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Cranky old Don Cheto has rivals on the run

December 09, 2007|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

DON CHETO is in the final stretch of his six-hour morning radio show, and you can feel another rant coming on. The roly-poly old man with the white hair and bushy mustache is a cranky country character who came here from a small town in Mexico years ago and hasn't stopped railing against the world ever since. On this particular morning, he's confronting his young on-air partner, Marlene Quinto, on one of his many pet peeves -- how women's liberation has ruined the lives of men.

Women don't know how to cook anymore, Don Cheto grouses into the microphone at the Burbank studios of station La Que Buena, (KBUE-FM 105.5). They don't know how to sew or even how to make a home remedy for a sick child without running out in the middle of the night to the "Reetay."

"The Rite-Aid," says Marlene, patiently correcting his mangled English for the millionth time.

"El Whot-eber," retorts Don Cheto.

Don Cheto may come off as a country bumpkin, a hard-headed but sentimental Mexican hillbilly who wishes things could be like they were in his little rural town of La Sauceda, Michoacan. But he's no fool. The character, as played by 27-year-old immigrant Juan Carlos Razo, has become the latest talk-show sensation in the highly competitive world of Spanish-language radio.

Part of the show's appeal rests on the humorous but realistic way it reflects the culture clash between immigrants and their U.S.-raised children, a drama played out daily in thousands of households across Southern California. For that, the cool, Spanglish-speaking Quinto serves as the perfect foil for the traditional Don Cheto, who fumes over her irredeemably Americanized ways.

"Women have forgotten the meaning of marital devotion," he continues on the air in Spanish, his burly frame rocking back and forth in his swivel chair as his blood starts boiling, his arms flailing, his big belly shaking. "Don't you feel in your heart, in that cholesterol-laden heart of yours, Mar-leeny, don't you feel the desire to say, 'I'm going to learn to make some chilaquiles, or just a darn fried egg with chile, so when I get married I can tell my old man (switching again to what he considers English), 'Seen dow, pleeze, my hoosbahn. Seen dow.' (Sit down, please, my husband). Don't you feel that?"

Quinto says no, and the shock sends Don Cheto into a gasping fit. Men just want women to be their maids, she counters, and thank God those days are over.

At this point, the deflated DJ lets out a high-pitched squeal, followed by whimpering and sniffling. Don Cheto is having another of his frequent crying jags.

"Why are you crying, Don Cheto?" she asks.

"For the poor guy who's going to get married to you," he says, sobbing into the microphone.

In recent years, the Don Cheto franchise has spun off hit songs and a super-silly daily variety show on KRCA-TV Channel 62, owned by Lieberman Broadcasting, which also owns La Que Buena. But it's radio where Don Cheto rules. With his combination of folksy commentary, zany skits and listener calls, he now ranks third in his time slot among young adults in the overall L.A. market, closing in on the current drive-time leader, Piolin Por La Manana, and leaving in the dust the onetime king of Latino talk radio, El Cucuy, Renan Almendarez Coello. Second place belongs to KROQ-FM, the only English-language station in the top three within the target 18-to-34 demographic.

For the networks, the rivalry represents a high-stakes race for ad dollars. But for Razo, who came here illegally as a teenager 12 years ago and broke into radio by working for a year with no pay, it's a garras-to-riches achievement. He has touched a chord with the massive immigrant audience that shares his hardscrabble origins and yearns for the old-fashioned virtues and simple lifestyle they left behind in places like La Sauceda, Razo's actual hometown, not far from Guadalajara.

"Sometimes," says Razo, speaking in Spanish during a recent interview, "we forget that the majority of the people who listen to the radio never went beyond sixth grade and are busting their butts every day here in the worst kind of jobs. So they yearn for anything that reminds them of where they came from, and that nostalgia is a big part of what makes Don Cheto popular, because people say, 'He's a lot like my uncle, he sounds like my grandfather, he's just like my neighbor back home.' "

Every little town and rancho in Mexico has its own Don Cheto, beloved as a wise old sage or tolerated as the town fool. Razo channels the character so perfectly that many listeners believe he really exists.

"I see him a little like an author whose characters take on a life of their own," says Pepe Garza, the station's program director. "He has the power of observation and an uncanny talent for impersonation."

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