Ricardo Sanchez was a young radio host in Ensenada when the station owner decided that he was a guy in need of a nickname. A producer was put on the case.
The producer stared through the studio window as Sanchez — short and pudgy, not exactly early Ricardo Montalban — worked. He listened to Sanchez's voice, took a stroll to the garden and had a smoke, deep in thought.
"I have your name now," the producer told him the next day, snapping his fingers. "You're a mandrill!"
And that's how Sanchez became a baboon-like monkey: El Mandril.
It's a nickname to keep anyone humble, but El Mandril is on a roll that would challenge anyone's humility. In June, the 47-year-old Mexican immigrant became the top-rated local morning radio host, beating Ryan Seacrest and Rush Limbaugh — and, most notably, Spanish-language radio celebrity Eddie "Piolin" Sotelo.
Sanchez's cellphone was inundated with congratulatory calls, including one from Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has proclaimed himself a fan.
"I like him a lot. I've been around a lot of famous radio or TV folks, and some are more genuine than others," Garcetti said. "He's as real as they get."
Radio is full of braggarts and blowhards and screamers. Sanchez's listeners at the Spanish-language station KLAX-FM (97.9) La Raza expect the usual high-jinks and interviews with celebrities, sprinkled with regional Mexican music. But they want one thing in particular: for him to be, at least a little, like them.
FOR THE RECORD:
El Mandril: In the Sept. 27 Section A, an article about KLAX radio host Ricardo "El Mandril" Sanchez stated that former Univision radio host Eddie "Piolin" Sotelo was fired. Sotelo was not fired. Univision started an investigation following a sexual harassment complaint and canceled Sotelo's show. His departure was part of a negotiated settlement.
Many are recent immigrants, often living here illegally. More than the Internet and television, radio is a medium his audience can take with them everywhere — to sweatshops, in their cars and the fields.
"Radio is always going to be there," said Sanchez's manager, Fernando Schiantarelli. "As long as there is poverty, hard work and loneliness, radio will be there."
With success, there's also danger, he said: "The fame brings money, and money brings power. So there's always an attempt to destroy your humbleness."
In restaurants, on the streets, all over, people ask Sanchez for autographs and pictures. They also, with unnerving regularity, give him one piece of advice:
"People everywhere tell me, 'I hope it doesn't go to your head.' Complete strangers. Everyone."
Sitting behind his desk in West L.A. during a break one morning, Sanchez turned on his laptop to watch an episode of Matthew Perry's now-canceled NBC show "Go On." In it, Perry's radio host despairs over El Mandril's top spot in the ratings.
"I'm never going to beat El Mandril," Perry's character wails, pointing at a taunting billboard of the cackling radio host surrounded by an attractive coterie. "Look at him out there, so happy with his sexy posse. He's … amazing!"
The episode concludes with Perry's character celebrating at a bar because he's toppled El Mandril in the ratings. Moments later, the real-life radio host walks in with his posse and tells them: "Numero uno. Boys, girls, you're his now."
"Que chido," Sanchez said, turning from the laptop. "How cool."
He described arriving at the set of the show and being surrounded by "150 white people and all these blond women. And then I get there, this little black bean."
That may be the secret of his success.
I come to congratulate El Mandril, who is the No. 1."
— Actress Angelica Maria
Even if the leading men and women in his native country's popular soap operas are invariably fair-skinned and tall, Mexico is a place that prizes humility. Two of its most celebrated icons are brown-skinned symbols of the virtue: the comic tramp character Cantinflas and the Virgin of Guadalupe.
On a recent morning, Sanchez lit a votive candle in front of a framed image of the Virgin Mary before the show got underway at 5 a.m.
Then he started by discussing an Amber Alert that had gone out throughout the state, spent a segment with an immigration lawyer answering questions from callers and gave $400 to an elderly woman who was wheeled in by a priest.
He discussed a big upcoming boxing match and took congratulatory calls for being No. 1 from listeners in San Francisco, Chicago and the more than two dozen markets where his show airs. In some places, like New York, where his show does not air on radio, listeners watch him via televised podcast.
Taking on the role of a transvestite named Tatiano, Sanchez dispensed advice. The show was full of double-entendres and jokes, but none very graphic or blue.
Callers poked fun at his cholesterol and husky frame. Sanchez gave a shout-out to the many people from the Mexican state of Pueblo in New York, calling the city "Pueblayork."
