Last March, television screens and front pages around the world were filled with images of downtown Los Angeles, its streets filled with Mexican and Central American immigrants waving flags and banners. It was a protest march, called to express the community's anger at a bill passed by the House of Representatives that threatens to clamp down on undocumented immigrants, criminalizing both them and anyone who provides them with shelter or medical care.
But it was also a celebration. The marchers, many of them teenagers, were obviously thrilled to be in a crowd of up to a million people who looked like them and shared their heritage, and their faces showed more pride and excitement than anger. The biggest Latino march in the history of the United States, it was also the biggest block party. Which is not entirely surprising, considering that many of the marchers had been drawn by announcements on the main Mexican pop radio stations, made by disc jockeys who are more often compared to Howard Stern or Don Imus than to César Chávez.
For example, there is Ricardo Sánchez, better known as El Mandril (The Baboon), the morning DJ on KBUE, La Qué Buena (The How Great). In the 1990s, KBUE became one of LA's top three Spanish-language stations by featuring loudmouthed announcers and ranchera, or Mexican regional music, and startled media pundits by exceeding the listenership of almost all the English-language broadcasters. Calling itself "La mamá de los corridos," (the mother of the corridos), it blazoned the hard-hitting outlaw ballads of drugs and gunfighters made popular by the recently murdered star Chalino Sánchez and his flock of imitators. When other stations picked up on that trend, KBUE broke controversial new ground by showcasing corridistas like Los Razos, who specialized in bleeped obscenities and feuds with other bands — a publicity device borrowed from the gangsta rappers who share LA's working class neighborhoods.
Indeed, in some ways, the station is a ranchera equivalent of street-oriented hip-hop stations like New York's "Hot 97." Sánchez says that the thing that made KBUE unique even on the Spanish scene was its openness to local musicians: "La Que Buena is the only station where if you show up with a record, let's say a goodcorrido, we play it," he says. "The other stations, their formats are more stylized, more 'nice,' they're not like us. Of course, some people have said that the corridos were bad for the radio, that they were bad for the community. [With their celebrations of colorful drug lords, the songs have in fact been banned in much of northern Mexico.] But look, when the corridos took off, they got so popular that people will actually pay to have acorrido written about their lives. People come up to me all the time saying, 'I've got acorrido about me,' or they say they'll write one for me. I always say, 'Just don't have them kill me like this or that — ' because in the corridos you always end badly."
Sánchez chuckles. Though he has recently become known as an engaged community figure, he is clearly more accustomed to being a comedian. A small, dark, solidly-built man from Mexico's coastal state of Veracruz, Sánchez got his name from the character in Disney's The Lion King. "He's very clever, and someone said to me, 'You're like the baboon,'" Sánchez recalls, speaking in Spanish. "At first I didn't like it, because I said, 'Ay, cabrón, he's so ugly! What an ugly name!' But I decided to accept it, and I realized it was good because there's no name more offensive — people can call me anything, insult my mother, but they can't go beyond that name."
Sánchez normally does his best to live up to the monicker. He and his sidekicks, who wryly call themselves "Los Guapos de la Mañana" (The Handsome Guys in the Morning), specialize in double-entendre humor and practical jokes — before sitting down for this interview, he recorded a crank call to a businessman in Mexico, switching voices as he played the parts of an abusive client and an officious attorney.
Nonetheless, Sánchez says he slipped with relative ease into his new role as a conduit for immigrant rights organizations: "People think of me as a joker, always hah hah hah, but this is something serious," he says. "I've never been an activist, but there came a moment when people came to me and asked me to participate. And yes, I can be a loudspeaker, to say to the people, 'We're getting together, we're protesting, let's do it peacefully...' This meant something to me, because it's something for the wellbeing of all of us. Not to be aggressive, but to get together, to let people see who we are, and to ask for something that is due to us — because we have given a great deal to this country, both in work and in taxes."
Sánchez emphasizes that, although some news reports credited him and his competitors on LA's other major Mexican stations — El Piolín (The Tweetie Bird) and El Cucuy (The Boogeyman) — with being major instigators of the march, they simply provided a platform for the real organizers: "There are people who have said that we announcers were the leaders," he says. "But we're not going to be taking credit, saying it was all because of us. You know, the people aren't stupid. The people know who you are."
Sánchez himself has only been in the United States for three years, and he came legally, lured away from a popular broadcasting job in Tijuana. Nonetheless, he feels a great deal of empathy for his countrymen who are eking out a difficult living while having to constantly worry about arrest and deportation. His success came only after years working as a janitor, first in a school and then in a radio station, where he gradually eased himself onto the sales staff, and — by way of commercials he taped himself to keep his budget low — onto the air. Even today, although he is considered a Spanish-language media star, he says that he is constantly reminded of his outsider status.
