MIAMI—Spanish-language radio is fixated on the 2016 presidential campaign, sparked by Republican Donald Trump’s caustic remarks about immigrants, mainly Mexicans, and a GOP field of contenders trying to out-duel each other on the contentious topic of overhauling immigration law.
Hispanics are “literally tuned in,” says Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. “They are working in construction, working in the fields, working in the hotels — they don’t have time to look at television. They listen to radio.”
Spanish-language radio has for decades been the electronic bridge linking America and successive generations of Hispanic newcomers seeking to understand their new way of a life in a new land, especially on immigration matters, said Dolores Ines Casillas, a University of California professor and author of “Sounds of Belonging: U.S. Spanish-language Radio and Public Advocacy.”
It’s the Hispanic community’s “acoustic ally,” said Casillas, one that “provides a sense of anonymity for a legally vulnerable population.”
She said Mexicans during the Great Depression relied on radio to keep tabs on the federal government’s removal of 500,000 to 1 million Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans because they were supposedly taking jobs away from whites. In the 1980s, tens of thousands of Hispanic immigrants here illegally learned from radio how to apply for a federal amnesty program approved under President Ronald Reagan.
Today, Spanish-language radio has lit up from Trump’s remarks about criminals coming from Mexico and women coming to have “anchor babies.” So, too, the GOP presidential front-runner’s proposals to build a border wall and deport all of the estimated 11 million people here illegally, before allowing the “good ones” to return.
People of Mexican descent make up nearly two-thirds of the nation’s estimated 54 million Hispanics.
Nogales said Trump’s immigration message has fired up millions of Hispanics frustrated with both major parties for failing to find compromise on legalizing those who are here against the law.
Immigration advocates and others have used Spanish-language radio in specific markets to pounce on Trump and other Republican candidates.
In Las Vegas, the state’s largest union and immigrant organization saturated the Spanish-language airwaves with an ad denouncing Trump. “Mr. Trump says he wants to be president to make America great,” said the announcer. “We think America is great.”
The ad urged listeners to take part in an August rally, which drew about 1,000 people in a march to the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas. “We got a really strong turnout,” said Bethany Khan, speaking for Culinary Union Local 226. More than half of the 55,000 members are Hispanic.
Nevada is one of several swing states where both parties are courting Hispanic voters.
Carlos A. Sanchez, coordinator of political campaigns for the liberal People For the American Way, calls Spanish-language radio “a powerful tool” for reaching Hispanics not easily accessible through other media.
He said his organization has produced Spanish-language radio ads against Republican Marco Rubio in Denver and Miami, and against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in Milwaukee.
This year’s presidential contest features two candidates — Jeb Bush and Rubio — who speak Spanish fluently. Bush goes back and forth in English and Spanish in speaking at town halls and with the media, especially in south Florida.
Unlike conservative talk radio in English, where personalities such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham dominate, Spanish-language radio lacks a particular voice with a national following. Citizen activists, immigration attorneys and others tend to do the talking.
The U.S. has more than 500 radio stations with a Spanish-language format, reaching an estimated 15 million Hispanics. But only about 30 stations carry news or talk programming, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
That means Spanish-language radio listeners get an earful of commentary from unusual sources, said Federico Subervi, a former Kent State University professor who has studied Hispanic media for decades.
“A deejay at a station who would not normally say anything about politics and the immigration debate is now talking about it,” Subervi said. “Thanks to Donald Trump.”
Subervi said only the major Spanish-language radio markets of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami are covering presidential campaign news. And the coverage varies from city to city, reflecting the diversity of the nation’s Hispanics.
In Miami, where Spanish-language radio has long been popular among the city’s large, conservative Cuban community, Carines Moncada, an afternoon host of “Cada Tarde (Every Afternoon),” empathized with Americans who support Trump.
“I can’t criticize an American who can identify with a Donald Trump who says we have to solve this problem,” she said on the air. “We have to protect the border.”
But Trump has taken heat in Los Angeles, where listeners of top-rated radio host Ricardo “El Mandril” Sanchez ridiculed “el hombre del peluquín”— the man of the toupee. Trump later had a woman in an audience touch his hair to show it is real, and Sanchez invited Trump to be on his show.