In memoriam: José “Pepe” del Rio, 1926-2011


José “Pepe” del Rio was host of “Buenos Días América.” (Voice of America file photo)
December 15, 2011

In 1968, José “Pepe” del Rio went to Vietnam to look for one of his sons, who was in Da Nang, serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. It was a father’s gesture to reach out and connect with his child. But for his son José Antonio del Rio, who had not seen his father in at least four years, the gesture was layered with complication.

For many Spanish-speaking people throughout the world, Pepe del Rio was a trusted voice for news. Known across Latin America for his reports and smooth delivery, del Rio spent 25 years as a broadcaster and host of “Buenos Días América,” the morning radio show for the Spanish branch of the Voice of America. Although he was mostly unknown to English audiences within the United States, del Rio did much to shape international coverage of the major political and social events of the second half of the 20th century.

Del Rio, who died Feb. 13 at age 84 from a blood disorder, was born in Tampico, Mexico, where he ran errands at a nearby radio station before emigrating to Texas as a teenager. In 1961, he was recruited by Voice of America producers away from a Spanish-language radio station in San Antonio. Del Rio, who also worked at a CBS affiliate and as a master of ceremonies at a nightclub, held many jobs to support his family: he had five kids at the time (and would later have a sixth). But the need to do something professionally meaningful, as he explained in an interview with the Library of Congress in 1988, convinced him that he was on the correct path in moving to the Washington area and joining the VOA: “Commercial radio was fine; it paid for many things in my life, for everything in my life. But I wanted to go into something different, something more worthwhile, and that was radio journalism.”

He traveled the world and befriended presidents and farmers, diplomats and musicians. He covered the maturation of the space program, from Project Mercury to the space shuttle. And he became a resource for daily news. Like most radio broadcasters, he developed a familiar rhythm with his listeners, but del Rio’s success affected his personal life.

The del Rio household in Temple Hills was one in flux. Del Rio was married four times, and his children were scattered among relatives in Texas and near D.C. Most of the children struggled to maintain close relationships with their father. Yet for José Antonio, del Rio’s second son, the relationship was especially strained.

In the mid-1960s, José Antonio, who was living in Texas at the time, volunteered to join the Marine Corps and was sent to Vietnam. In 1968, José Antonio finished his first tour of duty as a corporal stationed at Force Logistics Command in Da Nang. He extended for a second tour of duty and was granted a 30-day free leave, which he spent back in the United States. By the time he settled in, back home in Texas, his father was in Vietnam already looking for him.

The Voice of America, wanting to broadcast human-interest stories about the South Vietnamese and the war effort, asked del Rio to take on the four-month assignment.

“I had a personal reason to go there,” he told the Library of Congress. “Of course, the assignment was voluntary. They cannot force you to go ... I grabbed it immediately, and said, ‘Yes, I’ll go.’  ” Perhaps knowing this was a chance to have just one moment, if nothing more, with his son, del Rio crossed an ocean and entered a war zone, not knowing what to expect.

When José Antonio returned from free leave, his commanding officer in Da Nang gave him special orders to head to Saigon and locate his father. “I was really stunned,” José Antonio said. “There’d been so much distance between us, and I just couldn’t figure out what [my father] was doing in Vietnam. Then again, what does an 18-, 19-year-old know?”

After receiving his travel voucher and an additional 10-day leave to be with his father, José Antonio boarded a U.S. Army Caribou transport plane and flew to Saigon, where he made his way to his father’s hotel. He stood in the hotel lobby, wearing his military fatigues. The elevator doors opened, and he saw his father. “It was very surreal,” José Antonio said. “The only emotional reaction I had was not understanding why he was there. It was never really explained to me. I hadn’t seen him in four to five years.”

Del Rio’s reaction, as he told the Library of Congress, was of another perspective: “Just a few steps behind me, [José Antonio] said, ‘Dad.’ I heard that voice, and it struck my heart so strongly. Without looking at him, I knew that it was my son. I turned around and just saw his silhouette, a big tall guy, and I cried. I couldn’t help it. It was a very wonderful thing for me to see him — alive.”

George Gonzalez is a freelance writer living in Washington. He can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com .

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