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Let's talk about sexo: Spanish-language radio beats Howard Stern and takes over the airwaves.

It's 7:00 Monday morning. On a Spanish-language radio station, DJs Luis Jimenez and Moonshadow tell listeners, "Llamanos y cuentanos lo que sucedio en el fin de semana" ("Call us to tell us what happened over the weekend"). The responses?

Male Caller; "This weekend, my wife and I finally found the chica we've been seeking for a threesome; she was too nervous to go through with it, but she said she wants to learn and my wife's willing to teach her, bro'!"

Female Caller: "My man, an older guy, took me from behind. I'd heard it was gonna hurt 'cause that end is so tight. But, oh, I was enchanted! Bliss, delicious."

Welcome to Spanish wake-up radio. The last decade has seen a boom in Spanish-language radio shows that are mostly about sexo. DJs and callers discuss dildos, anal sex, group sex and not getting sex. Although no one--not activists, academics or community leaders--can readily agree on what all this raunchy sex talk means for Latinos, everyone is worried. And one thing is for certain: Howard Stern can't keep up with it. New York's leading Spanish radio show beat Stern's blunt sex talk in Arbitron ratings in 2003 and 2004. This sexy radio is not the only type of Spanish radio programming in the morning, but this format--with its emphasis on spontaneous chatter over news or music--is exploding on the airwaves.

At a moment when mainstream America seems to be abandoning radio for digital cable and the Internet, Latinos are invigorating the dial more than ever. The number of Spanish-language radio stations across the United States jumped from a mere 49 in 1980 to more than 645 last year. According to Arbitron, radio's rating monitoring system, this is happening in all Latino communities, across lines of class, language and background. It is no small matter that the hottest Spanish language radio format is the four- or five-hour block ending at 10:00 or 11:00 a.m. (the time for these shows). Or that the group most likely to be listening is the highly coveted tier of 18-49 year olds. These radio talk shows are targeting a crucial audience for whom sexuality is key.

A sampling of twenty hours worth of listening from a now-defunct station yielded constant references to intercourse, masturbation, homosexuality, nymphomania, anal sex, group sex, sexual blackmail and violence. Some parts left me cheering, since they offered a bit of sex education that most listeners will likely never get. Others were so insulting, vulgar and homophobic that I had to shut off the radio.

So, what are we to think of the popularity of such talk shows? Does it reflect anything about the sexuality of millions of Latino listeners?

Waking Up to Sex

The leading show nowadays in New York City is El Vacilon de la Manana on WSKQ 97.9 La Mega. El Vacilon (depending on whom you ask it means "The Big Ass Party" or "The Big Goof-Off") airs on weekdays from 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. The show is hosted by two Puerto Ricans, Luis Jimenez and Raymond Broussard (who goes by the DJ name of Moonshadow). The show broadcasts in a fast-paced, urban Spanish and Spanglish. It's meant to be hip and modern, yet it ends up being quite traditional. In both its hosting and audience (at least as represented by callers), the show feels masculine. The DJs boast and encourage (hetero) sexual bravado; a show may start with host or listener "confessions" or jokes about deflowering virgins, overpowering wives or girlfriends who are into unwanted sexual behaviors or a secret experience--one that usually contains transgressive undertones, hinting at homoeroticism or other highly taboo sexual topics.

Each segment begins with a sexualized parody. Using the scores of popular Spanish language songs, whether romantic ballads or the recent craze of reggaeton, the hosts turn the lyrics into new songs that often speak of male genital mutilation or just plain having sex. Although sexual discourse is not present 100 percent of the time every day of the week, it is not uncommon for the four-hour block to contain eight different segments that include "crazy news," listener stories, jokes, matchmaking and parodies that are all about sex.

Available on the Web, El Vacilon leads among dozens of other shows on other stations with a similar format, appeal and even name--many owned by the same few companies. A national phenomenon, these shows thrive in New York, Miami, Chicago, L.A., Houston and other cities with sizable Latino populations. They attract millions of fans daily across the country and internationally, "shock jockeying" their way on the air with graphic and sensational sexual talk. Republicans and the Christian Right, both of which have made headway in Latino communities as sexual and social conservatives, would be aghast to hear some of these antics, because little--if anything--is left to the imagination.

In the United States, Latinos are generally clunked together as socially conservative. This assessment is not all imaginary, as many--if not most--Latin American countries have no real church/state separation and still outlaw divorce, abortion and homosexuality; unofficially there's still much value placed on female chastity, a sort of "sexual silence," and sexual morality, albeit a double standard for women and men. So it seems radical that radio stations catering to those communities here in the U.S. are talking about sex. For example, on El Vacilon, the hosts recently took calls from two female listeners who were interested in having sex with women. The hosts tried to pair them up, just as they do with callers seeking heterosexual partners. Isn't this--supporting women's same-sex desire--a step forward for the Latino community?

