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The Radio Host Hispanics Love - And Love To Hate

by Elizabeth Llorente

March 19, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE RECORD. All Rights Reserved.

The caller praised Jennifer Lopez's lean, green dress, the one that drew gasps at the Grammy Awards.

But Gerson Borrero, the host of Spanish-language WADO-AM's "Bajo Fuego" show had heard enough.

The barely clad Lopez was no role model for Latinas, Borrero thundered. Lopez and the caller were "pathetic," he said. It was unfortunate that Lopez is, like Borrero, Puerto Rican , he fumed.

"What other stupidities do you plan to say?" he demanded of the caller.

And that was a mild moment on Borrero's show.

For three hours every weekday afternoon, 4 to 7, Borrero hurls his opinions like grenades across the airwaves.

In recent days, he blamed New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for encouraging police to be abusive, called him a fascist, and renamed him "General Pinochet," after the former Chilean dictator. Borrero called President Clinton the "sicko in the White House" because of his notorious libido. He chastised Democratic Rep. Nydia Velazquez of New York for "lacking the political ovaries" to stand up against U.S. military exercises on the island of Vieques . And when a caller condemned homosexuality as un-Christian, Borrero asked him for proof of Jesus sexual orientation.

Borrero and his show are sending seismic reactions across Latino communities in New Jersey and New York.

Although shock radio is not novel to English-speaking audiences, it stuns many Latinos particularly immigrants who hail from deeply conservative cultures that revere public figures and where media stay away from controversy.

"Our culture and Spanish-language media is too concerned with revering political leaders and people in the public eye," said Borrero, who is 49 and possesses the kind of baritone voice that turns heads in restaurants. "Too many people in our community believe you shouldn't say certain things that are true out loud, in public, because you'll offend.

Who cares if you offend, if it's the truth?

"I'm the one who tells the emperor that he's wearing no clothes and that he's ugly."

People affected by hypertension or heart conditions say they ration their dose of Borrero out of fear they will collapse. A few make the sign of the cross or clutch their chests when Borrero utters something they deem blasphemous or outrageous.

Daniel Ortiz, the program director, fields the calls of praise and complaints about Borrero. Ortiz, who persuaded Borrero to do the show two years ago, said:

"Hispanics don't respond well to shock talk. It's still very rare in our community. People say, How can you let someone disrespect congressmen and the president on the air like that?" Ortiz, who lives in Jersey City and is a veteran of Spanish-language radio, said: "When Gerson is on the air, the radio is not background noise. I don't think there's another Latino show like Gerson's in the country."

Borrero's audience has been climbing steadily, earning his show a strong 3.2 share of the total market, compared with 1.9 early last year.

Put another way, a sampling taken in January 1999 of a 15-minute period of the program recorded 30,000 listeners. A similar sampling this past January showed the number of listeners had soared to 92,000.

In May, Borrero's reach will balloon northward to Boston and southward to Virginia, when WADO 1280 on the AM dial expands from 12,500 watts to 50,000.

Saying what others dare only to think

Borrero's fans praise his style as refreshing and important. They note that he often uses his firebrand mien for worthy causes, urging Hispanics to vote and to fill out their census forms. They take his more brash moments in stride, finding them entertaining.

To them, Borrero is the incorrigibly candid cousin who blurts what others dare only think.

Flor Amelia Morales of North Bergen thought radio was boring until a friend suggested she listen to Borrero. Now the 56-year-old office worker is hooked on the show.

"I learn a lot from Gerson Borrero about problems facing the Hispanic community that I just don't get from other media," Morales said. "He attacks ignorance. He's in your face. He forces us to deal with things in our communities that aren't pleasant."

Ruben Dario Vargas of Manhattan arranged a 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. work shift in order to catch Borrero at 4. "Whether or not I like what he says, I respect him for speaking his mind," said Vargas, who is 45 and Dominican. "He's not hypocritical. You get honesty, warts and all."

But many Hispanics condemn Borrero's style as inflammatory and tasteless, more upsetting than productive. They decry Borrero's slang- laced speaking manner as unbecoming a radio host. Occasionally, a caller demands that he speak "correct, radio-announcer" Spanish.

