By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
The pair split over Espinosa's moonlighting on another show, and then Payo en Llamas was pulled from the tube. "It's supereasy to get into TV," Espinosa says. "The problem is staying in it."
Soon he was invited to appear in a La Cosa sketch. He played a man who accidentally crashed his car while a woman performed oral sex. Producers made him a regular.
"They have me there as Juan Espinosa," he says, "and not like a little guy who's on TV. Little by little, I've proven to them that I'm just as man."
On one show two years ago, he dressed as a policeman and stripped to his boxers. After that, he was slammed with requests for bachelorette parties, where he charged up to $300 for a song, he says.
The La Cosa paycheck, he says, covers most of his bills. And there's fame. When people spy him at clubs like Space, they call out his name.
He stopped doing the stripteases about a year ago, he says, because he's guarding his image — with the potential run and all. "I want people to take me more seriously."
As Espinosa finishes speaking, a male singer greets him in the hall and proposes break-dancing on air. "Sounds cool," Espinosa agrees. "You should ask Divine too."
In a nearby dressing room that has all the glamour of a grade school bathroom is Enrique Divine. A scarf is draped dramatically around his neck, and his fine features are accented by long, dark eyelashes. The friendly Venezuelan pop singer's resumé includes opening for KC and the Sunshine Band. He's been on the show two years. As with most of the cast, his character is a caffeinated, deafening version of his own personality. (The anthem "Y.M.C.A." often plays when he appears onstage.) "They were looking for a guy who was very gay, very nice, and very beautiful," he boasts before turning to dust shimmering eye shadow on another character.
Soon Sandra Peraza glides past. It's hard not to stare. She is five feet eight inches tall, and towering boots elevate her to supermodel stature. The slender 28-year-old fidgets with the straps of a silver bikini top that peeps from beneath a peek-a-boo black leotard. Her long, wavy black mane parted in the middle swoops in synch with her strut. (Insert sex kitten soundtrack here.)
A belt of silver hearts dangles from her hips. She is the stripper, the carne con papas, at the end of most shows. Her voice is a honeyed whisper.
"My boyfriend is the nephew of Tito Puente," she says. Almost a year ago, she met James De La Raza, age 38, who's related by marriage to the mambo master. It was at Solid Gold, the North Miami Beach gentleman's club where she worked, and not long after she had been invited to appear on La Cosa Nostra.
That night, De La Raza was at the club with his first cousin, Tito Puente Jr. "All the girls in Solid Gold told her Tito was the crazy one and I'm the stuck-up one," says De La Raza, former editor of The Source magazine's Latino division. "I'm the one who says, 'You ain't getting a dollar out of me.'"
There was something about Peraza, he says. She reminded him of a young Celia Cruz. She had star appeal. He offered to buy her something to eat and drink. They chatted for three hours.
"From there, it was history," he says.
She told him about growing up poor in a village of about 6,000 souls in Cuba's Villa Clara province. Her mother cleaned houses. Her father sold trinkets at carnivals.
She began dancing around 10 years old. By age 18, she found work as a feather-adorned dancer at a touristy joint in Santa Clara. There she met a French restaurateur in his forties. They married and moved to France. Five years later, they separated.
She made the difficult trip to Miami, where she has done well. Her MySpace page claims she rakes in $100,000-plus annually.
Peraza doesn't mind the attention that comes with baring nearly everything on television. "Some guys will say, 'You're so sexy,' but they don't use rude words," she affirms. "Nothing that I don't like. I just say, 'Okay, gracias. I have a man,' and keep going."
It's only a few minutes into an April show when a photo of a grinning, apple-cheeked five-year-old boy flashes on the screen. A seventysomething Cuban fan with cropped black hair and an infectious laugh sits on a folding chair offstage. Here to watch the live taping, Lucia Triana whispers, "Look at the boy. He looks just like him."
Then the camera cuts to Carlucho, a 36-year-old married father. He removes his gold frame glasses. "If this is a joke, our producers are hijos de puta." He rubs his eyes. "I don't remember. Five years ago, I was separated from my wife for a few months. If the boy is mine, I'll assume responsibility and support him. If he's not mine, I'll still accept him into my family and take him to Disney World with my wife and my daughters."