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.”