"I'll tell you," he says, leaning forward in his chair. "I'm from the south, the area of the Mayas, and my features are indigenous. So when I have the opportunity to stay in a good hotel in Las Vegas, people say, 'What's that guy doing here? Who is he, to be in the Bellagio? Who is he to be on the eighteenth floor, where they have the Presidential Suite?' When I go to get my car in a valet parking, a convertible or a Mercedes Benz, they say, 'He must be the chauffeur; his boss must be on vacation.' You are constantly aware.
"Just before the marches, coincidentally, the police took away my son's car. To buy that car, my son worked in a bakery for four months, burning his hands in the oven — I could have helped him, but I wanted him to work, so he would understand what it is to make a living. So he bought the car, with a lot of self-sacrifice, and just when he was finishing the paperwork, the last day, the police stopped him and took it away. He has a Mexican driver's license, and they said it wasn't valid here — when a driver's license is international; it's valid here, in Japan, wherever. But when they see a brown guy driving..."
Along with the racism, Sánchez is bothered by the demagoguery of the anti-immigrant movement. "They say we're coming and taking advantage of the medical system. Listen, a man who comes here to work, he very rarely takes advantage of any medical services. If we feel sick, we go to the pharmacy, buy a Tylenol or something, it may take a few days, but we try to fight it off. The people, the men come here to work."
Sanchez adds that it is ridiculous for groups like the Minutemen to try to frame their arguments as a matter of national security in the age of terrorism. "What are these people afraid of?" he asks rhetorically. "I have heard an official say that, of all the cargo that enters the United States, five percent is inspected and 95 percent isn't. You can see that these immigrants aren't carrying bombs or chemical weapons: they're carrying a little backpack and a plastic jug of water to help them survive in the terrain they have to cross. So why, when this person comes with a dream of bettering himself, of building a house for his mother, to give his children something because there is no work in Mexico because of the bad governance, why talk about national security, when on the other hand a truck can cross carrying a weapon that could really cause harm?
"Another thing: why only worry about the border with Mexico and not the border with Canada? That's twice as long, and any smart person will say, 'On this side you have a thousand guards, and they're going to put two thousand more, but if you come in from there, they'll even welcome you.'"
Sánchez has become completely serious, and it is odd to remember that just twenty minutes ago he was recording a prank phone call. But it is that combination of sharp intelligence and rowdy comedy that has made him a star. On air he is a clown, playing the latest regional Mexican hits, but he says that at home he listens to jazz, salsa, or most recently a New Age recording of music inspired by the Mayan pyramids. Indeed, while he has often featured corridos on his shows, this seems to have been largely a matter of popular trends, not personal taste.
Now, he says, the genre is diminishing in popularity, and he is shifting his format accordingly: "There was a period when thecorrido was very strong, but other styles have appeared. The pasito duranguense [a perky, keyboard-powered dance style from Chicago] came along, and that made the corridos go down a bit. For some people, they still are very important, but fifty percent, not eighty percent like they once were. And I understand this, because suppose I say to you in the morning, 'Hey, do you feel like having a pizza?' Who wants to eat a pizza in the morning? And it's the same if someone calls me up at eight o'clock and says, 'Play thecorrido about Quintero...' [Rafael Caro Quintero, one of the most famous Mexican drug lords]. I say, 'Wait, in the morning people want to hear something else.' Who wants to get worked up at eight in the morning, when you're driving in all that traffic? You want to hear something that cheers you up, a joke, something that gives you a positive feeling."
So Sánchez goes on joking, playing pop songs, and occasionally turning the microphone over to his new acquaintances among immigrant rights groups and politicians. He is excited by his new role — he reels off a list of Mexican media personalities who have interviewed him in the last few months — but is keeping it in perspective. And as for his own plans, he says that although he is very happy with his current situation, he does not expect to remain permanently in the United States.
"I'm not complaining. This country has given me a great deal, and I admire many things here. When it comes to discipline, to organization — not so much when it comes to freedom of expression, but it's not as easy to commit a fraud, there's not so much corruption. If you leave your car out on the day when they're cleaning the streets, you get a ticket. Small things, but they make a difference. But I'm planning to go back to Mexico, definitely. I want to go back with my head up, leaving a good reputation, but I'm not one of those people who always wants to climb higher. So one of these days I'd like to go back to Ensenada or to Veracruz to live out my days. But with the pride of having done what I could do."