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On the Washington airwaves, Tito Muñoz fine-tunes a conservative Latino voice

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 17, 2010; C01

When last we heard from Tito Muñoz, he was onstage with Sarah Palin at a rally in Leesburg in the waning days of the 2008 presidential campaign, a burly guy in a yellow hard hat, trying to bellow some life into the GOP ticket.

"Good morning, Virginia!" he boomed. "You can call me Tito the Builder!"

Palin worked him into her stump speeches, this Latino Joe the Plumber who, she liked to say, "was born in Colombia but made in the U.S.A.!"

On a recent Saturday morning, Muñoz has exchanged his boots and tool belt for a pressed shirt and slacks. He squeezes behind a microphone in a small radio studio in Laurel. He clears space on the table for a pile of books and essays, including "The Constitutional Thoughts of Thomas Jefferson," "César Chávez Against Illegals," "Hispanics in American Wars" and Spanish translations of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

It's minutes to airtime for his debut as Tito the Radio Host. He's a little frantic.

"Can I have the questions, Mama?" he says to Deborah, his wife. "Where are my glasses?"

They are on his head.

He orders the engineer to cue up his theme song, "America," by the late Nino Bravo, with the chorus, in Spanish: "When God made Eden he thought of America."

The engineer counts down, the on-air light pops on, and Muñoz unleashes a verbal torrent, in Spanish.

"Bienvenidos a 'America Eres Tu,' " he says, welcome to "America Is You." "We Latinos are the largest minority in the United States. We must take our place in history and preserve the vision of the Founding Fathers of this nation."

Los Padres de la Patria! His tone deepens with emotion.

"It's our duty and our responsibility. Because we are America . . . "

Thirty-five minutes later, he remembers to stop and introduce himself.

* * *

Tito Muñoz, 50, is the voice and the irrepressible personality of a new effort by some local conservative Latinos to claim more bandwidth in the political conversation taking place in Spanish. A core group of a half-dozen small-business owners has organized into the Conservative Hispanic Coalition; another 24 supporters are less active members.

"America Eres Tu" is the group's main project, a weekly one-hour paid program Saturdays at 9 a.m. on Radio Viva 900 AM. The group expects to pay nearly $20,000 for the first year, largely out of members' own pockets.

For now, the effort is more notable for its inspiration than its impact. Arbitron estimates that 500 people listened to Radio Viva at 9 a.m. on Saturdays in May, before "America Eres Tu" debuted. But station management claims that listenership could be 10 times higher now, because the May paid-programming was not as appealing.

Elsewhere on the dial, Spanish-language radio is dominated by music, hyper-local nonpartisan community affairs and paid call-in hours with lawyers, mortgage brokers and credit counselors.

Hispanic conservatism would seem to be a tough sell these days. Many Latinos -- including citizens and legal residents -- are smarting from the tough anti-illegal-immigrant rhetoric of leading GOP conservatives. And many are dismayed by the strict new state law signed by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona.

These Latino conservatives condemn the most extreme of anti-immigrant views, though neither do they favor what critics call a blanket "amnesty" for illegal immigrants. Their basic premises are that conservatism is bigger than the immigration issue and that the conservative movement is losing potential followers before they even learn English and join mainstream society.

"Many Hispanics are not happy with the Republican Party," says Laura Ramirez-Drain, a founder of the coalition who runs a marketing business in Washington and is herself a Republican activist. "We just want to explain the values of conservatism."

Latinos voted for Obama over McCain by a margin of more than 2 to 1, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Ramirez-Drain, a naturalized citizen from Mexico, calculates that more Latinos will join the GOP if they recognize the conservative values they share with the party. "We need to do this to begin to prepare for 2012," she says.

Fabiola Clausen, president of a printing and graphics company in Washington and a native of Colombia, says she was offended when she became a citizen in the early 1990s and Democratic recruiters assumed she would register with them because -- didn't she know? -- the Dems are supposedly the party of "la gente," the people.

"I'm pro-life," Clausen says. "I like small government. I don't want to live off the government."

Despite her differences with Democrats, she voted for Obama because of his promise to address immigration reform in the first year. "I fell for that," she says.

The first edition of "America Eres Tu" is filled with admonitions to go to college, take part in the political process. Muñoz speaks passionately in Spanish about the importance of learning English to get ahead. His first guest is a family therapist from Honduras named Luis Padilla, who tells his uplifting story of learning English, going to college and volunteering on political campaigns.

"You just need the will, the desire and the guts!" Muñoz says.

People start calling in, including some in other states listening over the Internet. The phone number is posted on Muñoz's Facebook page. (He has 3,500 Facebook friends.) When Modesto of Maryland starts complaining about the "barriers" that Latinos face in an increasingly anti-immigrant atmosphere, Muñoz politely shuts him down.

"I disagree that people are trying to take away your dream," he says. "The dream is yours. You make the dream. You follow it. You achieve it."

* * *

Muñoz immigrated to New York with a student visa in the mid-1970s when he was 16, and ultimately got a green card. He worked construction and married Deborah 15 years ago after they met at a wedding. While working, he earned two degrees from Northern Virginia Community College and has started on a third.

Tito and Deborah started DeBorn Construction in Woodbridge, which has four employees, down from nine a year ago, because of the dragging economy. The company prepares sites for development. Muñoz wears a hard hat and works side by side with his men. The company has a project now at Fort Belvoir. Bumper stickers on Muñoz's Chevy truck say "Socialism Isn't Cool" and "Palin Power."

He became a citizen in fall 2008 and dived right into the McCain campaign. Lately he has attended "tea party" rallies. "We have to do everything we can to keep this country the way it was founded," he says.

Muñoz and his radio cohorts are up to something unusual, says Alberto Acereda, a professor of Spanish literature at Arizona State University who has argued that "there is a vacuum when it comes to Spanish-language conservative media." That is starting to change, Acereda says in an interview, but still, "most of the press in Spanish tends to be more on the liberal side, and more supporting the Democratic Party."

Acereda is also the content director for another stab at conservative communication: a bilingual news and opinion Web site launched a year ago by Newt Gingrich -- an avid student of Spanish -- called TheAmericano.com.

Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, says conservative Latinos exaggerate their shutout from the airwaves. Spanish-language media are opinionated in favor of immigration reform, he says, but beyond that, "primarily it's about entertainment. There's no right or left . . . as there is on the English-language side of the radio and television."

* * *

Muñoz's hour at the microphone is ending. "Next week we're going to talk about why the economy is destroyed in this country," he concludes.

Afterward, Tito the Radio Host is so exhilarated, he spills his bottle of water on his copy of the Constitution in Spanish. The Constitution can take a little water, he allows, but "the Constitution can't take anymore months of Obama." He might say so on the air next week. This week, he admits, he was a little less provocative.

"This is my first time, I don't know what I'm doing," he says. "Everything, I learn from scratch. America is the place where everything you want to do, you do!"

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