Dallas: Radio host, a new citizen, stirs Latino voters
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Tue Oct 21 21:47:02 UTC 2008
Radio host, a new citizen, stirs Latino voters
By JULIANA BARBASSA / Associated Press
"Despiertese!" Wake up! It's 4 a.m., and Spanish-language talk show
host Eddie Sotelo is jump-starting his listeners — janitors pushing
brooms in dark office buildings, truckers on the road, fast-food cooks
flipping sausages for the breakfast rush. Most Americans have never
heard of the small-framed Sotelo, known as "Piolin," or Tweety Bird.
But the loyalty of his listeners, many of them immigrants like
himself, has helped propel his syndicated show, "Piolin por la
Manana," to the No. 1 morning radio slot, regardless of language, in
markets from Los Angeles to Phoenix, Dallas, Las Vegas and Chicago,
according to Arbitron. This means that in an election year when the
elusive Hispanic voter could be crucial, Sotelo has the presidential
Between corny pranks and laugh tracks, he's using his soapbox to get
Latinos engaged in the political process and to keep candidates
focused on what matters to his community. In live interviews, he has
pressed Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama for plans regarding the
mortgage crisis, the economy and immigration reform, which has gotten
little air time from English-language media.
His influence with his audience comes from being one of them — an
immigrant who makes no bones about having entered the country
illegally 22 years ago in the trunk of a car, who shares their hopes
of a better life, their Catholic faith, their love for pick-up soccer
on the weekends and the upbeat strains of accordion-driven ranchero
So when he urges listeners to become citizens, as he did in May, and
to cast a vote, as he will do for the first time in November, other
new Americans pay attention.
"I listen to him every day, and it's affected my opinion," said
Emerita Palma, 43, one of the more than 50,000 gathered in Huntington
Park, a suburb of Los Angeles, to watch Sotelo host a celebration of
Mexican Independence Day last month.
As Mexican flags waved and a screen above the stage beamed images of
President Felipe Calderon leading the throng gathered in Mexico City's
main square in cheers of "Viva Mexico," the Huntington Park crowd
roared. Like many of those present, Palma might feel her eyes brim
with tears at the first strains of Mexico's national anthem, but she's
got her feet firmly planted in the United States, where she came
looking for work as a 20-year-old.
Partly at Sotelo's urging, she picked up a voter registration form at
the DMV, she said, and she's ready to cast her vote in favor of the
candidate most likely to address her main concern: comprehensive
"I have brothers who are without papers," she said. "The candidate who
promises immigration change, I'll vote for him."
A booth manned by Univision Communication distributed voter
registration forms during the independence celebration. The media
giant is part of a coalition that launched a drive to register a
million Hispanic voters before November. They're tapping into the
trust their audience feels for on-air personalities like Sotelo, said
Cesar Conde, Univision executive vice president.
"When you have the people they see even day in television and hear
every day on the radio, it resonates in an unique way," he said.
In the audience with his wife and year-old baby boy, Michael
Betancourt, 29, asked where to pick up a registration form. Born in
Los Angeles, he had never bothered to vote. But what he'd heard on air
helped him connect the future of the country to the future of his
family, he said.
"Having a child makes you think a little more about things like the
war, and health care," he said.
Sotelo listeners like him and Palma — who starts work before dawn at a
carpet warehouse — tune in for the comedy. But they stay for Sotelo's
straight talk and his tough-love advice. In a recent show, he chided a
caller for whining about hard economic times instead of looking for a
new job, and another for wasting money on drink instead of tucking it
away in savings.
His crew, crammed into a bedroom-sized studio in Glendale, Calif.,
relies on gongs, whistles and hoots to voice their opinions, shut up a
long-winded caller, or poke fun at Sotelo himself. The seven-hour
broadcast can sound like a large family gathered for the holidays in a
Listeners say tuning in feels like going home.
"He's an immigrant, he's a humble person. He's like everyone else
here," said Connie Cabrales, 20, gazing up at Sotelo in Huntington
Park. "He doesn't forget where he came from."
When Sotelo came to the United States in 1986, he was a restless
teenager who wanted what so many other immigrants come for: a job. An
education. Some money to help his parents.
When he shares his tale of crossing into the United States — running
miles through the hills of Tijuana, ducking under brush to escape the
glaring lights of immigration agents' helicopters — his voice softens,
deepens. He's back there, with every immigrant who's ever made that
"I felt the helicopter coming down on me, the wind," he said. "I felt
so cold, nervous. I asked God to make me invisible. I decided to look
up. I saw the faces of the officers. It was too bright. But they
didn't see me. It was a miracle. After that, I looked around. I was by
myself. I was alone."
Once over the border, the coyote, or smuggler, stuffed him into a car
trunk along with another man so they could make it through the final
checkpoints. The space was tight, hot, and filled with exhaust fumes.
Sotelo had to rip out the carpet to breath through holes in the car's
When he reached Santa Ana, Calif., the 16-year-old fell into his father's arms.
"I couldn't stop crying," Sotelo said.
