The 54-minute Mission

Teaching Latin culture to Tampa Bay

So this is where evolution is going: "I'm the latest creature on the planet," says Franco Silva, plucking the espresso-with-a-dash-of-milk-colored skin on his arm. "I've got Asian, African and Caucasian blood in me. I'm the last step."

That's how he orders his coffee at La Teresita, by the way. Espresso with a little milk. "Make it look like this," he says, tapping his forearm. His Tuesday morning ritual after he finishes hosting Latino 54 on WMNF-88.5 FM is to come here for coffee and maybe some Cuban toast, and then go across the street to buy a cigar before heading home to St. Pete. "I love me some coffee and a stogie," he says. He also loves talking Latin culture, something he does a lot on his show.

For Silva, Latino 54 is not just a radio program; it's a mission. "I've missed four shows in eight years," he says. Once was because the station was off the air, but he went in anyway and taped one for the can. "I did a show the night my wife went into labor. She said, 'go ahead; I'll hold off till you get back,' and sure enough, she did."

Silva started at WMNF on a Sunday night show called Oye Latino. "It was always meant to be a magazine show with music," he says. Even though there were other radio stations playing Latin music, "everyone was playing salsa and merengue. No one was playing the old stuff." He brought in some older guys who had record collections and they did a series of historical programs that have since been archived by the International Museum of Latin Music.

Last winter, the station was planning program changes and Silva was informed that Oye Latino might be eliminated. He fired up his e-mail and sent out an alarm, asking listeners to contact the station and express their support for the show. Daily, sometimes hourly, e-mails flew between Silva, Latino activists and fans who were doing their best to inundate Program Director Randy Wynne with requests to keep the show.

Tears fill Silva's eyes when he talks about the campaign. "I get choked up just thinking about what people said about the show. All those nights away from my family meant something to these people."

Wynne isn't saying how much impact those phone calls and e-mails had, but in the end, he did decide to keep the show, reducing it by a half-hour, changing the name and moving it to Tuesday from 9 to 10 a.m.

It's a time slot that automatically has more listeners than Sunday nights, says Wynne. Already the move has paid off in terms of fundraising, meaning the new show brought in more money than the old one during the most recent marathon.

Silva is still not happy about all of the changes, but he is glad that the show survived at all — and grateful that the station provides a forum, even a small one, for alternative Latin music. Nonetheless, he couldn't resist one small final act of protest, though he did do it with a sense of humor. When Wynne insisted on a name change for the show, Silva came up with Latino 54 "because it's 54 minutes long now," he says.

The switch to Tuesday morning has also presented problems for Silva. Some of the guests he used to have on can't take time off work to come in now. And then there was getting time off from his own job. He works as an animal care associate at Pinellas County Animal Control and had to get the administration to change his schedule to free him up on Tuesday. Now he works Saturday nights, which means more time away from his family.

Still, he sees the trade-off as a worthwhile one because he believes his show promotes understanding and appreciation of Latin culture and its contributions to the United States. "Latin music is so much a part of the culture in this country, and people don't even realize it." Sometimes it comes disguised in other music — the Afro-Cuban drumming in Steve Winwood's new album, for example, or in movie soundtracks and television ads. "You can't watch TV for five minutes without hearing something Latin go by. I want Latin America to be recognized for that." Latin music, he says is a part of American music. You can't separate the two. "Country music? It ain't nothing but a Mexican guy with a guitar singing. The cowboy is a Latin American thing."

He is also fond of reminding people that the United States is only a part of America and that its citizens are not the only Americans. He finds the hoopla about Hispanics becoming the largest minority in this country ironic. After all, he says, a large portion of the Southwest used to be part of Mexico and Anglos were the minority. "One day a bunch of Mexicans woke up and found out their houses now sit on U.S. property. They didn't cross the border — the border crossed them."

During the fight to keep his show, one of the justifications for canceling it was that there is already plenty of Latin music on the airwaves because of all the Latin AM stations. That still rankles Silva. For one thing, he stresses, he plays alternative Latin music, not just the pop salsa and merengue played on the AM stations. "Our culture has evolved so far beyond that." He doesn't think those AM shows do much to reflect that evolution. "On the AM stations, they don't respect the music; they don't even mention the artists. ... They act like clowns ... and perpetuate the sombrero-under-the-palm-tree mentality that we suffer from."

Silva may be a little jaded. He hosted a show on one of those stations 10 years ago and was fired for playing Cuban music. Ironically, he points out, it's the same station that recently fired programmers for agitating against the concert of Cuban dance band Los Van Van.

Despite some experiences that have left a bad taste in his mouth, Silva will keep doing a show for as long as he can, even though he doesn't get paid. He's still a man with a mission: "I want my kids to grow up in a place that understands who they are. I want them to be proud of who they are," he says.

"My concept of America is it's a big club. If you follow the rules, you can be who you want to be. You don't have to be swallowed up and melted in. I want to practice my culture. This little 54 minutes gives us a chance to do that. Maybe one day we'll get 55, then 56. Maybe some day we'll get back up to 90 minutes, like we were before."

Senior Editor Susan F. Edwards can be reached at 813-248-8888 ext. 122 or [email protected].

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