Henry Maldonado's American Journey
The son of a Venezuelan military officer, Henry Maldonado adapted to change early on in his life. Living in different places around the world and making new friends were part of the education of Maldonado. After studying film at Boston University, Maldonado found his calling in local TV news production. In 2001, he came to Orlando as the vice president and then general manager at Orlando’s WKMG-Channel 6. His periodic editorials on Local 6 made him one of the most recognized faces in Central Florida. Recently, Maldonado, 60, announced he would retire this summer and pursue filmmaking.
I was in class one day in second grade, really proud that I had just been elected president of my row, when there was a knock on the big, heavy Catholic school wooden door. It was my father’s staff car driver, who was there to take me to the airport. So I picked up my briefcase that was almost bigger than me and got in the car and went to the airport, where my family was waiting. We went to Leavenworth, Kansas, and I was there for the next two years.
It was no big deal. I was born in Caracas, Venezuela, and my father was a lieutenant colonel in the Venezuelan Army, so we were always moving somewhere. When my brother told me we were on our way to Fort Leavenworth, I asked my parents if I could have a horse. My vision of Kansas was Gunsmoke, with dirt roads and wooden walkways and a saloon. At the time, I thought America would be much more backward than Venezuela and I knew I needed a horse because they didn’t have cars in Kansas. In some ways my vision was picturesque, but it was also as demeaning as visions some have of South America being filled with crime and revolutions.
I started school right away and, despite the fact I couldn’t speak English, I was expected to get good grades. Only once did I think I could use the language barrier as an excuse for getting bad grades, but my parents never bought it. No matter where we went, they created a cocoon that was a positive one. You had to study and get good grades and be a good kid.
Every now and then language was a problem, like during “Show and Tell” in Leavenworth. I had a microscope and wanted to say, “This is a microscope and you use it to see blood.” Instead, I told my classmates, “This is a mike. You use it to see bullets.”
When we returned to Caracas two years later, all the stuff that had been left in my bedroom from second grade was still there, exactly how I had left it. So I was able to pick up for another year before we moved again, this time to Uruguay. Even though my brothers and sisters and I knew how to make friends real fast, I never had the same history with my new pals as they did among themselves. Even when me and this other guy said we would grow up and be pilots and would fly planes together, I’m thinking, “Hey, I’m never going to fly with him. I’m not even going to be here that long.”
All the time we traveled, from Venezuela to Spain to America to Uruguay, it never crossed my mind that all the travel we were doing was special or exotic or odd, because wherever we were, on weekends we’d go places like the museums or bullfights or the beach. My mother took the responsibility to move us without us really noticing we were moving. She didn’t allow any of it to appear any different than if we had been living a normal life back in Caracas.
When my father retired from the army in 1960, we moved to New York. While my parents were shopping for a house and my father was looking for a new job, we lived in a hotel on the Upper West Side near Central Park. Maybe something had flipped in my head, namely that my father’s not in the army anymore and we are not dignitaries and we’re not moving anymore. Subconsciously it was time to slip into the water and swim. I’m sliding into America and I’m loving the waters. Within four months I’m speaking the language, I’ve got a transistor radio, and I’m listening to rock ’n’ roll.
|A young Henry Maldonado, second from left, with his mother, Cecilia Cisneros de Maldonado, sisters and brother, circa 1958|
It was over that summer while our parents were out, my sisters and brother and I would watch TV. I remember watching I Married Joan, Sea Hunt, I Love Lucy and Highway Patrol.
Unbeknownst to us, by the time we entered school that fall, television had helped us learn to speak English fluently. Then we did the worst thing immigrant kids could do: speak English to each other and not to our parents. By default this was part of the assimilation process that leads to the exclusion of the parents. We weren’t drifting apart, but us kids were finding that speaking and communicating with each other in English is a normal thing, even if our parents didn’t understand any of it. It was not out of spite or meanness; it’s just what happens.
By the time I reached high school, I had discovered the theater, and I’m obsessed with it—especially musical theater. I could play a full-size accordion, and I knew how to play the piano and organ as well. So the first time I heard the overture for a musical, I was gone. I was done with. When I was too young to go to Manhattan alone, I’d buy tickets for my parents and the three of us would go see Broadway shows together. That’s how I defined my future. I was going to be a playwright.
That was a good time, but the only thing that interfered with it was my name: Jesus Enrique Maldonado. Today people know it’s pronounced “hey-SOOS,” but to be at a Catholic high school in the mid-1960s, I had a lot of problems with a name like Jesus. There were bullies, and to them I was a “spic” and “Jesus” and a foreigner—and I’m getting picked on. But the amazing thing is that when I enter Boston University, I now become the exotic guy who loves the bossa nova and the tango and can speak multiple languages. I went from being in jeopardy to getting dates just by telling girls my name is Jesus Enrique Maldonado. I was like Ricardo Montalban. It was great.
Boston University had a great fine arts program. Although I thought I’d study theater early on, I realized I really liked movies. So I studied film. By the time I graduated, it hit me that having a film degree was like being a poet. I couldn’t find a job as a filmmaker.
To make some money, I began teaching Spanish at a Berlitz school and I also got a job as a teacher’s assistant at Emerson College’s film school, working for Vin Di Bona, who’s now a major television producer. He helped me get a job as a film editor at WBZ-TV in Boston.
It turned out that, not only do I like editing, I’m great at it because of my background in music. Whether it was in the soundtrack or in the cutting, all of sudden I had songs in my head and while I was editing, the pieces just flowed. Within three years I was promoted to producer–director and a few years later I get an offer from WGBH in Boston to travel across the country for a documentary on kids and diversity. I’m not even 30 yet, and from there I become head of the children’s multicultural unit—and things just got better from there.
It all goes back to what my mother said when I was very young: “Always put yourself where, if you get lucky, luck will take you where you want to go.” That’s what I did. Luck struck me at Emerson College and it sent me where I wanted to go.