At first, after the March 25 protests, it may have seemed that 1960s Chicano activist Moctesuma Esparza’s HBO docudrama Walkout had inspired all Los Angeles to run into the streets and demand justice. Or that life was imitating the 2004 black comedy A Day Without a Mexican, in which every Latino disappeared from California. The sudden emergence of the immigrants’ rights issue has surprised many Anglophones, but for consumers of Spanish-language radio, TV and newspapers, it was the crescendo of a media message that was a long time evolving.

It is widely acknowledged that an unlikely band of ribald, prankster disc jockeys in LA played a crucial role in generating the massive turnout. In what may go down as a historic meeting of the mouths, four rival morning DJs–KSCA’s El Piolín (Eduardo Sotelo), KLAX’s El Cucuy (Renán Almendárez Coello), KBUE’s El Mandril (Ricardo Sánchez) and KHJ’s Humberto Luna–held a joint news conference announcing their support for the March 25 rally. Sotelo, whose show on Univision-owned KSCA is the highest-rated radio program in LA, called the meeting and became the most recognized for his passionate support of the rally. “It was fascinating, to say the least,” said LA march organizer Javier Rodríguez. “Here were [El Piolín and El Cucuy] the two top [morning show] DJs, competitors, coming forth and saying, We’re going to march with you, we’re going to get everybody together.” Rodríguez laid much of the groundwork for the DJ détente by organizing a breakfast March 14 that not only resulted in massive local news coverage but also prompted an invitation from El Mandril to appear on his show. Two days later, El Mandril called his rival El Piolín on the air, and the DJ movement was on.

“Radio, unlike TV, focuses on how to effectively speak to the common man and woman and thus has been able to generate a great deal of enthusiasm,” said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, one of the march organizers. “Many of the disc jockeys are themselves immigrants and can relate to the struggle that their listeners face and motivate them to be active.”

The role of the radio personality as advocate for immigrants is nothing new. According to USC journalism professor Felix Gutiérrez, in the 1920s and ’30s Pedro González, once Pancho Villa’s telegraph operator, pioneered Spanish-language radio in LA, protesting the deportation of half a million Mexicans, many of them US citizens mistaken for illegals. But by the 1960s and ’70s, music formats dominated Spanish-language radio. Ever since Humberto Luna brought back personality-driven radio in the late ’80s, DJs have increasingly assumed an advocacy role. Javier Rodríguez notes that they took part in the resistance to Proposition 187 in 1994, as well as the protests against Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2003 effort to repeal the law that allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Radio talk shows have also allowed the voiceless to express their personal anxieties about their tenuous existence in El Norte. “People call in to talk about ‘My mother’s dying in Mexico but I can’t go be with her because I don’t know if I can get back across the border’; ‘My kids are born here but I’m facing deportation,'” Gutiérrez says. “Or someone is retiring and realizing she had no Social Security even though it had been taken out of her paycheck for years.”

The LA DJs have gotten most of the credit for the massive turnouts, but other sectors of the Spanish-language media, and other cities, also played significant roles. Print media, which act as a basic survival guide for immigrants in a hostile world, create the background noise that radio and TV pick up on. By devoting pages to legal issues, fraud scams, tax-filing information and healthcare issues, newspapers give the undocumented an understanding of the rights that this year’s Congressional action threatened to strip away. In Chicago, next door to anti-immigrant-bill sponsor James Sensenbrenner’s home state of Wisconsin, the weekly La Raza has been central to a well-organized, vibrant immigrants’ rights movement in a state that pioneered the use of Mexico’s matricula consular as valid identification for the undocumented. A former La Raza reporter, Jorge Mújica, left the paper to become one of the main organizers of the movement there. The current editor in chief, Jorge Mederos, says the paper’s front page has been devoted to the issue for several weeks. Last July a rally was held in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood to protest the breaking up of families by deportation of undocumented immigrants. Another central figure in that march was Chicago DJ El Pistolero (Rafael Pulido). According to PR people at the Univision station, back then El Pistolero was already encouraging marchers to wear white and be peaceful, messages echoed in LA.

That two Univision DJs are at the heart of this feel-good story about a movement coming of age is somewhat ironic. Univision, after all, is owned by Republican backer Jerrold Perenchio, who once donated $400,000 to anti-immigrant California Governor Pete Wilson. In a merger approved almost three years ago, Univision acquired all of its sixty-three radio stations from HBC, which was 26 percent owned by Clear Channel, home to Rush Limbaugh. In 2005-06 Univision donated 72 percent of its total $88,450 campaign contributions to the GOP. But given George W. Bush’s relatively moderate stance on immigration reform (the Lou Dobbs hard right equates Bush’s guest-worker program with “amnesty”) as well as big business’s need for immigrants both as low-wage employees and consumers, maybe it’s not so odd.

The corporate Latino media have been as uncritical of the Iraq War as their mainstream counterparts. And Univision promoted the candidacy of Latino conservative judge Miguel Estrada, a Bush fave. But unassimilated immigrants are Perenchio’s and big Spanish-language media’s bread and butter. This is a case of marketing imperatives trumping conservative values. And although Perenchio and most of Univision’s head honchos are not Latinos, his staff–and the staff of the Spanish-language media in general–is. “Almost everyone in our newsroom are either immigrants, children or grandchildren of immigrants or are somehow related to immigrants,” said Alberto Vourvoulias, executive editor of New York’s El Diario-La Prensa, which belongs to the same conglomerate as La Raza. “It’s part of the fabric of our lives.” El Diario, like La Raza, accentuates its outreach to non-Latino immigrant groups as well.

As we approach May 1, a day of protest designated A Day Without an Immigrant, the Spanish-language media continue to push the idea that although the Sensenbrenner bill has stalled, the fight is far from over. Like some moderate politicians and labor groups, radio DJs have been discouraging children and workers from walking out of school or their jobs and stop short of endorsing a boycott. Piolín says, “I invite all sides to come on the show, so that people can decide what they can do without negatively affecting their family.” Still, Chicago activist Mújica says outrage is palpable in the press and on the airwaves over the recent raids of IFCO plants around the country. Undocumented immigrants and their growing coalition-building and activism are no longer invisible, and they’re speaking in a loud, clear voice.