HUNTINGTON PARK, Calif. – “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.
In Tucson, the show airs on KEVT-AM (1030).
This means that in an election year when the elusive Hispanic voter could be crucial, Sotelo has the presidential candidates’ ear.
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 music.
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 immigration reform.
“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 every 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 too-small house.
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 difference.”
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 Congress.
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 Center.
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 Center.
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 Hispanic Center.
“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 country.
“A que venimos?” he asks. ‘Why did we come?’
“A triunfar!” his staff yells — ‘To succeed!’