Last year 42.4 million people tuned in to Spanish language radio shows throughout the U.S., generating a collective revenue of almost a billion dollars. Three of the five biggest Spanish language stations, KLVE, KSCA, and KBUE, are broadcast right here in Los Angeles. But before any of those stations, before there were any Spanish-language radio shows in the U.S., Pedro J Gonzalez, a musician, activist, and revolutionary, broadcast the first Spanish-language radio show in the U.S. from the Teatro Hidalgo in what was then known as Sonoratown, right here in downtown Los Angeles in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Born on April 28 1895 in the town of Carrizal in Chihuahua, Mexico, Gonzalez’s life is an almost unbelievable series of wild and extraordinary events, placing Gonzalez both at the center of, and as an integral player in major events in world history, events that we now still live in the reverberations of.
In 1914 Gonzalez worked as a telegraph operator for the Mexican National Railroads before he was coerced into joining Pancho Villa’s La Division Del Norte during the Mexican Revolution. While serving with Villa, Gonzalez started to write corridos about the war. During his time in Villa’s army, Villa conducted a raid on Columbus, New Mexico in 1916, where Villa’s forces fought a division of the U.S. Army, provoking U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to launch a U.S. Army division into northern Mexico to combat Villa [spoiler alert, they never even found Villa]. Here Gonzalez either fled La Division Del Norte, working odd jobs in border towns in Mexico and the U.S., or, he was captured by the Mexican government, and reportedly about to be executed by firing squad when a local school teacher and school children stepped in between him and the rifles of Mexican officials, saving his life and securing his release. Years later, he’s said to have met one of those students, then grown, and married her.
In 1924, Gonzalez and his wife, Maria, settled in Wilmington, CA, where Gonzalez worked as a longshoreman at the Port of L.A., reportedly impressing his bosses with his own corridos. Soon after he auditioned for a spot on a variety hour show on radio station KMPC in Los Angeles. The owner of the station immediately dismissed him for singing in Spanish, but Gonzalez managed to convince him to let him read the station’s advertisements in Spanish during “dead airtime,” the early mornings, late nights and weekends, times that were thought of as commercially unviable.
It was in that dead airtime where Gonzalez revolutionized the airways. Starting in either 1928, or 1929, Gonzalez got his own radio show from 4 AM to 6 AM, later expanded to 7 AM, called Los Madrugadores, after both the band he formed to sing and record his own corridos for a number of different labels, including Columbia, Decca, and L.A.’s Azteca records, and as a shoutout to his audience, early risers, Mexican, Mexican-Americans, and Latin American laborers who had to wake up at the crack of dawn for work. Gonzalez would play Spanish language records and invite Spanish language bands onto the show to perform. He’d read the news in Spanish, talk about community news and affairs, including the suppression of Mexican labor unions, announce job openings and cultural events over the air, and advocate for civil rights for Mexican-Americans and Mexican migrants. At the time, KMPC’s 100,000 watt signal reached throughout the southwest, into Texas and parts of northern Mexico at a time when hundreds of thousands of Mexicans had recently settled in the U.S. as refugees from the Mexican Revolution.
As the effects of the Great Depression rippled through the country in late 1929, already entrenched xenophobic and anti-Mexican sentiments in national and local authority figures amplified. While Gonzalez announced a work project on air, hundreds of Hispanic laborers showed up outside of the station’s office, the LAPD saw the group of people as a Hispanic rebellion waiting to happen, and arrested everyone assembled. This came at a time when both national and local police forces organized mass deportations of not only undocumented people, but U.S. born Hispanics as well. In 1933 the U.S. Border Patrol was created, but before that, the Immigration and Naturalization Service would coordinate raids on work places, farms, public parks, publics buses and trains, and even whole neighborhoods, arresting those that couldn’t provide the proper identification or paperwork, deporting a couple hundred thousand people to possibly two million people throughout the 1930s, diminishing L.A.’s Mexican community by 30%.
A federal study of national policing policies in 1929, referred to as the Wickersham Commission, called the raids, “Unconstitutional, tyrannical, and oppressive.” Gonzalez reportedly ended a broadcast during this time by saying that the LAPD were “the real criminals… they say that this deportation campaign is to secure jobs for North Americans citizens, it’s a trick. It isn’t true, it’s really nothing more than a racist attack against Mexicans. We are neither illegals nor undesirables.”