"He makes my blood boil," said David Bernal, a normally pacific Colombian immigrant who lives in Teaneck and is active in Hispanic community affairs. "I try not to listen to him. He riles me up, puts me in a foul mood. He's not respectful, he's negative. He may bring up things that are important, but he approaches them in extreme ways, all for the sake of ratings."

Borrero balks at such criticism. He says he is not interested in sounding like another ivory tower pundit, with no connection to real life.

Borrero sees himself as the Hispanic Everyman the guy from the isla ( Puerto Rico ) or from el barrio who happens to have a microphone at the oldest of New York's Spanish-language stations.

"I ride the subways, the buses, I pay rent and worry about the price of groceries," said Borrero, who lives in the Bronx with his wife and two children. "I am not going to get on the air and try to sound like someone who I am not. I want to be the person in your living room, talking the way people talk in their homes." On air, a volcano that's ready to erupt

Those who know Borrero well say his style is no shtick.

Borrero's no-holds-barred candor, they note, has been a cornerstone of the columns he has penned for many years for the Spanish-language daily newspaper El Diario-La Prensa. His wife, who is deputy director of press affairs for the New York City Housing Authority, nearly got fired twice because of her husband's columns lashing Giuliani, Borrero said.

Ortiz said Borrero runs on passion and a burning commitment to fighting injustice.

"Gerson is very emotional," Ortiz said. "He's cried when a caller talks about a terminal illness. And when he gets mad about what a caller is saying, I've seen his lips and legs tremble. It's like watching a volcano that's ready to erupt."

Recently, after a hectic day as the acting editor of El Diario-La Prensa, Borrero bolted out of the downtown office to hail a cab to WADO's studio on Madison Avenue.

Although he was running late, Borrero stopped to hold doors and greet El Diario employees.

As usual, Borrero whose show does not have a producer had only a sketchy idea about what theme would dominate that day's show.

"The people I pass when I'm leaving El Diario always ask me what I'm doing on the show that day," said Borrero, sporting a suede fedora with a feather on the side. "I tell them I don't know. It's totally from the gut."

Shortly before the red "On Air" sign flashed in the studio, Borrero perched his gold-rimmed reading glasses on his nose, leaned forward in his chair, and cleared his throat three times. With fire in his eyes, he was poised for combat.

The opening target was Darryl Strawberry, who had just been suspended from Major League Baseball for a year after failing a drug test.

"He can go to hell," Borrero said, tapping his foot and flailing his arms. "He has a problem, he needs to get it cured, then he should get another job! Out! Out!"

The problem, he continued stopping to make a snorting sound into the microphone is that people are too willing to overlook the serious transgressions of public figures.

"Think!" he said, jabbing an index finger in the air, "Think of the signals we're giving our young! . . . We're preaching moral values to the world in our boxer shorts!"

A man from Queens lauded Borrero's show and voiced agreement with everything he had said. Borrero listened, expressionless, until the man mentioned homosexuality a taboo subject in many Hispanic communities and described it as anti-Christian.

Borrero responded that it was wrong to try to stop people from entering into same-sex relationships, and that a more pressing concern should be "heterosexuals who are immoral . . . and a poison in our society."

How did the caller know Jesus sexual orientation? he demanded.

"You want to call it blasphemous, call it blasphemous," Borrero said. "I don't know if he was a homosexual or heterosexual. . . . He was on earth for 33 years. He had to do something for pleasure." Even as a schoolboy, fiery and rebellious.

To be sure, long before anyone put a microphone before him, Borrero shocked with his verbal missiles. Even as a child, Borrero recalled with satisfaction, his thoughts and feelings steamrolled out of his mouth.

"This rebellion isn't new," he said. "I've always been this way."

Growing up in the Bronx, he was argumentative in school, never hesitant to disagree vehemently with teachers. To this day, he wonders how he managed to get good grades.

He braved what he described as a racist gantlet every day while walking to and from school.

