guarantee blooms all the time. After exhausting all possible remedies, I recall instructing the gardener that I wanted him to purchase baskets full of colorful artificial flowers and sticking them throughout the grounds, mixing them in with the delicate Impatiens. From the bedroom view, which was a distance, I was sure the wife would never notice the fake flowers. The gardener did not want to do this and it took some coaching from me to convince him. Say what you want, but when it comes to getting the job done, I am very resourceful! The wife was delighted every morning with the colorful blooms in her magnificent garden. I don’t think she ever found out.

I recall one time being told by my boss to accompany his wife during her lunch with the wife of a high profile actor. My instructions were clear: “Do not let them out of your sight.” The ladies had a tendency to wet their whistle a little too much in public and I was to basically babysit. I got in a shit load of trouble when the wife and her girlfriend ditched the limo driver and me. We spent most of the day looking for them. By the time we found them, I think both were being shipped to Betty Ford’s. I got a major scolding for losing the ladies…I had been outfoxed by a pair of rich, clever and tipsy Beverly Hills housewives!

A lot of drama, excitement and laughter happened before I left Univision but the final straw that broke the camel’s back came as a result of an incident I call, “The Day of the Flying Black Patent Leather Shoes.” It was at the end of a long day when instead of raining frogs, it was shoes being hurdled at me in rage. A very wealthy, very drunk, former movie star, wife of a VIP was upset with me for buying the wrong shoes for her butler. “Plastic!” she yelled. “You buy my butler plastic!”

“They cost $400!” I responded. “They are the best Italian leather from Italy!” But nothing I said would calm her. I had had enough. I chose to duck, run and never return.  My stay working for the family that owned Univision/Televisa had cost me a husband, had compromised my dignity and delayed my dream of becoming a writer.

The stories I’ve shared are form the personal side of my job. On the business side, I learned a lot about the business of television. I wasn’t just taking notes at important meetings, I was paying close attention and absorbing as much as I could. I recall one particular woman who made an impression on me, someone I admired and wanted to be like:  Rosita Peru, the highest-ranking woman in Spanish TV. And, as far as I’m concerned, the most talented and successful female TV executive I have ever met. I had a yearning to learn TV production and Rosita was always gracious in answering my questions. She wasn’t snobbish like so many rich Mexicans I encountered back then. I wanted to work for Rosita but it was an unspoken rule that once you worked directly with the family, transferring to another department was out of the question. Rosita eventually ventured out on her own, married another wonderful individual, Luis Nogales and through the years, I lost touch with her. But I’ve often read of the wonderful things she and Luis have done as philanthropists donating millions to worthy charities. For the record, Luis Nogales was president at Univision toward the end of my employment. I liked him very much. He was down to earth and very approachable. As was former Univision President, Jaime Davila.  Both Nogales and Davila are brilliant businessmen who went on to do very well on their own. Davila and I would often talk about his favorite singers and songs, like Bob Dylan’s “Blowin in the Wind” or Jimi Hendrix’s “Castles Made of Sand.” It was nice to converse with someone who knew American as much as Mexican.

My years at Univision, working when it was still a family-owned and operated company, taught me that money is not happiness, nor is it powerful enough to cure diseases even if you can afford the best doctors in the world. Mr. Emilio Azcarraga Milmo died before his time losing his brave battle with cancer. I read he died on his yacht off the coast of Miami in 1997.

During my tenure as crazy as it was, it was never dull and I am grateful to the many wonderful and interesting individuals I met and experiences this Mexican conglomerate brought me. It taught me a love of cultural art, languages, and I received invaluable exposure into the world of TV production of shows, newscasts, promotion and marketing. Univision was my introduction to Latinowood, USA in all its glory and complexity.

Welcome to Latinowood. After 26 years in Tinseltown, there is not much I haven’t seen, heard or experienced.


  1. You've got my attention. When's the next installment?
    Love and hugs, Charlie

  2. Congratulations! Dear friend, I will be reading you.


  3. Wow! You've got half a dozen screenplays going here, Elia. Bring us up to date and keep posting. Regards, Tom Ong

  4. Elia,

    thanks for the cruise through Latinowood - a spot of the world way, way off on the edges of my galaxy. Or so it seems. But then when I stop to really think on it I realize THEY, the latino media are what represent US to the wider world, latino and non-latino, alike. Lotta power there.

    And then there was you, one step removed, seemingly replaceable, like so much of the 'Powers That Be' would like us all to believe.

    Oh, but Elia isn't replaceable - and she has a pen now, and a computer keyboard, and guts.

    Thanks for all that and what's yet to come. Blessings on the new blog.

    ps: favorite part is the story of your tough mama taking on the wannabe baby-brujo and setting him 'straight'. hahaha! Nice to have her on your team!

  5. I will forever love your mother for her episode with el brujo!!! What a story. I laughed so hard!! I would loooove to see pictures of you back in the day as well : )

  6. Elia. I'm looking forward to more
    cuentos. Or maybe even some poems.
    Keep on truckin'! Paz, Juan Sanchez

  7. Dear Elia,
    Fascinating. Awesome! Full of wisdom. Thank you so much for reminding me that money does not buy happiness! This is true. All our needs are provided for. You know what, my dear mentor, I would not have been able to withstand it. I studied Latin American History for five years at UCSD and was invited to El Salvador by the heiress of "Diana". You know, the snack king of Mexico and Central America. Anyway it turns out that she fell in love with my Chicano boyfriend. It is a long story. Anyway, I must tell you that I was raised on telenovelas. Yes!!! I remember that the servienta was always the "mosquita muerta" the heartache of the rich lady of the house. I am the progeny of a servienta. Yes!! The most wonderful thing in the world to know is that I am a Chicana. I am from a new world. I mingle with the top of Latin America because of my education. Sociology and anthropology along with history were my favorite topics. Latin America was my most favorite topic. Keep 'em comin', Elia.

