Seneca graduate Ismael Cala is shown in one of his ads at Time Square in New York City promoting a meditation app he developed. A former anchor for CNN en Español, Mr. Cala has turned to meditation to become a life strategist. (Photo: submitted)
Hispanic talk show host talks Oprah, mental health and Seneca
“I used to be a well-known journalist in Cuba but I didn’t know the production side of the business and Seneca was fantastic. Thanks to what I learned at Seneca, I could do everything that was asked of me.”
Dec. 5, 2019
The first television set that Ismael Cala owned in Canada came from a neighbour’s garbage on the sidewalk. Its picture tube was broken and everything he saw on it was an eerie green and white. Mr. Cala, who was then a new immigrant from Cuba and slept on the floor in a bare, rented room, used that television to watch The Oprah Winfrey Show and practise his English language skills.
“I was learning English from her, but I did not know that Oprah was black because my TV showed her as green and white,” he said.
Mr. Cala, who graduated from Seneca’s Broadcasting – Television diploma program in 2002, has met Ms. Winfrey since and considers her an inspiration. Based in Miami and a leading television personality in his own right, he was a prime-time anchor and producer for CNN en Español. The New York Times described him as that network’s Larry King. Not only that, but his Ismael Cala Foundation partnered with the Latin Impact Summit at the United Nations this week to promote sustainable development and, come January, he is set to launch an Oprah-meets-Ellen kind of show on Mega TV.
Not bad for someone who arrived in Canada with no English and no connections.
As a newcomer, Mr. Cala learned enough language through English classes and the broken television he had to get admission into Seneca. By the time he graduated, he had sufficient knowledge of the industry to be ready for the job when he got a call from the Telelatino Network in Toronto. Soon after that, he had CNN en Español knocking on his door, entrusting him with the full coverage of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Toronto for World Youth Day. Mr. Cala hired his own videographer and covered the event live for seven days.
“I used to be a well-known journalist in Cuba but I didn’t know the production side of the business and Seneca was fantastic. Thanks to what I learned at Seneca, I could do everything that was asked of me. CNN was really surprised at how much I knew,” said Mr. Cala.
During his time with CNN, Mr. Cala hosted his own Spanish-language talk show Cala and built up a huge following among the Latin American audience in North America with his incisive interviews of world leaders and coverage of events such as the death of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. However, all of this was happening while he was troubled by a secret he had kept from everyone.
Mr. Cala’s family had a history of mental illness, including schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder. By the age of 15, he had received his first psychiatric treatment and been put on anti-depressants. After two years of pills, he refused to take the medication.
“I’m a living testimony that we can re-program, rewire our brains,” he said. “When I stopped taking the pills, it was intuitive. I didn’t have the knowledge and the tools to know about epigenetics, emotional intelligence, mindfulness and everything else that we now know — about implementing neuropsychologically to help people overcome brain disorders.”
Mr. Cala confronted the ghosts of his past in his first book, The Power of Listening. His family was upset because they thought the revelations brought shame to them, but Mr. Cala had made it his mission to take away the stigmas associated with mental health. He moved away from action-packed newsrooms and embraced spiritualism and mental health activism. He became a life coach and a motivational speaker. He also wrote extensively. But it wasn’t until he met a young girl, who had had both of her legs amputated in Costa Rica following a rare disease, that he realized the immense impact of his books.
“She told me she didn’t want to survive the operation but found the courage to go on in life after reading my book,” he said. “Her story made me realize that what I am doing is worthwhile. A book, a conference, an event can transform someone’s way of thinking and their reality.”
Soon after he published the book, Mr. Cala left CNN to focus on his career as a motivational speaker and author. He launched his foundation to develop the emotional and educational leadership of at-risk children, adolescents and young people. Today, he continues to host and direct his interview show Cala, which is aired in some 20 countries.
In addition to retreats and seminars, Mr. Cala organizes meditation camps and participates in the spiritual retreats organized by alternative-medicine advocate Deepak Chopra. He lives by the Japanese concepts of kaizen, which means constant improvement, and ikigai, the reason for being.
“I used to think that my only talent in life was to communicate through mass media and I was really successful at my job,” he said. “But I wanted to do more. I wanted to create a positive impact and to find out my reason for being. I love television and I also love what we are doing outside the screen.”