Based in Toronto, Ontario, Nancy Matsumoto is a writer and editor who covers sustainable agriculture, food, sake, arts and culture.

A Streetwise Latino Beams His Message

Radio: On KPCC-FM’s ‘Sancho Show,’ college associate dean Daniel Castro uses barrio vernacular to urge his listeners to get an education.  

 

            On a cold Saturday night at KPCC-FM (89.3), the Pasadena City College radio station, a silver-haired disc jockey sits hunched over a microphone and launches into an odd form of rap found nowhere else on the FM dial.

            “We’re here on the airways of Aztlan, that’s A-Z-T-L-A-N,” he says. “You don’t know what that means? Look it up! Naaah, it ain’t in the dictionary. Go to the library and tell ’em Sancho sent you, and they’ll even let you use the books for free! I know you don’t believe it, but it’s true! Libraries are free! So jog your mind, La Raza, jog your mind!”

            The language is calo, the vernacular of the barrio; the music is all Latino and the attitude is street. It’s Sancho’s message that comes as a surprise: Get an education and be an asset to La Raza, your Chicano people, or drop out and be a loser. Aztlan, the Promised Land of Aztec mythology, is within reach of those who educate themselves.

            In its 10 years on KPCC, “The Sancho Show” has become a cult event, boasting an estimated 20,000 listeners, dozens of fan clubs across Southern California and a die-hard, mainly Eastside following that tunes in to see what madness Sancho and his crew—engineer Mary Martin and associate producer Richard (Riché) Barron—will cook up from 6 to 10 p.m. each week.

            As Martin and Barron scurry to and fro keeping the show on course, Sancho riffs on everything from tortillas and “Monie” girls (from Ramona Convent) to “Mary’s cool car with the tiger-skin seat covers.” He fills his patter with inside jokes aimed at friends and family. While careless listeners complain that the program is a “cholo show”—run by what sounds like a dropout from the barrio—his fans recognize it as a celebration of Mexican American culture.

            In real life, Sancho is Daniel Castro, Ph.D., associate dean of student activities at East Los Angeles College, former prison educator and reformer, one-time real estate developer and longtime education crusader.

            “On the top level, we’re playing some music and having fun,” says Castro, 49, who does his disc jockeying for free. “But the bottom line,” he says, is that “were here to educate. The day I quit educating people, I’ll be gone.”

            If he feels like talking calo, he does. “The hook is to get people to laugh, and to understand that I have a choice [in speaking style],” Castro explains. For every “Spanglish” street expression he uses, he says, he’s sure to construct a sentence that makes it clear he’s a home boy with an education.

            Once he’s hooked listeners, Castro’s goal is to build pride in their Mexican American heritage and get them to go to school. (Because he is Chicano himself, Castro aims the program at other English-speaking Mexican Americans, but other Latinos and whites are welcome.)

            “I started listening in April and it’s become a religious observance,” says Sancho fan Corina Carrasco, 37, who has come by the station to donate to a Sancho-sponsored canned-food drive and to look over the Sancho T-shirts and memorabilia being sold for scholarship money. “I like the music but, most of all, I like Sancho’s manner. I like it when he asks people to call and vote on songs, or what kind of chicharrones they like. He’s a real person.”

            The show was created 10 years ago when Castro, then working in real estate, and some of his colleagues on the Pasadena Scholarship Committee set out to figure out why the dropout rate among Mexican Americans was so high. Along the way, the committee found that 70% of the information young Latinos were getting was from the radio, so Castro decided that the best way to reach at-risk kids was through a radio program.

            “The Sancho Show” started out as a temporary gig, one hour a week, but it gradually lengthened and took hold. Now as an out-growth, Castro organizes the annual Chicano Music Awards and has just issued a “Best of Sancho” CD, both to raise money for scholarships. He sponsors everything from canned food drives for fire victims, to a “burrito brigade” to feed earthquake victims, to a Cinco de Mayo 5-K run around the Rose Bowl that ends with a feast of menudo, chorizo and eggs.

            Castro’s alter ego, Sancho, was born the first night of the show. Castro and his then-partner, Jesse Gomez, Pasadena City College’s track coach, had planned to talk about a fictional student named Sancho. Ten seconds before they went on the air, Castro recalls, “Jesse looks at me and said, “You know what? There’s no use in having two nervous people in here, and got up and walked out.”

            Castro tried playing himself and talking about Sancho, but by the end of the show decided it would be easier simply to play the part of Sancho himself. The Sancho character is “someone that’s in everyone’s family,” Castro explains, “just happy-go-lucky, having a good time.”

            In one on-air bit, Castro jokes about the “Marrano Beach Club,” referring to a stream near a former pig ranch in what is now the Whittier Narrows Recreation Facility, where Mexican American parents—including his own—used to take their children to play. Reviving the memory of a bygone community hangout is “keeping the culture alive,” he says, adding that now parents take their kids to the site to learn about a piece of Mexican American history.

            Born and raised in Pasadena, Castro’s interest in education took him through UC Santa Barbara, Occidental College, a brief stint at USC law school and to Union Graduate School, where he earned a doctorate in sociology. He taught Chicano studies at the Terminal Island prison, worked for the bureau of prisons in Washington and then spent several years in Sacramento writing prison reform legislation. He returned to Pasadena and ran unsuccessfully for the state Assembly, then worked in real estate development for a while before arriving at East L.A. College in 1989.

            “The first two years of the [radio] program no one knew who Sancho was,” Castro says. But his anonymity eventually withered. Now he’s famous enough that at East L.A. College, he jokes, “Half the kids call me Sancho, the other half call me Dr. Castro.”

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