    Love, Ms. Soul, Chamana of Teocalli

  8. Your writing on the temperament on these Broadcasters from DF is interesting and funny.
    Jamie Davila for one is overrated but Emilio wanted a ex-P&G + a satellite guy to try & create
    a Pro-American presence here in the USA at that time ( they Failed)
    Keep writing dear Writer.

    1. I somehow missed your post from last year. I adored Jaime Davila but it was tough working with mentalities of monarchy from those days.

  9. Dear Anonymous: Thank you for your comment. I get the feeling you are very aware of Univision, Azcarraga's and Jaime Davila. Looking back, it was a crazy era working in the middle of a Mexican conglomerate here in the U.S. There was the ordeal of when Drexel came crashing down with Michael Milken. Nerve biting time. Interview Mr. Milken is something I would like to do one day.

  10. Dear Elia,
    You might remember me: I am Igor Rooselaar who, between 1987 and 1990 was also working on the 33rd floor for Jaime Davila doing marketng research. I remember the vibe you're describing very well. Especially since I was the only Belgian in the company, it allowed me to look at the day-to-day Univisa crazyness from a slightly different prospective. It was a very interesting experience (to say the least). Let me know if you want extra some stories for your book. I am based in the Netherlands now.

  11. Igor! It's been such a long time and if you send me more reminders, I know I'll remember you completely. Your name is very familiar to me... and I adored Jaime Davila! Did you ever know his assistant Albert Frescas? He was with him for about a year or two. And, yes, send me other stories you remember of our Univisa days! My email is eliawriter@gmail.com. Are you on Facebook? What are you doing in the Netherlands? How fabulous!

    So nice to hear from you. I was Elia Gonzalez back in those Univsa days. So many memories. Thank you for posting here! Would love to hear more from you!

  12. Hi Elia,
    Let me write you how I started working for Jaime Davila. When I started working for Univisa it was back in the days of the office being at the Sunset Blvd location. Being fluent in Spanish, I was asked through a temp agency to do some outbound telesales. All day I had to call people who had responded to a commercial on Univision, soliciting people that wanted to open an all latin video store franchise. Needless to say that everybody and their brother responded to this commercial. Most of them asking if they could rent a certain video title while I was trying to find future store managers interested in investing a substantial amount of money in a video store! Not an easy task.

  13. Roberto Aguirre was head of that department. As the frequency of the commercials on tv increased, so did the lists of names to call back. At a certain time, I offered to train the increasing number of telesales people, which Roberto allowed me to do.
    The job became very boring after a few weeks, especially since we were unable to find people to invest a substantial amount in such a venture. I did not see a future in this but I liked Univisa as a company. However I felt that I was working under my capacities untill late one Friday afternoon...
    I was getting ready for the week-end and had my jacket on that had little pin with the Belgian flag. Suddenly a chubby guy with a very friendly face and inquiring eyes stepped up to me and asked why I was wearing the German flag. I had never seen this man before. When I corrected him and told him that it was the Belgian flag which represented my native country, he immediately asked me if I came from the Dutch or the French speaking part of Belgium. When I told him Dutch, he mentioned the few Dutch words he had learned in the past from an ex-girlfriend, a KLM stewardess. We were having a good time and making all kinds of jokes. After he left, Roberto came to me, asking if I knew who I just talked to. I said no. He said: well that was Mister Jaime Davila! When that did not ring a bell to me, he mentioned that he was a big shot, the number 2 of the company.
    With that knowledge I entered the week-end, determined to follow-up on the nice conversation we had. On Monday morning I presented myself with my freshly updated resume to Marta, Jaime's assistant to ask if I could just see him for just 5 minutes. She told me that he was extremely busy (afterwards I found out this was in the period of Hallmark buying Univisa)but that she would put me under the long list of people that wanted to speak to Jaime and that she did not have any idea when he would have the time to see me. Needless to say that I was anxious that whole day and extremely frustrated to find out I had a missed call from Marta the next day when I was out on my lunch break. I immediately went back to see her (which was at the total oposite part of the floor) and the only thing she could offer was to put my name again all the way under the impressive list of other people. This time I asked her if I could add a sentence to my name. So she asked me what I wanted her to write. I told her that I would like to write something myself as it was going to be in Dutch. So I wrote: "Ik weet dat u het heel erg druk heeft, maar ik zou u heel graag even willen spreken".
    Not even 5 min after I got back to my desk, I was called back to have a chat with Mr. Davila. Again I went there (with my resume under my arm) and told him that since he was so busy, I only needed 5 min of his time. He invited me in his office, offered me a drink and we had a very pleasant conversation of at least 1/2 hour in which I could inform him about my studies at the Univerisity of Brussels and that I felt that my capacities were not maximised in this company. He took my resume and just asked me to be patient...
    And here I was, on the top floor of the Die Hard building a few months later working directly under Jaime Davila as his Market Researcher that resulted in a few really interesting experiences as well, that I'd be happy to write about in a next post.