Sanchez talks to listeners like they are old friends, rattling off jokes that may seem like Morse code to more Americanized Latinos. When a photographer snaps pictures of him, he begs him not to share them with immigration enforcement.
Although he lives in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, it's in Corona — far from Los Angeles' glitzier ZIP Codes. When he travels, he doesn't ask to fly first class or to stay in a five-star hotel.
But in so many ways, Sanchez's life is very different from that of his listeners. He's scheduled to have a speaking role in an animated movie produced by Guillermo Del Toro, the Mexican director of "Pacific Rim." When his contract runs out at the end of the year, he is expected to attract a line of suitors with money to throw at Los Angeles radio's top dog.
Sanchez was the youngest son in a family of nine children, born in the state of Veracruz. He grew up in Mexico City, a hyperactive youth who did every manner of odd job — selling oranges, slaughtering chickens, selling knickknacks and painting houses.
His father left when he was a child. Hanging in Sanchez's office is a drawing of his mother, Teresa. Her face is stern. Asked whether she got to see him become a success, Sanchez choked up and shook his head. She died of cancer, surrounded by images of the Virgin Mary.
"My mother always wanted her sons to bring her mariachis. But we never had the money," he said. "Look at me now. I live off of music and I could make her wish come true if she were alive."
Sanchez broke into radio at the bottom: as a janitor. Then he became an ad salesman, and when an announcer didn't show up to record a commercial, Sanchez filled in. Soon, he became a radio host, gaining a measure of fame at a station in Tijuana.
The producer who gave Sanchez his nickname told him to watch "The Lion King" for proof that the mandrill was the most quick-witted animal in the movie.
When he looked it up on the computer, Sanchez said, all he could think was: "Damn, those are some ugly gueys (fools)! .... But in the movie, they are the smartest."
Juan Carlos Hidalgo, vice president of West Coast programming for the Spanish Broadcasting System — the company that owns KLAX — was a DJ back then but also a consultant for radio stations, including some in Tijuana. He met Sanchez and was struck by his sense of humor. He told Sanchez that he would do his best to get him on the radio in the U.S.
In 2002, Sanchez crossed the border in San Diego on a tourist visa, but with the intent of working. At an immigration checkpoint, he told officials he was visiting a church in Wilmington. The priest had reluctantly agreed to give him an alibi, saying: "May God forgive us." Hidalgo found work for Sanchez as his sidekick on KLAX.
Eventually, Sanchez's wife and four children joined him in the U.S. and when another station offered him a job with help getting a work permit, he jumped at the offer.
Sanchez returned to KLAX in 2007 and in the last three years began to climb in the ratings. He was at home this summer when one of his sons told him that he was the new No. 1 radio host.
At first, Sanchez said he thought he meant he had the No. 1 Spanish-language show.
"He said, 'But also in English. You came out No. 1,' " Sanchez recalled. "I said, 'Ay caray!' I had not imagined the magnitude of how well we'd done."
Hidalgo, the KLAX executive, said he's seen other radio personalities become what he calls inalcancables — "unreachables" — after a heady dose of fame. In radio, it's something listeners can pick up on, the way sharks detect blood in the water.
"When you become a distant star, the public identifies that rapidly and goes away," he said. "I don't worry about that with him."
Sanchez has gotten even more attention since media giant Univision fired Piolin Sotelo in August. His show has replaced Sotelo's in several markets, including a station in Idaho, and his rise has been contrasted with the ratings drop Piolin experienced. Sanchez said people often ask him what he thinks about Piolin and his firing.
"I think they expect me to say something bad about him," he said. "But I have nothing to say. People think we hang out on weekends and party. But we've said 'hi' in my life like three times and just for a few minutes. I wish him well."
During a recent show, well-known Mexican actress Angelica Maria walked into the studio and threw her arms out to give Sanchez a hug.
"I come to congratulate El Mandril, who is the No. 1," the 69-year-old said.
Minutes later, after some playful flirting, Sanchez was taking off his shirt, revealing a doughy, dimpled torso as he stood next to the elegant actress, who let out a scream before giving him a quick kiss.
Near the end of the show, the actress gave Sanchez a bit of advice. Stay humble, she told Sanchez. "I hope it doesn't go to your head."
Where has he heard that before?