"Irish and Italian kids called me an ethnic slur and kicked my ass every day," Borrero said. "This country is very racist. I hit them right back. But it was almost more scary to get home and face my grandmother. She'd get mad at me for coming home with ruined clothes."

Borrero, who was born in Puerto Rico , came to New York when he was 4. He and his brother were raised by their single mother, Noelia Maldonado, who toiled at a jewelry factory and sold Avon products.

"There's nothing wrong with welfare if you need it," Borrero said.

"But my mother was determined to earn a living and support us. She wanted the best for us; she is a very strong woman."

His mother dealt well with her son's notorious candor until he and a "big, huge, and heavy teacher" named Mrs. Hunter crossed paths when he was 10.

The teacher got so furious with Borrero that she pulled his ears, digging her nails into them, he said. He was so appalled that he took a milk tray and threw it at her.

Soon, he found himself on a plane to Puerto Rico .

"My mother said she just couldn't control me," Borrero said. "One day she told me she was sending me to Puerto Rico for a few years."

His mother, who is 72 and lives in Vineland, refuses to listen to his show. If she happens to walk into a room where it is on, Borrero said, she swiftly turns the dial to another station.

"She knows how I am," he said. "She, better than anyone, knows this is me. But she's a very traditional person. She thinks I'm too bold, and she thinks that because of my boldness, someday something bad is going to happen to me."

Borrero says he receives threats but just tosses them in the trash, because they are not signed.

"I don't pay attention to cowards who say threatening things, in letters or phone calls, but don't identify themselves," he said.

"Everything I've ever said or written has had the name Gerson Borrero on it very clearly."

Cuban exiles can attest to that. A group of exiles is planning to boycott WADO over what they consider anti-Cuban slights during shows about Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy who survived a shipwreck that killed his mother in her attempt to reach the United States.

Borrero, who thinks the United States should return the boy to his father in Cuba, accused some exile groups of using the issue "to raise money for their own benefit."

Cuban-exile callers, many of whom advocate keeping the boy in the United States, engaged in almost daily barbs with Borrero on the radio.

They accused Borrero of being pro-Castro, which he says is untrue, and told him not to meddle in Cuban-exile affairs.

Borrero called them mequetrefes ("babbling pests") and turbas ("mobs"). He charged them with being as oppressive as Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Callers from other Latino communities joined in the criticism of the Cubans.

Jose Manuel Alvarez, a Cuban-American and an aide to Rep. Robert Menendez, D-Union City, said: "The success of Cubans in this country is hated by certain people who are envious. They like what he says because they want to hate. What he did with programs about Elian was divide the Hispanic community, turn one group against the other.

"We ignored his insults at the beginning," said Alvarez, who plans to participate in the boycott and has called WADO to complain about Borrero. "But now the Cuban community is fed up. Once you insult and attack and reduce yourself to name-calling, insight and dialogue end, and a war begins."

Borrero shakes his head over the reaction of the Cuban exiles.

"That's one group I'm talking about a part of the community that's been hard," he said. "Do I wish that Elian could be with his father in a country where he might have more freedom and live a better life? Of course. I'm just saying that at this point, the 6-year-old child needs to be with his father. But those mequetrefes don't want to hear that.

"I am not anti-Cuban," he added. "I am an equal-opportunity offender."

If there is one thing that unsettles program director Ortiz about the "Bajo Fuego" show, which translates to "Under Fire," it's the name-calling.

"I thought that his comment about Nydia Velazquez's ovaries was going a bit too far," Ortiz said. "I don't want to change Gerson. I would never censor him. I'd ruin him

if I did. But I want him to control himself when he's talking to people, not use insults." Borrero said he has tried to heed Ortiz's advice, but failed.

He just doesn't see how "dummy," "imbecile," and "ignoramus" constitute insults, he said. "If someone is an imbecile, a pest, or a dummy, it's not an insult, it's the truth about what they are.

"It's about honesty," he said, "sending my message out in crystal- clear language. Some people might hate my guts, my irreverence.

But they can be sure that what they get from Gerson Borrero is from the heart and gut."

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