Univision encuentros a win for Hispanic viewers

For two nights, the Univision presidential forum “ El gran encuentro” displaced the telenovela Amor bravío (Indomitable Love) set in a grand Mexican ranch that raises fiercely competitive bulls for the ring.

The Big Meet didn’t come close to bullfight status, but interviewers Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas, the anchors of Univision’s nightly news, gave no free passes — not even to a friendly president more popular than his challenger with the network’s national audience.

As a result, the winners were the country’s 50 million Hispanics, whose concerns — the economy and jobs but also immigration, health and education — were pointedly posed before the candidates.

Republican challenger Mitt Romney seemed relaxed and tanned, but nothing could save him from the 47 percent question. He fell short all night, choosing to answer questions with well rehearsed campaign-trail lines.

President Barack Obama, who is handily winning the Hispanic vote, strolled on set exuding confidence — too much of it, perhaps — but before he knew it, he had to buckle down to a serious grilling on his failure to deliver immigration reform.

“You promised that, and a promise is a promise, and with all due respect, you didn’t keep that promise,” Ramos said at one point. Salinas also delivered a reminder of that failure at the end of the interview.

Though neither candidate said anything news-breaking, their presence alone at a forum of this magnitude conducted in Spanish was significant and unprecedented, an important recognition of the country’s fastest-growing minority.

Add that both candidates underestimated Ramos and Salinas — journalism royalty to consumers of Spanish-language news and excellent interviewers — and it’s not a stretch to say that these forums will be remembered as historic.

The only off-note came when the Republican audience booed Ramos when he asked Romney about his comment in February that illegal immigrants would “self-deport.”

Obama was asked harder questions than Romney — about the threats to the U.S. embassy in Lybia and the role the U.S. should play to curtail the violence in Mexico — yet the largely Democratic crowd was better behaved. The only reaction visible to viewers was laughter when Obama acknowledged with humor that Ramos had made his point on his immigration-reform failure.

With these forums, another important point was made — to the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Univision set up the encuentros in response to the commission’s refusal to include Hispanic journalists among the moderators in upcoming debates. The commission also declined to allow Univision to host a debate.

But Ramos and Salinas, who speak English as well as any native and have interviewed leaders around the world, have earned their seats at the national table.

Almost as indomitable as the bulls at the fictional ranch La Mal Querida (The Unloved) Ramos and Salinas may have taught their colleagues a thing or two about inclusion.

The 23 million Hispanics eligible to vote in November are too important to ignore.