For years, two Spanish-language DJs have ruled the roost in Los Angeles. Now a third disc jockey, who goes by the name Don Cheto, has moved into the number two spot. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez says that listeners don't seem to care that his on-air persona, a country bumpkin delivering homespun tales and wisdom, is a total fabrication.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: Like L.A.'s two other top DJs, 27-year-old Juan Razo sneaked illegally into the United States. He was 15. His parents emigrated here from Mexico to repay debts. They told Razo to take a flight from Michoacan to Tijuana. There he found a smuggler who delivered him east of the city limits.
Juan Razo: So we start walking one hour, two, three, four, five, six, seven hours. After that, by sunset, we got to this little road, this little road. So, it's like, "Okay, a car is going to pull over really quick, so you, you, you and you are going inside the car. And you, you, you and you are going in the trunk." So I got to be in the trunk, right?
Guzman-Lopez: The Border Patrol caught him the first time, but not the second. Razo joined his parents in El Monte, and started working at a warehouse folding and bagging kids' pajamas for $130 a week.
He was a C+ student at South El Monte High School, he says, but he graduated – at about the same time he caught the radio bug. 105.5 FM, known as "Que Buena," had just hired some high-energy DJs.
Razo: My role model were these guys from Mexico, that came from Mexico to make it big in the United States. It was like Mexican radio, like "Yeah, we're here! La, la, la, la, upper, upper, upper!"
Guzman-Lopez: A friend introduced Razo to one of the station's DJs. For a year he worked as an unpaid intern, learned to operate the control board, and got an opportunity to say a few things on the air. Razo stumbled onto his current shtick after a DJ asked him if there were any interesting characters in his hometown.
"Of course," he answered – Don Cheto, a 63-year-old man who'd drive around town with a huge public address system on the roof of his car.
Razo: So, I started imitating him, the way he used to sound, like, "Yeah, hey, hey, here, I just want to remind everybody that here at Juan's house they're having pork today, so you go get the pork, you send your husband pork, not a lot of lettuce, no, little piece of meat, that's good for the body."
Guzman-Lopez: That character became so popular that station managers gave Razo an hour. Then two. Then, earlier this year, his own six-hour show in morning drive time.
[Sound of station jingle for the Don Cheto show]
Razo: So what Don Cheto basically is a grandpa, is a grandfather for a lot of the immigrants, or the guys that born here in the United States, you know.
[Sound of the Don Cheto show]
Razo: Back in the day, in Michoacan where I'm from, we talk like, instead of saying siete – which is seven – siete, we say "sietee;" we put the e at the end. "Sietee." You know, we started talking like that, grandpa style, really, really old, hillbilly.
[Sound of the Don Cheto show]
Razo: Everything Don Cheto talks about is because he knows. I mean he went through. I went through that. I went through not having money for the rent, or have to ask for a ride, or asking money for gas or have a messed up car.
Guzman-Lopez: Razo's co-host, Marlene Quinto, more or less plays herself: a twenty-something Mexican American with one foot in American culture and the other on the run from her Mexican roots. Don Cheto and Marlene debate music, fashion, boyfriends, and language. One teaches the other.
[Sound of Don Cheto show; then sound of show coming out of a clock radio]
Patricia Ortega: Recomiendo a Don Cheto...
Guzman-Lopez: Carson resident Patricia Ortega listens with her husband and four teenage girls. The radio is on from five to 11 as she's helping the family get out the door. She says Don Cheto is entertaining and wholesome enough to have on around the girls.
It's a highly polished formula that's tripled the station's 18-to-34-year-old Spanish speaking audience in its time slot. That's a gold mine for the station's ad reps. Don Cheto has displaced longtime favorite El Cucuy from the number two spot in L.A. Spanish-language radio.
And Juan Razo has straightened out his immigration status. He says Don Cheto's make-believe persona has allowed him to rise from living in a garage to parking a Lincoln Navigator in the garage at his four-bedroom house in Newhall. Razo's parents and two sisters returned to their Mexican hometown about a year ago after he built them a house there. He loves visiting them.
Razo: I mean, I could easily go today to Mexico and live the rest of my life there. Leaving everything behind; I'm really serious. I could leave the radio and my paycheck and my truck, and the house. I could go back.
Guzman-Lopez: The town reminds him of the one in his favorite novel, the Latin American epic "One Hundred Years of Solitude," with its small town characters whose stories are larger than life.