As these raids devastated Mexican Angelenos, Gonzalez spoke out against it more and more on his radio show, still one of the only Hispanic radio shows in the country, earning him the ire of the city establishment, especially District Attorney Buron Fitts.
Fitts had bought ads on Gonzalez’s popular radio show to try to attract Hispanic voters during his campaign for the District Attorney’s office, while at the same time propagating anti-Mexican hate for white voters. Gonzalez refused to run Fitts ads. When Fitts won the election and became District Attorney he launched a personal revenge campaign against Gonzalez to get his radio license revoked, contending that only U.S. citizens and radio programs broadcast in English should be able to be on the air, saying, “What if this madman, troublesome as he is, and on top of that a Villaista, a telegrapher for [Pancho] Villa, what if he starts telling Mexicans… to rise up with a bottle of gasoline, and at a certain hour, burning all the American homes[?]”
Fitts tried to arrest Gonzalez for first not taking his daughter to school for a couple of days, then for allegedly picking up teenage girls in his car, which Gonzalez contended were instances of him driving his daughter and her friends to and from school. Each case was thrown out of court by a judge, until the city brought a case against Gonzalez, accusing him of raping a 16 year old girl. Gonzalez, under the impression that the charge would be immediately dismissed as the other charges had, reportedly smoked a cigar in the courtroom as he was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in San Quentin State Prison in 1934. The 16 year old girl later recanted her accusations, saying she had been put under pressure by the DA’s office to make the accusation. Fitts himself was later indicted, and eventually acquitted, of charges of accepting a bribe to drop charges against a wealthy L.A. real estate magnet alleged to have been involved in a child prostitution ring.
At San Quentin Gonzalez organized hunger strikes for better living conditions, recognition of Mexican independence day, and to let prisoners write and receive letters in Spanish, which at the time was forbidden by the warden. While on the outside Maria, his wife, organized protests demanding Gonzalez be released. After six years, in 1940, the California State Parole Board agreed to release Gonzalez on the condition that he be immediately deported to Mexico. He agreed, and as the train taking him to Mexico stopped in L.A.’s Union Station, he apparently sang to an assembled crowd of fans from his train for hours.
Joined by Maria in Tijuana, Gonzalez again hosted a radio show, and began to advocate for veterans of the Mexican Revolution, joining a group that secured health benefits, pensions, and land grants for veterans in the form of communal farms known as ejidos.
Gonzalez’ activism in Tijuana eventually earned him the ire of local officials in Tijuana, so in 1973 Gonzalez and Maria moved to San Ysidro, CA, eventually becoming citizens of the U.S. During that time a documentary called Ballad of an Unsung Hero was made by director Isaac Artenstein and writer/producer Paul Espinosa about Gonzales in 1984.
“At first it was hard to believe all of the stories he was telling us,” recalls Espinosa, who said he conducted his own research on Gonzalez after first meeting him to verify his stories for himself. “He was such a great storyteller. His life was like a great drama.”
Espinosa and Artenstein interviewed Gonzalez, and Maria when she’d let them, in their San Ysidro home starting in 1989, ultimately collecting about eight hours of interviews with Gonzalez that they compiled into an unfortunately difficult to find 30 minute documentary that Espinosa says he wishes was longer.
“Just his experiences in the Mexican Revolution should have been made into a documentary,” Espinoza says, “his life was a microcosm of Mexican-American relations in the first half of the 20th century.”
Gonzalez passed away at the age of 99 in Lodi, California on March 17 1995. There is a short mention of his life and work in La Plaza de Cultura Y Artes’ Calle Principal exhibit, as well as a mural of Gonzalez in Chicano Park in San Diego.
Gonzalez recalled later in life that when he came to Los Angeles he felt, “very patriotic feelings and very revolutionary feelings when I saw that bad treatment given to Mexicans.”
In his home in San Ysidro, Gonzalez kept a room full of memorabilia from his life, including books of names and addresses of friends, family, fans, and supporters, and a telegraph machine bellow two flags, one Mexican, the other, American.