Monica Taher, director of the People of Color Media Project at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, doesn't think so. "I don't consider that positive," Taher said. "This doesn't help eliminate the taboo. They're still talking about lesbianism in a sensationalized manner."

Taher may be on to something here. Not surprisingly, for shows that are focused on sex, the idea of nymphomania is a favorite topic of discussion. However, the DJs and callers are more interested in maintaining the status quo than actually empowering people about sex. On the now defunct show Coco y Celines, which rivaled El Vacilon, hosts and callers expressed their anxieties about an active female libido, showing that the concept of women wanting sex, asking for it and having the power and willingness to get it from multiple partners is seen as a threat. Some of the talk about nymphomania went something like this:

DJ: "Ladies and gentlemen, today in the news is the story of the woman in the Bronx who slept with over 300 firefighters since 9/11. That's what I call a nymphomaniac! Call us and tell us if you've had experiences with women who like sex. A man with a woman wanting a lot of sex has little recourse but to kill her' cause she can't be trusted. Call and tell us your story, your experience with a woman like that."

These radio stations are also not changing the racialized image of a mythical hot Latino. In one segment on El Vacilon, a young man told of an escapade with a stranger, a "white woman on the subway," who approached him asking if he was "Latin." When he acknowledged his Dominican background, the woman immediately took him home, the caller said, because she knew "that she was in for a treat, given the well-known prowess of Dominican males." The hosts cackled in agreement.

Sex Education or Miseducation?

Social scientists have found that ethnic media plays an important role for its immigrant audiences. Not just radio but television have impacted the way that immigrants talk about sex. As sociologist Gloria Gonzalez-Lopez writes in Erotic Journeys, her new book about the sex lives of Mexican immigrants, "Talk shows represent a meaningful source of information, and, at their best, they have the potential to provide powerful means for sexual liberation in the community." Radio, unlike TV, however also offers interaction--and an anonymous one at that. Simultaneously, radio allows immigrants to talk about subjects that would be unspeakable in their own homelands. In this way, radio gives them a chance to find answers.

Carlos Ulises Decena, an assistant professor of Women and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, is cautious but thinks that these radio shows could be used in a beneficial way to discuss sex. "We don't talk enough about sex and we shouldn't be ashamed of the sexual conversation, but we should take advantage of [the radio's popularity] to provide broad sex education."

Indeed, sex education, if any, is only a small feature of these shows. One radio station used to carry a 10-minute segment "Hagasela a Nancy" (a suggestive play on words that in Spanish means "Ask Nancy" or "Do Nancy"), which provided sexual information through a call-in Q & A format. But the show ran only on a weekly basis. Despite the segment's informative qualities (with questions ranging from the appropriateness of masturbation to anal sex to female ejaculation answered non-judgmentally by the "Latina Dr. Ruth," Nancy Alvarez, a Dominican-born psychologist whose sexpertise has brought her fame and fortune), such talk paled in comparison to the racy jokes and "surveys" abundant on the show.

More troublesome than the absence of sex ed is the presence of miseducation. Recently on a segment of El Vacilon called "What works for others but not for you?", a male caller complained about being allergic to latex condoms. The host's horrifying reply was, "Wear a lambskin one, instead!" It's a vivid example of the authority that these celebrity DJs carry and the threat they can pose, since lambskin condoms are porous and unsafe. Although it is interesting to note that on the show's main webpage (www.elvacilon.com), there is a public service advertisement about the "7 Best Condoms." At least there, extensive information about proper latex condom use is provided. Of course, it's hard to say how many Latinos are logging onto this health information.

Sex Talk Is Lucrative

With this sex talk programming, media conglomerates have intentionally targeted Latino audiences. According to Mari Castaneda Paredes, assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, who is currently working on a book about Latino media, Spanish radio is quite lucrative for many reasons.

"First, there isn't a lot of regulatory oversight with these kinds of programs," she said, "The FCC lacks the capacity to monitor their content, which allows the shows to become more outrageous. This is also a cheap kind of programming, inexpensive to produce, since the format doesn't require a lot of planning. This leads to a higher profit margin. And since the talk attracts so many listeners and drives up ratings, it also attracts advertisers."

She also indicated that due to deregulation in the '90s, the media industry is concentrated in the hands of a few companies. For instance, Univision, which recently merged with the Hispanic Broadcasting Corporation, to form Univision Radio, owns 96 percent of the top radio markets nationally. The hundreds of billions of dollars accumulated by the radio industry, which has grown exponentially in the last few years, show that indeed talk may be cheap, but oh so rewarding!

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The boom in Spanish sex talk on the radio has also already faced a backlash by some community leaders and the Federal Communications Commission, which see the discourse as a violation of obscenity and decency standards. "Those efforts toward community action on this issue are being started by listeners," said Alex Nogales, head of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, a nonprofit organization that seeks to create opportunities for Latinos in the field of media and to dispel media myths about Latinos. Nogales heads a campaign called Radio Pornografia to mobilize listeners to respond against "indecent" broadcasts and seek FCC intervention in what he sees as a medium out of control.

