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Despiertese, Despiertese! 

Starting the day with Piolín

Thursday, Mar 24 2005
Photos by Gregory Bojorquez
The sun has not even risen, but the alarm goes off and the radio blares, “¡Despiértese, despiértese con Piolín por la mañana!” Many in the Latino community are up and taking care of the kids at home or getting ready for work or school. In Los Angeles there are a host of locutores (Spanish-language DJs), but these days, it’s Piolín por la mañana on La Nueva KSCA-FM (101.9) who’s getting la communidad out of bed.

You’ve probably never heard of him, but across the country millions listen to his nationally syndicated show every morning, which airs locally from 4 a.m. to 11 a.m. According to Arbitron’s latest ratings, Piolín has the No. 1 Spanish-language morning show in Los Angeles, with a 5.0 (5 percent share, or approximately 500,000 of all radio listeners in his time slot), not to mention a higher rating than Howard Stern, KIIS’s Ryan Seacrest, KROQ’s Kevin & Bean or any other English-language morning radio show you can think of. He also has the No. 1 syndicated show among the 645 Spanish-language stations nationwide. In short, Piolín is the No. 1 morning radio show, Spanish-language or otherwise, in the U.S.

If you are looking for a symbol of the country’s changing demographics, look no further than Piolín. Much of his ratings pull has to with the fact that at nearly 40 million and growing, Latinos are the largest minority in the country, representing 13 percent of the population. Los Angeles is almost 50 percent Latino, many of whom are recent immigrants who find both reassurance and a sense of community by listening to Piolín and other Spanish-language jocks as they struggle to navigate this strange new city. In this forum, they are not ridiculed for being undocumented, working class, and for speaking only Spanish. After all, many locutores, including Piolín, have endured such stigmas.

Born in Ocotlán, a small rancho in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, Eddie Sotelo was an energetic kid whose constant joking around would often land him in trouble. As a youth, he would be entertained by a traveling projectionist who traveled from small town to small town showing films using a white sheet as a screen. The projectionist charged a small fee to enter what looked like an old garage, but Eddie had no money, so he would climb onto the roof and watch from above. It was from there that he first watched Mário Almada films. Almada is the Mexican version of the action hero; never without his rifle, he’s Eastwood and Bronson wrapped into one. In these films, characters would talk about the U.S. Eddie got curious and started to investigate. One day, he asked his father if he could go work in the U.S. In 1986, while Mexico was hosting soccer’s World Cup, Eddie arranged for a coyote to cross him over from Tijuana.

“I thought Tijuana was the U.S. because so many people were talking English. I thought you just crossed — someone grabbed your hand and you crossed,” Sotelo laughs. At night, he, the coyote and two other people decided to make their move, but they had barely gotten started on the trek when they saw the border-patrol helicopter chasing some other people and quickly coming toward them.

“ ‘Watch out for the Mosco,’ the coyote told me. I thought, ‘Mosquito?’ Man, we got tons of mosquitos in Jalisco. Why should I be afraid? But he meant the helicopter!”

He hid in some brush, but soon he felt a beam of light on him. The helicopter hovered over him for a while, kicking up debris and issuing orders from its speakers in English, which Eddie did not understand.

“That’s when I knew this was serious, a real experience. I prayed hard, and soon enough the helicopter flew away,” he says. But just when he thought everything was clear, the coyote told him to run because they were sending the trucks to find them. Sotelo ran as hard as he could in his borrowed sneakers and hid in a creek, while the border patrol searched all over for them. After finally evading the border patrol, the coyote had a car waiting for them, but it was on the other side of the freeway. So, in a case of life imitating art, they ran across the freeway just like the infamous signs one sees while driving south on the Interstate 5.

“When I was crossing the freeway, I thought the cars were going to stop,” he laughs. The coyote told Sotelo to run for it when he saw a break in the traffic. They made it to the other side, and as they were jumping the last barrier, one of the group accidentally kicked Sotelo in the head and knocked him out for a split second as cars sped by. They jumped into a residential area and barely evaded a woman and her barking dogs. The coyote quickly put the three into the trunk of the car and took off.

“There came a point where I couldn’t breathe, so I ripped open a part of the carpet in the trunk to try to breathe. We came to an immigration checkpoint. I could hear the dogs barking, and I thought they were going to open up the trunk of the car. I kind of wanted them to open the trunk ’cause we couldn’t breathe. We were in a small car, three of us sweaty and hot,” he says.

They drove up to the Orange County city of Santa Ana, where Sotelo’s uncles were waiting for him and where he would begin his new life in the States.

Sotelo’s nickname, Piolín (“Tweety Bird”), came from longtime friends who clowned him about his short stature and the big lips he now flaps effectively for radio. In a studio the size of a bedroom, Piolín jockeys to set up his next caller and hit the laugh-track buttons, a staple on his show. Meanwhile, his crew of seven producers and sketch players — hailing from places as varied as Mexico, El Salvador and Peru — is armed with laptops and busy managing different aspects of the show, including writing, on-air participation, special effects and instant Google searches, which help Piolín move his show along. Peruvian-born Luis Garibay sets up gunshot sound effects like a court stenographer: Cock, Cock, BOOM! This is especially effective on the Piolínbomba, where listeners call in and tell their jokes. Piolín is the main character, but the show also features a full lineup of characters with distinct personalities: Chela Prieto, a single mother of two; Don Poncho del Codo Agarrado, an old retired politician who firmly believes men are superior to women; Casimiro Buena Vista Mira Lejos, the town drunk; El Talpujas; Chipilín; Culantro; and 14-year-old Telorino. The show comprises chistes (jokes), bromas (pranks) and crank calls that are at times sexual in content but generally in good taste and good fun.

Today Piolín calls up the manager of an apartment complex and complains that the neighbors above make love all night and that he can’t get any sleep.

“Hello, yes I can’t sleep,” he tells the manager in broken English, “Here, listen.”

Piolín pretends to put the phone up to the neighbors’ wall and plays the sound of a squeaking bed.

Marcela Luevanos, who also does news and traffic, gamely simulates enthusiastic copulation.

“My grandmother asks me questions about the noise and I don’t know what to say,” Piolín tells the manager, “and my dog won’t stop barking because of the squeaking.”

The crew is laughing hysterically, though the manager seems really concerned: “Okay, sir, I’ve heard enough.”

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