The Spanish-language DJs behind the new Latino activism.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 3 2006 3:48 PM

Voice of América

The Spanish-language DJs behind the new wave of Latino activism.

Ask activists to explain why millions of immigrants have taken to the streets, and they will invariably credit Spanish-language radio DJs. Organizers of a Chicago rally that drew several hundred thousand protesters on March 10 said it wouldn't have come off without the help of Rafael Pulido, aka El Pistolero (the Gunman). Jesse Diaz, a promoter of Los Angeles' May 1 Day Without an Immigrant event—which attracted nearly half a million people—is quick to credit the boosterism of Eddie Sotelo, or El Piolín (Tweety Bird). "He pumped the crowds of our two big events to magnitudes Los Angeles hadn't seen before," he says. Despite the humorous nicknames, the Latino radio announcers—or locutores—are obviously doing more than cracking off-color jokes (although that is a staple of their shows). They're helping to shape the biggest outbreak of public activism since the 1960s.

Up until now Latino DJs have lived in something of a parallel universe: They are celebrities in Spanish-speaking communities and largely invisible to the broader public. That's not because they are hard to find on the radio dial. The number of Spanish-language stations has exploded to about 700, more than double the number just 15 years ago, according to Tom Taylor, editor of the newsletter Inside Radio. That trend should only accelerate. As the U.S. Latino population has swollen to more than 40 million and rock fans have increasingly migrated to their iPods, the Internet, or satellite radio to get their musical fix, radio behemoths like Clear Channel have started to convert their rock and oldies stations to Spanish-language formats. The ratings payoff can be huge. The morning programs hosted by El Piolín in Los Angeles and Luis Jiménez and Moonshadow in New York City (El Vacilón de la Mañana) dominate their time slots.

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Listen to these programs, and you'll understand the allure: The DJs are compelling, rousing personalities. (Pumping reggaeton and exhortations to "¡Despiertese!"—"Wake up!"—make the mellifluous tones of National Public Radio sound awfully bland.) But the locutores' audience is also predisposed to tune in: According to Arbitron ratings, Latinos spend more time listening to the radio than any other ethnic group. That's probably partly because so many immigrants are employed in service industries (you can blast the radio while you wash dishes in a restaurant, say, or clean offices). That's not to insinuate that these shows function as background noise; one of the most striking elements of Spanish-language radio is the bond announcers forge with their listeners. Callers are immediately dubbed "my heart" or "brother." The jokes and banter are lighthearted—and occasionally raunchy—but the shows boast a community-service ethos, too. Listeners are regularly given airtime to plead for help with everything from medical care to securing an apartment. The DJs also dispense very specific advice on how to negotiate life in the United States. One station in San Antonio went so far as to alert listeners when immigration agents were spotted in the city.

Given DJs' connection to their audience—and their long history of counseling listeners—they were ideal vehicles to spread the word about the protests. For locutores like Sotelo who themselves came to the United States illegally, helping to empower undocumented immigrants was particularly gratifying. After narrowly escaping deportation in the mid-1990s, he made a pledge to himself: "If I had access to a microphone, I was going to help my people."

The radio personalities' advocacy has helped some make the transition from celebrity to community leader. When Los Angeles students walked out of school in late March, they phoned Sotelo, who urged them to return to class. On May 1, New Yorkers called in to El Vacilón de la Mañana asking whether they should boycott work. The response: If your job would be jeopardized, it would be better to briefly link hands in the human chain scheduled to take place just after 12 p.m.

The influence the locutores are wielding has evoked comparisons to African-American radio announcers during the civil rights movement, when black radio personalities kept listeners abreast of events in the South and activists occasionally congregated in radio stations. But Latinos have used radio as a vehicle for social protest in the past, too. In the 1930s, locutor Pedro J. Gonzales spoke out against the mass deportation of Mexicans (he was subsequently imprisoned in San Quentin on trumped-up charges). The Mariel boatlift—which brought more than 100,000 refugees from Cuba to the United States 26 years ago—was put into motion by a Miami radio announcer who exhorted his listeners to collect their relatives in Havana. In 1994, Spanish-language radio stations in California whipped up Latino outrage against Proposition 187, which sought to deny most public services to illegal immigrants. When the initiative passed, the Spanish-language media provided much more than just-the-facts updates: Radio and TV stations urged parents to send their children to school, assuring them they wouldn't face deportation.

Given that radio activism has followed an engage-and-desist cycle, it's unlikely the locutores will maintain their current level of advocacy. There are signs that the corporation behind many of these Spanish-language stations is less than thrilled with the prospect of constant pro-immigrant rabble-rousing. Univision (which is currently up for sale) runs the country's biggest Spanish-language radio network, and president and CEO A. Jerrold Perenchio's politics skew to the right; he has given generously to President Bush, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and former Gov. Pete Wilson (who was the driving force behind Prop. 187). Last month, an article in the Mexican paper El Universal reported that the network's on-air employees had been told to refrain from supporting the May 1 boycott (an allegation the corporation denied). El Piolín, an Univision employee, originally declared himself to be neutral about the event, though he later changed his position; on Monday, his program ran music while the locutor was at a march in Los Angeles, where he urged attendees to register to vote.

Ultimately, it may not matter whether Univision's leaders are copacetic with the aims of the emerging pro-immigrant movement. They no doubt realize that that listeners are loyal to the DJs because they perceive them as stalwart allies; any hint of change would diminish their following, and ratings would suffer as a result. "The network is up for sale," says Felix Gutierrez, professor of journalism at the University of Southern California. "They're not going to do anything to drive the audience away."

Of course, radio personalities aren't immune to market forces either. Their primary purpose is to entertain, and when immigration politics cease to be the hot topic of the day, the DJs aren't going to push the issue as much. Still, the recent spate of publicity could leave a lasting imprint. The rallies that have drawn millions of protesters may not be enough to coax U.S. senators to offer illegal immigrants a path to citizenship when they take up the issue again next week. But DJs have done as much as anyone to push Latinos into the public sphere. Even if just a portion of Latino citizens heed exhortation from radio personalities like El Piolín to register and vote, it could eventually affect elections across the country. A few dozen guys behind microphones, in other words, may have done more than incite the biggest wave of activism this country has seen in decades. If Hispanics do realize their potential as a giant in U.S. politics, the locutores will deserve a big share of the credit.

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