Spanish-Language TV: Perverse and Profound

Late at night, the dwarves and strippers come out to play.

Dark-haired dancers in glittering silver knee-high boots, bikini tops, and skimpy skirts run through steps in an empty studio. They contemplate which hip to cock and arm to stretch arriba until a choreographer checks his watch.

"¡Dos minutos!"

The quintet's heels click-clack across the cement floor, past fake street lamps and a buxom blonde wearing a red gown and feather headdress and claiming to have x-ray vision. They enter a chilly pink studio with a huge round table where the scent of coffee mingles with pizza.

Soloist Kathy Clark leads La Cosa Nostra's dance troupe in an opening number.
Jacqueline Carini
Soloist Kathy Clark leads La Cosa Nostra's dance troupe in an opening number.
Carlucho smiles and Gelet Martínez, a La Cosa Nostra regular, dabs away tears after a taped segment showing the host and a five-year-old who was alleged to be his son.
Jacqueline Carini
Carlucho smiles and Gelet Martínez, a La Cosa Nostra regular, dabs away tears after a taped segment showing the host and a five-year-old who was alleged to be his son.

Backstage, Eduardo Caceres, a 61-year-old executive producer with a swoop of gray hair, counts down, "Tres, dos, uno. ¡Estamos en el aire!"

The dancers sway to reggaeton as the cast sashays by. A blonde in a clingy minidress swings her hips toward the camera. Then the bantam and glamorous Enrique Divine drops his jeans to his ankles. The camera sneaks a crotch shot. The diva, Kary — wearing all white and her crimson hair spiked — is next. She wiggles her fingers near her waist before mooning the camera, which swoops in for a closeup of her round tan cheeks.

It's 11 p.m., and direct from Hialeah Gardens, La Cosa Nostra is live and unscripted on América TeVé (WJAN Channel 41). The scrappy, family-owned company lures viewers from national networks and creams local competitors in this time slot, according to Nielsen ratings. The hourlong show claims a half-million mostly young and middle-age viewers. It can be incomprehensible, reprehensible, raunchy, wacky, and, at times, insightful. There are sketches about old folks having sex, racial jokes, glimpses of bestiality, digs at religion, and — let's not forget — a stripper and a pole. In its fifth year, the potent cocktail of sex, shock, and reality even makes its way to Cuba via bootleg recordings.

Watching it, you sometimes feel dirty — like when your eyes inadvertently linger on an erection under a Speedo at the beach. You try to rationalize the onslaught of breasts as postfeminist. You switch channels. You should find out what's going in Iraq. A few nights later, you surf there again. You snicker. You're drawn into the drama of whether the five-year-old truly is the illegitimate son of a show host. There's a lesson somewhere.

Then a leggy stripper climbs onto a table and sheds her sequined top. "At times we do reach the point of almost being vulgar," Caceres admits after midnight as a cleaning crew filters into the vacant studio. "But we'd rather have 60 minutes of risk than a single moment of boredom. The 11 o'clock time slot has been reserved for the news for 20-odd years. We believe the public would rather go to bed with laughter on their lips."

La Cosa Nostra — which draws its name from the Italian term for the Mob — debuted in September 2003 with this warning: The content of the following program is for adult audiences only. Its motto was and still is "Prohibited to prohibit." One of the first to appear was Javier Ceriani, the Argentine whose flowing blond locks have become iconic in today's Spanish-language media.

On the first episode, he bounded onstage and introduced a segment taped at a sex shop. Seconds into the video, a curvy woman untied her slinky robe to reveal black panties and a bare chest. "Those breasts ... made me remember my mother's breasts," Ceriani said after the bit. Then he turned to an older woman with white frizzy hair and asked if he could grab her chest. She nodded okay, so he squeezed her right breast and said, "Mama."

A curly-haired male astrologer concluded the hour: "Today begins a new age in the history of TV in Miami."

Ceriani, age 32, recalls leaving a hidden-camera show in Mexico to help create La Cosa Nostra. It was revolutionary, he says. "We destroyed many myths in television, like 'You can't criticize Emilio Estefan or the Cubans.' We shattered all of the formulas."

Over the years, the cast has changed, but executive producer Eduardo Caceres, who's called Cachito, has remained a constant. He began in television in the early Sixties, around age 16, when he swept floors at Channel 4 in downtown Havana. The station was located about two blocks from his house. But he didn't watch much television. His family couldn't afford a set.

Soon he moved up to operating a camera and then directing. His break came in 1978, when he was part of a team that launched Para Bailar (Let's Dance) — which aired Sunday afternoon on Cuba's Channel 6. On the show, teen couples showed off their steps and chewed over topics including first kisses and curfew. "It changed television," Caceres boasts. The first episode included American music such as "Rock Around the Clock" that, until then, had been banned onscreen. Songs from the Bee Gees and the Platters followed. "In time, it was impossible for them to stop it," Caceres explains. "It [made] our young people happy and a bit more open to the outside world."

But around 1980, the station's higherups nixed modern changes such as installing a disco floor. "There wasn't support or interest in getting that close to U.S. culture," he says. So Caceres left the show and focused on producing variety shows, music festivals, and cabaret. In the early Nineties, police tossed him into prison when they discovered his side job — selling Cuban art to tourists for illicit dollars. He served six months and then escaped to Caracas. His family soon joined him, and they all later earned asylum in Miami.

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