Making Radio Waves

The new voice of immigrant rights

It was well past noon when Eduardo Sotelo’s SUV rolled up to a crowded loading dock in Los Angeles. By the luck of an on-air drawing earlier in the day, the employees of this sheet metal plant had won a coveted Sotelo taquiza, or taco party. When they spotted the white suv, decorated with a supersized reproduction of Sotelo, they began chanting “Pi-o-lín! Pi-o-lín!” which translates as “Tweety Bird! Tweety Bird!” a childhood moniker bestowed upon Sotelo for his large lips and diminutive stature. The nickname has stuck with him as the host of one of the most popular radio shows in the country.

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Though most non-Spanish-speakers have never heard of it, “Piolín por la Mañana” (“Tweety Bird in the Morning”) is beamed daily from Los Angeles’ La Nueva 101.9 and some 20 other stations throughout the West to more than 1 million listeners. Until recently, the seven-hour broadcast was best known for its lively mix of humor, norteño and banda music, and the occasional taquiza giveaway. Then, in early March, Sotelo agreed to help publicize a protest of a proposed House bill that would turn undocumented immigrants into felons. For weeks, he and other Spanish-language radio personalities he had recruited blanketed the airwaves with announcements and discussions promoting the event. On March 26, around 400,000 protesters descended on downtown Los Angeles in an unexpected display of political muscle that energized the Latino community. Soon afterward, the Senate and President Bush started discussing a compromise measure that included none of the draconian proposals approved by the House. All thanks, in no small part, to Piolín.

Piolín has drawn the attention of politicians and power brokers hoping to tap into his audience’s newfound clout. Cardinal Roger Mahony has called in to the show several times to lead on-air prayer sessions and guide listeners through a fast to emphasize humility while seeking immigration rights. Sotelo says he hasn’t heard from any Democrats who might want to take advantage of his ability to mobilize potential voters. But Luis Miranda, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, says Sotelo’s role is valuable: “He has taken a strong stand. It’s about families and communities of people who are outraged at the attempt to scapegoat people who are here to work hard. Piolín is bringing that message to a diversity of people.”

Still, “Piolín por la Mañana” is not agenda radio. It springs from neither Rush Limbaugh nor Air America. It is entertainment radio from which a political consciousness, one that is not easily categorized, is taking shape. Sotelo is not an ideologue, and as he points out, he does not have U.S. citizenship and therefore cannot vote. His goal, he says, is simply to secure legal status for all undocumented immigrants. But the means to this end, as envisioned by Sotelo, are far from revolutionary, and instead hinge on patience, spiritual enlightenment, and personal accountability. For Sotelo, the big productions, marches, and protests are impressive displays that draw attention and catalyze communities. But, he argues, those marches are meaningless unless they inspire individual action. “If somebody does not agree with us,” he says, “demonstrate with work, with positive actions. We have to win the privilege of citizenship. And we have to respect all the laws.” And as the politicians take notice, Sotelo proceeds with caution. “I have to be careful because I have a big responsibility,” he explains. “I’m not going to do something just because somebody asks me to if I don’t believe in it. I need to feel it in my heart for it to happen.”

He took a guarded position, for instance, in the controversy over the May 1 walkout in support of immigrants’ rights, at first opposing the work boycott on grounds that it would hurt the economy. But as his listeners weighed in, he changed his mind. On the day of the boycott, he canceled his show and appeared at a rally in downtown L.A., where he told the members of an enthusiastic crowd that they should work to become citizens.

Sotelo attributes his passionate connection with his fans to his personal experience as an immigrant. His own border crossing was typically horrific. At 16, he narrowly escaped the hounding of a border patrol helicopter north of Tijuana, then packed himself into the airless trunk of a car with two others, where they remained, faint and gasping, for an hours-long journey. For a time, he lived with his family in a garage without a bathroom, working jobs at a car wash and a photo-developing shop. He got his break on the graveyard shift of a community radio station and, using a forged green card, worked his way up to bigger jobs until immigration agents tracked him down. The station where Sotelo worked at the time put its lawyers on the case, and at the eleventh hour, just as he thought he would be deported to his native Jalisco, approval for his residency came through.

Sitting in the taquiza truck, Sotelo bowed his head in prayer. “Dear God,” he began, “thank you for what you’re doing in Washington. Thank you for letting us be the light that you give us in our hearts.”

Whether or not he chooses to continue to use the devotion of his legion of fans for political ends, Sotelo clearly has the power to do so. When he emerged from the suv, a group of women screaming “Piolín!” closed in. The one closest to him thrust a Sharpie his way and yanked the collar of her shirt down, making room for him to scrawl “Piolín” across her upper chest. A few moments later, he leaped atop the suv’s roof and began gyrating. The crowd laughed as someone shouted, “Viva Piolín!”

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