El Donahue

Forget Jerry and Phil. When it comes to Spanish TV, Miami's own Pedro Sevcec is the tiger of talk.

Indeed, in the third instance, the cameras have already rolled. "Thank you for allowing us into your house under these special circumstances," says the always polite host. Seated beside him on a couch surrounded by floral arrangements is the fetching Raquelin Gonzalez, a 29-year-old Mexican native and the star of Telemundo's only musical variety program, Padrissimo. "You are going to see our wedding," says Sevcec, beaming proudly. "You are going to share our wedding, and I want to officially present my wife, Raquelin Gonzalez de Sevcec."

Yes, welcome to the Reynosa, Mexico, wedding of Pedro and Raquelin, a well-edited home video that was broadcast in prime time a few days before Valentine's Day 1997. The hourlong special featured Gonzalez having her makeup applied, Sevcec wearing latex dog ears as he dances at the reception, a European and Middle Eastern honeymoon, and Sevcec shaving his signature beard. One of his producers will later joke about plans for a show when the two conceive their first child: the visit to the gynecologist, the morning sickness, the cutting of the umbilical cord.

While no one has ever doubted Sevcec's talent or versatility, few could have predicted his rise to the status of pop idol. The great-grandson of Eastern European immigrants, he was born in 1954 in Montevideo, Uruguay. Sevcec was just fourteen when his mother died. After butting heads with his father for two years, he struck out on his own. "I left a heroic note [along the lines of] 'I'll show you,'" he remembers with a laugh. "But it went badly, very badly." Sleeping in public parks and at friends' houses, he spent most of his time searching for his next meal and trying to keep his one extra shirt clean. "It was very difficult to stay presentable," he recalls as he sits in a cramped office at Telemundo flanked by a row of obviously expensive suits.

By eighteen he had reconciled with his father and returned home. A year later the military took control of the country in a coup that would inaugurate an eleven-year dictatorship. Analysts estimate that during the army's reign, Uruguay had the world's highest proportion of political prisoners relative to the population. Sevcec, however, stayed on the right side of the political fence and cultivated a conservative ideology, espousing a repugnance for the communism that swept through high schools and universities in Latin America at the time. (His anti-communist credentials have served him well in Miami's Cuban-American community, says one of his producers).

Though he had little formal training, the gregarious young Sevcec found work as a sportscaster for a local radio station. He juggled that job with stints as a commentator on television and a reporter at an afternoon paper, Mundocolor, owned by the nation's leading daily, El Pais. The army, working behind the facade of a civilian president, held a firm grip on the information that journalists reported, but Sevcec excelled in one of the few areas in which reporters were allowed to work freely: economics. He began writing about the Latin American debt crisis and spiraling inflation. "He has a very open mind for news stories," says a former colleague and a current editor at El Pais, Daniel Rodriguez. "Talking about the economy is not very interesting, but he always knew what [stories] interested the public."

When Rodriguez fell ill just before he was supposed to go to war-torn El Salvador in 1982, the 28-year-old Sevcec suddenly found himself on assignment, covering elections that leftist guerrillas had threatened to disrupt. Days before, three members of a Dutch television crew had been killed as they tried to gain access to a guerrilla stronghold. (Foreign journalists in the country at the time blame an army ambush for the deaths.) The day after arriving in San Salvador, Sevcec met a Chilean television crew at the Sheraton Hotel. He had hired a taxi to observe the polling the following morning and offered to share it with his colleagues.

In a suburb outside the capital, the group got caught in a firefight between the army and guerrillas. As Chilean cameraman Carlos Ruz leaned out of the back seat to film the battle, a bullet hit him in the neck. "There was an explosion of blood as his artery was sliced," recalls Sevcec, who was in the front seat of the cab. "I thought we were going to die." More than fifteen years later, this horrific memory is very much alive. He leapt from the car. "I was running, but it felt like I wasn't going anywhere." He threw himself into a garbage-strewn ravine, injuring his knee.

Soldiers nearby ushered him to the safety of a small shack. As the frightened reporter tried to control his racing heart, one of them shouted, "Come see who killed your friend!" There on the ground lay a wounded guerrilla. "He was shaking like a fish out of water," Sevcec relates. A moment later, the soldier shot the man point-blank in the head.

The soldiers later took Sevcec to a hotel where foreign journalists maintained offices, and he immediately sat down to send photos and material for a story back to Uruguay. He told the Associated Press that he was certain leftist insurgents had shot Ruz, who died days later from his wounds. Though he didn't know it at the time, El Salvador was just the first of many war zones he would visit. The guerrilla and the cameraman were the first of many deaths he would write about. His professional obligations fulfilled, he returned to his hotel and collapsed.

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