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Cranky old Don Cheto has rivals on the run

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Jorge Flores, a young trucker who was born and raised in Los Angeles, used to listen to Power 106’s Big Boy because he was irritated by the corny jokes and canned laugh tracks common to Piolin and El Cucuy, whose shows are also raunchier and more raucous. But Don Cheto, he says, is for real. He even reminds Flores of his immigrant father, who echoed the radio character when scolding his son for getting tattoos.

“As soon as I get to work I start my truck and tune my radio to Don Cheto,” says Flores, 23. “He just cracks me up, dude. He’s a good actor, bro. A very good actor.”

The real Don Cheto

Listeners are so attuned to Don Cheto’s story that they call the station to correct biographical errors that inevitably happen because Razo is constantly improvising on the air, six hours a day, six days a week. “No, Don Cheto,” an indignant caller will say, “you only have one daughter so don’t go around saying you have two.” Razo doesn’t like to reveal his identity because some people are shocked and disappointed, like discovering there’s no Santa Claus. Don Cheto always appears in public in costume -- white bushy mustache and eyebrows, traditional country hat, a guayabera shirt, a serape over his shoulder and Air Jordans on his feet. Except for the husky frame, which is real, the character doesn’t look at all like his youthful creator, who shaves his head and has a trim dark goatee and thin mustache.

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Razo is low-key and thoughtful, an unrecognizable celebrity who wants nothing more than to spend time in his roomy suburban home near Valencia with his wife and infant son. He earned a California high school diploma, has a taste for good books and music, and drives a Lincoln Navigator (or Gabinator, as Don Cheto pronounces it).

Sometimes Razo’s personal failings -- showing up at a birthday party without a gift -- become fodder for his radio conscience to scold people who could be so thoughtless. Other times, his private observations -- watching a mother entertain her child with a bag of Cheetos in front of the TV -- provoke an on-air lecture about parents who could be so irresponsible.

Don Cheto is loud, blustery and narrow-minded; it’s always his way or the wrong way. His show is boisterous but informative, with a segment called Noti-Chet -- prepared by Razo quickly scanning websites during commercial breaks -- that’s like having Slim Pickens as news anchor.

But the old man is also deeply principled and good-hearted, with a black-and-white moral code that demands respect for elders, obedience to parental authority and allegiance to Mexican culture. He’s tries valiantly to hold onto his identity and self-respect as he struggles futilely against the Americanization of his son, who shaves his head and wears tattoos, and his daughter, a single mother raising a boy, Brian, whom Don Cheto tenderly calls Briancito.

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Don Cheto is a man fighting to shape the modern world to his will, and failing. Yet it’s a world that he set in motion the moment he decided to cross the border illegally and raise his family in the United States. Try as he might, there’s no going back. Or is there?

Juan Carlos Razo, nicknamed Juanca, was a restless boy in La Sauceda, a town of less than 10,000 surrounded by strawberry fields. He led his soccer team, recited poetry at school assemblies and assigned nicknames to all his peers, some of which have stuck to this day.

He is the oldest child of Carlos Razo, a small businessman and part-time songwriter, and Teresa Magana, a homemaker, who also have two daughters. The family was poor; their house was made of adobe with a corrugated metal roof that would blow off during storms, a fate his father saw as nature’s way of rubbing salt in the wound of their lowly social status.

After losing money in a business selling homemade marmalades, Carlos Razo decided to come to the U.S. to get back on his feet, leaving the boy in the care of his grandparents. One of them, his Abuelita Adelaida, would later serve as a model for Don Cheto’s character quirks, especially his habit of breaking into tears at the drop of a hat.

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Razo was just 16 when he decided to join his parents in El Monte, a destination for immigrants from this part of Michoacan. He says he undertook the dangerous trip alone, nearly suffocating in the trunk of a car before finally making it across on a second attempt.

Once here, Razo crammed into a modest home with his parents and sisters -- and a dozen other relatives -- forced to sleep on the floor in the living room.

After graduating from South El Monte High School, he took a job at a factory in Long Beach, turning over his paycheck to supplement his father’s minimum-wage factory job. The teen helped the family make ends meet -- until he announced he would try for a new career in radio.

Razo’s father turned to a cousin from La Sauceda, Eddie Leon, a former DJ who is now vice president of programming for the Lieberman stations. Leon referred the kid to his compadre, Ezequiel “El Cheque” Gonzalez, host of a daily afternoon show called “La Hora de los Corridos” (The Corrido Hour) on Que Buena, who took him on as an intern -- a big break with no pay.

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Taking the opportunity meant the family would have to get by without his income, and Razo remains grateful for his father’s support. He worked a year for free before finally getting to co-host his own show, on the graveyard shift from midnight to dawn. The only listeners at that hour, he recalls, were drunks who would call to request a song and threaten to shoot up the station if the DJs didn’t play it.

What would Mom say?

When he finally transferred to a daytime slot with more famous co-hosts and larger audiences, he clammed up, especially working with Rocio Sandoval, a popular afternoon DJ nicknamed “La Peligrosa” (The Dangerous One), for good reason. She insisted on trying to lure Razo, her engineer, into provocative sex talk, which had boosted the ratings of El Cucuy and others at the time.

But Razo couldn’t get himself to talk dirty because he kept worrying what his mother would think. That streak of old-fashioned modesty would become one of the traits of Don Cheto.

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“I’m no saint,” says Razo. “I’m dirtier than [Sandoval] is and most anybody else, but I just can’t transmit that on the radio. I might be a son of a gun, but Don Cheto isn’t. That’s just part of his character because that’s the way folks were in those days. They didn’t go around bragging about having a menage a trois.”

Sandoval, now on Univision’s La Nueva (101.9-FM), says Razo was charismatic and charming in private. She wanted listeners to enjoy him on the air too. “The kid has natural talent,” she says. “He just needed an avenue to develop it.”

Sandoval can take some credit for helping Razo create Don Cheto. She and Garza, her co-host at the time, would quiz Razo on the air about life in his little rancho, which had no radio station. They wondered how people found out what was going on without a local broadcaster or newspaper.

Razo then told them about the man who was like the town crier but with a microphone and big loudspeakers set up at the top of his house. With a tap and a puff on the mike to test the sound, the entertaining announcer would give news of funerals, farm meetings and the homes that had fresh pork meat for sale. Listeners instantly called in to say that’s how announcements were made in their hometowns. And Don Cheto was born.

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“To this day, I think nobody’s listening,” says Razo, “as if I were still on at midnight with all the drunks. I never really wanted to be No. 1. I just want to come to work like I do every day and have a lot of fun.”

Nowadays, La Sauceda has many modern amenities, including Internet connections in many homes. But local news is still broadcast by loudspeaker.

And there’s one more chapter of this immigrant’s success story. In 2004, the younger Razo returned to La Sauceda and found his family’s house abandoned, an eyesore at the edge of the town’s main plaza. So he tore it down and rebuilt it, using the $30,000 he had made from sales of his first record, the prophetically titled “Vamonos Pa’l Rancho” (We’re Going Back to the Ranch).

Razo, who’s now a legal resident, returned with pictures of the new three-bedroom, two-story residence and told his father, “You can go back to Mexico now. Your house is ready.”

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The family did just that. Razo’s parents and sisters moved back to the town two years ago.

Don Cheto has put La Sauceda on the map. People come from all around just to see where the lovable old character used to live. They ask his father, “Is this the house of Don Cheto?” And he proudly says yes.

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agustin.gurza@latimes.com

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