This experience brings depth to the on-air jokester. It's the bond he
shares with the 12 million or so undocumented immigrants in the United
"I really identify with my listeners ...," he says. "I wanted the same
things they want. If I can help them find the right path, make things
better, a little bit easier, why not?"
This bond also allows him to reach out and turn Latinos' concerns into votes.
Although Hispanics are the nation's fastest growing minority group,
their weight has yet to materialize at the ballot box. They're 15
percent of the population, but only eight percent of the eligible
electorate, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
That's because as a population, they're young — about one-third of the
nation's 46 million Hispanics are under 18 — and many are not
citizens. In a push to change that, Sotelo chronicled his own path to
citizenship on air.
"It's a blessing to be able to become a citizen, to vote, after
everything I went through," he said. "It's an opportunity to make a
His influence has grown since he first stepped up as an advocate for
immigration reform in 2006, persuading hundreds of thousands to join
marches and delivering a million letters from his listeners to
He has refused to endorse a party, saying his show is a venue for
candidates and listeners to learn about each other.
"It's a big responsibility," he said. "They have to make their own
decision. ... I just want to inform them."
Although Latinos, like other Americans, name the economy as the their
biggest concern, many see a candidate's position on immigration as a
litmus test that shows who stands with them.
Candidates have mostly sidestepped the politically charged, highly
emotional issue, at least in English, said Audrey Singer, Immigration
Fellow at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.
Tune into Spanish-language radio, though, and the discussion has been
lively. "They're not talking about what they will do," Singer said.
"It's about who cares more about Latinos."
Sotelo, for one, will not let the discussion die.
In Obama's first appearance on "Piolin por la Manana," Sotelo gave
listeners a chance to hit him with hardball questions. The first
caller asked how Obama would heal the divide between blacks and
Hispanics in areas where the groups compete for scant resources, then
extracted a promise that Obama would tackle immigration as soon as
he's in office.
"In the first year? Or first couple of months? First month?" Sotelo
shot, rapid-fire, during the 2007 interview.
"First year," Obama replied.
"You're going to have to prove it," Sotelo said.
"I'll follow up," Obama said.
"I'll need you to prove that," Piolin said, relinquishing only when
the candidate promised he'd deliver and then come back to the show to
talk about the issue.
Then Sotelo demanded the same of McCain, extracting a promise that as
president, McCain would tackle immigration reform, including the
politically thorny prospect of creating a path to citizenship for
those here illegally.
When Obama called on Oct. 2, Sotelo pressed him again.
"Yes, we need border security. Yes, we need to deal with employers who
are taking advantage of undocumented workers. But we also need a
pathway to citizenship," the Democratic candidate said. "I've been
consistent. John McCain, he says one thing, but says another thing
when he's in front of a different audience."
Days later, on Oct. 9, Sotelo gave McCain a chance to respond in kind.
"I brought immigration reform to the floor of the Senate twice —
legislation was not popular with my own party," McCain told the
audience. "I took on my own party."
Sotelo's goal was to get both candidates on the record. "They gave me
their word. A lot of people heard," he said, laughing.
Hispanics have historically leaned Democratic, but Republicans can
appeal to Hispanic sensibilities in areas ranging from religious faith
to entrepreneurship and fiscal policies — a trend that culminated with
President Bush's 2004 campaign. Exit polls showed he had between 40
and 44 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to the Pew Hispanic
Over the past two years, the Latino vote tilted sharply toward the
Democratic camp again, with voters supporting Obama over McCain 66
percent to 23 percent, according to a June/July survey by the Pew
Significantly, Latinos make up important shares of the electorate in
states Bush carried by fewer than five percentage points four years
ago — New Mexico, Florida, Nevada, Colorado — and which could tip the
balance in November, said Mark Lopez, associate director of the Pew
"There is a lot of excitement among Latinos to participate," Lopez
said, pointing out that more Hispanics voted in the 2008 primaries
than in 2004.
Even some immigrants who aren't citizens yet, such as Rosa Ojeda, 48,
a Guatemalan mother of four whose naturalization ceremony is scheduled
for January, are feeling invested in this year's presidential contest.
"The economy, the war, the possibility of changing things for so many
immigrants who want to work and are afraid — there is so much that's
at stake here," she said.
So Ojeda, who spends nights mopping floors and emptying trash cans in
Walt Disney Studios, has joined the political committee in her union.
She gets her news in Spanish, starting with Sotelo's wake-up call; her
American-raised children get their news in English. They discuss it
all over dinner, bouncing between languages.
Candidates are courting such voters aggressively. Both campaigns are
advertising in Spanish and sending Latino surrogates to meet voters.
Meanwhile, Sotelo works to make his community count, inviting
listeners to register to vote, and using vans with his show's logo
emblazoned on the side to distribute registration forms.
It all folds back into his motto — the shout-out he sends at the end
of each day from his crowded studio to immigrants tuning in across the
"A que venimos?" he asks. 'Why did we come?'
"A triunfar!" his staff yells — 'To succeed!'
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