Immigrant Sage

How a 70-year-old curmudgeon, played by a 28-year-old, became one of the most popular personalities on L.A. radio
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Los Angeles magazine, December 2008

There are approximately 80,000 Mennonites in Mexico, and today in a cramped broadcast studio deep in the heart of Burbank, Don Cheto is sticking up for all of them. “You know that they live really ghetto,” he says in slurred Spanish, his creaky voice showing his years, “just like we do.”

The phones light up with tall tales of drama between the infamously insular German-speaking colonists, many of whom steer clear of modern technology, and their adopted Mexican neighbors. One caller who came to Los Angeles from the state of Sonora says they used to spit on her when she walked by. A man from Zacatecas who grew up next to a Mennonite community says they would never talk to his family. And you can just forget about Mexican-Mennonite intermarriage.

Don Cheto listens to them and then finally weighs in. “Look, I’m an old man,” he says. “I have been in this country for 30 years, and I know this for sure: You have to treat people with respect even if they’re different. We all have to understand that these differences don’t make anyone better or worse, especially as Latinos.”

It’s a nice sentiment, but Don Cheto’s much younger sidekick, Marlene Quinto, isn’t buying it. He pronounces her name “Marlini,” his exaggerated regional accent transforming all of his short e’s to long i’s. “Well, I could never be a Mennonite,” she says in a hesitant Mexican American mix of Spanish and English. “I need a phone.”

“Were you born with a phone?”

His well-timed punch line segues right into the commercial break. The board operator waves a hand in the air. Red lights go dark. Headphones come off. Then the station promo blares through the studio monitors over choppy hip-hop beats: “Don Cheto, el terror de los buffets” (“the terror of the buffets”).

El Show de Don Cheto airs every morning on FM 105.5, La Que Buena, one of the city’s top Mexican music stations (it is on stations in Dallas and Houston as well). Since May El Show de Don Cheto has been a consistent contender for the number one radio program in Los Angeles. Ryan Seacrest might rule English-language pop on KIIS FM, and Eddie “Piolín” Sotelo of Radio La Nueva—Cheto’s main competitor—is known for his outspoken role in the immigration march of 2006, but both of these iconic on-air personalities have been losing ground to a 70-year-old working-class immigrant with a big belly, a gray mustache, a floppy cowboy hat, and a soft spot for Chinese food.

“Mexican immigrants are very attached to their roots,” says Leila Cobo, executive director of Latin content and programming for the trade magazine Billboard. “For them, having a CD of Mexican music is an essential part of their family shopping cart, and having a voice that very clearly harks from home, that really talks to them, is powerful. Other DJs are more finessed, more rehearsed, more conscious, perhaps, of their impact. Don Cheto comes across as simply Don Cheto, a voice from home, with all the familiarity, nostalgia, and comfort that implies.”

In a radio market dominated by youth and polished celebrity, Don Cheto is a crotchety, uncouth anomaly—the long-winded Mexican grandfather as new-school pop celebrity. He’s also a fiction, a character dreamed up and played—for six hours straight, five days a week—by Juan Carlos Razo, who at 28 could be Cheto’s grandson. Like his character, Razo is an immigrant from a Michoacán farm town, and both admit they could stand to lose a few pounds. But on mornings like this, when Razo is not in his Cheto costume, he’s more of a suburban hip-hop kid in a turquoise collared shirt and baggy designer denim. The many MySpace fan pages dedicated to Cheto may tout his farmer cred—they even feature his imaginary pigs and roosters—but you’re more likely to find Razo glued to his TV set in a PlayStation marathon.

“I have never milked a cow, but Don Cheto has,” he says, rubbing a hand over the bald head that once got him nicknamed “El Melón.” “My grandfather would be eating, and someone would yell, ‘Don José, my mom wants to know if you can castrate a pig,’ and he would say, ‘Yes, of course.’ He loved doing that.”