"Good sex education is good for our community," Nogales said. "It's something we haven't had in a long time, but this can't be it. If people have a desire to consume pornography, they should do it privately, not expose my grandchildren to this. This is very public, and it's all about ratings."

The monitoring of Spanish radio stations will likely continue to pose a challenge for regulators; for one thing, said Castaneda Paredes. "The bureaucratic FCC only has one Spanish-speaking person out of twenty investigators. There isn't a lot of oversight here." For another, she continued, "This industry is growing more rapidly than ever before--faster than policymakers at the FCC can understand," which means that they are unable to address the issues of growth, fast consolidation and monitoring for content--all worrisome--quickly enough.

In this vacuum, sex talk on Spanish-language radio becomes a political football. Activists and community leaders seem to agree about the potential harm of this format, though they differ in motivation or strategy for reform. For Decena, the issue, just like for Taher, is prejudice against women and the sexually marginalized. But he is wary of blanket repression. "My problem with the shows is not that they talk about sex," he said, "but that they're so homophobic. These people need to know that it's not okay to denigrate women and gays. But censorship is not the only answer. There's an opportunity to do good sex education here and have an honest conversation. There's the potential to be educational. Health workers should be celebrating that sex is being talked about. The medium is already there." He believes there needs to be a shift from alarm and censorship to using the highly effective medium or radio as a tool for sexual health intervention.

Divergent views about how to address or even think of this phenomenon are ultimately political. Some are invested in an antiseptic public image of Latinos, upholding the one-dimensional idea of a "family-oriented people," apparently devoid of sexuality beyond reproduction. Others believe that with Latinos' growing social, economic and political power in the U.S. comes a certain responsibility to shed traditional (and repressive) ideas about gender and sexuality that undermine feminism and sexual diversity, as well as multiculturalism. And for some, there is a conviction that in order to address Latinos' sexual health issues (high rates of teenage and unwanted pregnancy and HIV infection), sexuality itself needs to be liberated.

Both community activists and academic researchers think these radio shows are dangerous. As one researcher on Latino sexuality put it. "These shows [profit] from the inequalities that surround our daily lives and in the process are at risk of misleading the audience and damaging their healthy development with regard to sexual health, love and dating relationships and intimacy."

Dulce Reyes Bonilla, a freelance writer and longtime multi-issue activist, recently researched sexual discourse on Spanish language radio for graduate work in sociology.

RELATED ARTICLE: Teens Talk Pregnancy

Radio Cadena (KDNA) serving the Yakima Valley Latino community in Washington state, has been broadcasting a live radio show for the past three years that offers youth a chance to produce and communicate sexual and reproductive health information for themselves.

The only one of the original Radio Campesino projects to survive, Radio Cadena is a project of the Northwest Communities Education Center (NCEC) that developed out of farmworker struggles in the apple orchards of eastern Washington during the early 1970s.

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They have been working on immigrant issues since the mid-'80s, later becoming known as Radio Condom for their role in HIV education and prevention.

"We've always gotten into unpopular subjects, and teen pregnancy is a very critical issue. So we thought we'd give this a try, with a base of positive values, so kids can be thinking about the future," said Amelia Ramon, a staffer at NCEC.

The live show, called Hola! Que Onda?, is created by and for 15-to-21-year-olds who have produced six mini-dramas, including two on teen pregnancy. According to station manager Gabriel Martinez, the project gave young people an opportunity to explore complex topics while improving their skills.

As part of NCEC's project on reproductive health, programs for young girls were set up with the school district in Mabton, Washington. But as the girls started asking more explicit questions about sex, the district forced the program to change venues. Moving to a HUD housing project and co-sponsored by the Yakima Diocese of the Catholic Church, the program was recalibrated to focus on self-esteem and culture--saving the program but obscuring the sexuality content.

NCEC had better luck with the program at their Granger headquarters, where they ran sessions for 32 girls for up to 39 weeks.

"Often pregnancy is about issues of self-esteem and confidence," noted Dora Saenz, a parent volunteer. "We want the program to help them figure it out. We want them to know there are always problems, but always solutions as well, and they always have someone to confide in, so they are not alone."

One critical lesson for NCEC staff was realizing that parents needed to be engaged early in the process and their support won for the program.

"A lot of the moms, when we brought them in for the Planned Parenthood meeting, they didn't know some of the current birth control that's out there," said program coordinator Berta Balli. "A lot of them were talking about how their moms didn't talk to them, so they found it awkward to talk to their daughters. So they'd rather know someone is giving them accurate information. The important thing is to have that connection with the parents."

Kim Fellner is a long-time union and community organizer.

By Kim Fellner
COPYRIGHT 2005 Color Lines Magazine
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Author:Bonilla, Dulce Reyes
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2005
Words:2930
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