Razo came to the United States in 1996. He based Don Cheto on a man he knew back home in La Sauceda, a small town in the middle of Michoacán, the state that has sent the second-largest number of Mexican immigrants to the United States (he jokes that La Sauceda has 5,000 people who live there and 5,000 who live here).

“We didn’t have a local radio station, but we did have Rubén,” he says. “He had a big house, with speakers on top of the house and a cheap microphone. So if your mother was selling chicken, you would go to his house and say, ‘Don Rubén, my mom is asking if you can promote her chicken.’ You would pay him, and he would turn on his equipment and say something like ‘Reminding all the people of La Sauceda that there’s chicken in Maria Martínez’s house. So make chicken soup for your husband. Don’t give him so many greens. Give him chicken so he’ll be satisfied.’?”

That a character like Don Cheto—the immigrant sage rooted in the ways of the Mexican countryside—could become a popular L.A. radio personality is a reflection of L.A.’s role as a capital of migrant Mexico. More than ever before, Los Angeles has become not only a Mexican city (people of Mexican descent make up nearly 40 percent of the population) but also a rural Mexican city brimming with immigrants who only recently left behind lives on ranches and farms. Mexican jaripeos, or rodeos, are big weekend draws throughout South and East L.A., and rancho chic is now one of the city’s prime styles—cowboy boots and hats, big brass belt buckles, and pickups with Jalisco and Sinaloa decals emblazoned on tinted glass. The sounds of what the music industry dubs “regional Mexican”—the accordions of norteño, the honking brass of banda, the plucked guitars of ranchera—are all you’ll hear on El Show de Don Cheto, songs that spin sagas of immigration, drugs, and romance and turn average Mexicans into larger-than-life pop heroes.

“The city has been waiting for someone they can identify with fully, and no other DJ has come close,” says Pepe Garza, programming director at La Que Buena. The character he plays “is the simple guy who is also wise. He’s not pretentious in any way. There’s nothing jet set or wanna-be jet set about him. He knows the rancho, but he also knows the world of the Mexican working in the U.S. He’s figured this country out. He works hard but will take unemployment and food stamps. If he has a chance to sue someone and make money, he’ll sue them. He’s been here 30 years. He has papers. He speaks OK English. He knows how to drive across L.A. He can tell a kid, ‘Don’t do that because if you do, you will become a cholo.’ ”

Don Cheto’s senior citizen status might be the only thing “old” about the show. Garza estimates that while the audience for El Show de Don Cheto has plenty of immigrant parents, it’s dominated by their L.A.-reared children, the coveted 18- to 35-year-old market that sees a version of itself in the way Don Cheto engages with the city. When he interviewed Senator Ted Kennedy this past spring, he pulled off a skilled bicultural balancing act. The two spoke in English and then performed a duet of the classic Mexican song “¡Ay Jalisco, No Te Rajes!”

“There is a new generation of listeners who speak English, who are from here, but who don’t want to be mainstream and don’t want to lose their roots,” says Garza, rolling up the sleeves of his pink oxford shirt in a large, sterile conference room at La Que Buena’s Burbank headquarters. “They listen to the underground nightclub music, El Potro de Sinaloa or El Tigrillo Palma. They know that as much as they may want to be assimilated Americans, they never will be, so they stop trying to be accepted and embrace their Mexicanness.”

Many in the scene agree that the big shift arrived in 1992 with the murder of Chalino Sánchez, a hard-edged corrido singer raised poor on a Sinaloa ranch and whose reputation for illicit exploits rivaled that of L.A. gangsta rappers. His death turned him into an instant local icon. “A lot of cholos then became chalinillos,” says Garza. “Drug dealers started dressing like him. People who once thought that they would be mainstream Americans started to embrace the Chalino style, that Sinaloa aesthetic, that Pacific look.”

Don Cheto has released a string of CDs that feature him singing and rapping about the culture clashes of immigrant life in L.A. A song he was considering for his upcoming album was “Narcocholo,” which he wrote with Garza about a young Mexican American who embraces the Chalino image. The kid starts off mixing Spanish and English and ends up talking like he’s from a ranch in Sinaloa. If the future of L.A. is an imaginary Mexican ranch surrounded by Olive Gardens and strip-mall sushi, then Don Cheto is our first unofficial mayor.

How Juan Carlos Razo became Don Cheto is the stuff of a Mexican folk ballad. Like most families in La Sauceda, Razo’s worked in the strawberry fields, where each full box earned them a dollar. His father started his own jam business but fell into debt and headed north across the border to make extra money. When Razo turned 16, he decided to join him. In the border city of Tecate he met up with a coyote who crammed him into the trunk of an Oldsmobile with six other people.

“After a while we couldn’t breathe,” he says. “We were dying. We didn’t have air. Then the car stopped at the checkpoint, and I shouted, ‘It’s hot inside,’ and the immigration officer let us out and deported us. The next day I did it all over again in the trunk of a different car. That time we made it.”

A van arranged by the coyote picked up Razo in San Diego and dropped him off in El Monte, where his family was living in a garage. He got a job in a factory folding children’s pajamas for $90 a week. Razo barely spoke English when he graduated from El Monte High School. His uncle landed him a job disassembling computers in Long Beach, but Razo had his eye on radio. He considered going to broadcasting school until he saw the steep registration fees, so he became a weekend intern at La Que Buena, where he answered phones, logged commercials, and learned to work the mixing board.

“There were days when I didn’t have enough money to take the bus back to El Monte,” he says. “I was embarrassed to admit it to anyone, but some nights I would sleep at the station.”

Razo first did the voice of Don Cheto on a lark during a segment on one of La Que Buena’s top programs. He posed as the taco sponsor of a mock wrestling match between Mexican pop stars. “People loved the character and kept asking for him,” he says. “It started as a joke, but soon that’s all I was doing.”

By 2003, Don Cheto had his own CD, Hablan–dolo por lo Claro (“Telling It Like It Is”), which included songs like “La Puerca de Mi Suegra” (“My Mother-in-Law’s Pork”) and “Necesito Coyote” (“I Need a Coyote”) and even spawned an instant hit, “Vamonos pa’l Rancho”/?“I Don’t Wanna Leave L.A.” (“Let’s Go to the Ranch”), in which Cheto argues with his teenage son over hip-hop beats about heading back to Mexico. “I wanted to do hip-hop because I’m from hip-hop,” says Razo, who admits that his nasal singing voice is not the best you’ll hear on La Que Buena’s playlists. “It might sound weird to imagine Don Cheto rapping, but I wanted it to appeal to guys my age and younger. That’s why I say in the song, ‘Here it goes in your language so you understand.’?” A year later his duet with L.A. banda singer Yolanda Pérez, “Estoy Enomarada”—in which Cheto argues with his teenage daughter about her dating habits—broke into the top five of the regional Mexican charts. By the time Cheto was offered his own morning show in 2006, he was a well-traveled brand.

“At first I wanted to be the one who got famous, but it was Don Cheto who got famous, not me,” says Razo, who also played Cheto on a TV variety show that was broadcast for two years in L.A., San Diego, Houston, and Dallas (it went off the air earlier this year). “I had stopped talking in my own voice completely and would never appear out of costume. It’s like El Santo [the legendary Mexican wrestler]. With the mask everyone knows him, but without it he’s a nobody. Sometimes people talk about Don Cheto right in front of me, and they don’t know that he’s actually this fat bald guy standing right next to them.”

Being fat, bald, Mexican, and anonymous might work to his advantage in El Monte, but Razo now lives a world away in upscale Valencia. His quiet street is lined with new two-story homes, two-car garages, manicured lawns, and neighbors who aren’t sure what to make of him. “They don’t know what I do,” he says, fidgeting with his two iPhones at the dining room table, his one-year-old son, Diego, in his lap. “I’m sure they think I’m a drug dealer. I leave the house at four in the morning and get home in the middle of the day. They’re probably like, ‘Why is this fat, bald Mexican guy living in such a nice house?’?”

On this particular afternoon Razo has rushed home after his show to take care of his son. His wife, Enriqueta, who has a degree in television production, is pursuing a master’s in psychology and doesn’t get home until early evening. “I take care of Diego until she gets back,” he says. “She always asks me, ‘Why don’t we get a baby-sitter?’ and I always say right back to her, ‘What if I can do it?’?”

Razo gets some help from his sister-in-law Herminia, who occasionally watches Diego while he is doing the show. “Juan is nothing like his character,” says Herminia, who as a labor organizer meets countless families who never miss a morning with Don Cheto. “Cheto is a macho, woman-in-the-kitchen kind of guy, and I can’t picture Juan like that at all. He helps out at home, his wife is independent, and he’s just this chill, bald dude who likes video games and going to the mall.”

For Cheto fans who imagine him living on a ramshackle farm surrounded by chickens and goats, Razo’s entry-level McMansion would be a shock. There are Roman columns in the living room, spotless wood floors, and a treadmill and Ms. Pac-Man machine in a foyer next to the kitchen. “Every time I come through the front door I think, ‘It’s not possible that I live here,’?” he says. “I know what it is to not have papers. I know what it’s like when someone tries to triple the price of a TV because you have no credit. I know what it’s like to be evicted from an apartment just because you’re illegal and you have no way to protect yourself. That is who I am.”

Right off the living room is what Razo proudly calls his library, an entire wall dedicated to his collection of books: Franz Kafka and Hermann Hesse hardbacks in Spanish, complete series of Mexican comics, and shelves of fantasy and sci-fi titles. He reserves a special spot for his prized possession, a collectible Lord of the Rings elf helmet. “I like thinking about these fantasy worlds,” he says. “I like all these books and movies about things that aren’t quite real or that use humor to tell important stories. They are a big influence on how I think about Don Cheto as a character.”

Though Razo insists that Cheto is a comedic persona and not political, the character’s status in Mexican migrant communities has made him political by default. During the immigration marches of 2006 that filled downtown Los Angeles with nearly a million protesters, Razo was on vacation (“My first as a legal alien,” he says), but when he came home, he found his listeners hungry for a reaction from Don Cheto. “I never wanted to talk about protesting about immigration even though I was illegal for 11 years,” he says. “I never thought protesting would do anything to change this country. But when I saw the news and all of my listeners were asking me why I wasn’t there, I realized how powerful it could be and how much I needed to step into that role.”

After the marches Razo began running a segment on his show in which he and his listeners would broadcast alerts about immigration raids happening across the city. He used to call it “donde andan perros,” slang for “where things are getting tough,” but now in honor of crackdowns by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), he just sings Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” as he reels off addresses. “I let people know what the ICE ICE Baby is up to,” he says. “Spanish radio is still important like that. Not all of my listeners use the Internet. They’re poor. They used to be farmers. Radio is where they get all of their information.”

The box of doughnuts next to the mixing board is almost depleted. There’s only an hour left of this morning’s show, and the to-do list is daunting: Marlene’s freeway report, a ticket giveaway to a Lupillo Rivera concert at the Sports Arena, the “Song of the Day” segment, a chance for the Texas listeners to win a house, and the interview that’s just begun with Yvonne Almeida, a local mortgage broker. The subprime crisis hit the audience of El Show de Don Cheto especially hard, and Don Cheto is grilling Almeida on how to avoid being scammed.

“What if a real estate agent lies to me and convinces me I can afford the house when I only make $400 a week?” he asks. “How much should I expect to pay every month for a house in South-Central? Can you buy a house if you are illegal? What about houses in foreclosure?”

When she begins chipping away at the inquiries—the need for good credit, the importance of being realistic about family budgets—she speaks formally, with an air of stiff professionalism. Which doesn’t get her far with Don Cheto, who has already told her that he wants to buy a house with a pool so he can fill it with fish and cook what he catches. The more he ribs her about illegal immigrants finding ways to buy houses, the more she loosens up, and suddenly it’s she—not Don Cheto—who is revealed as the role player.

desmadreAy

Photograph by Trujillo Paumier

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