Spanish-Language TV: Perverse and Profound

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

Only round nipple covers separate the show from an R rating and FCC sanctions. Offstage, another La Cosa Nostra regular, Pastor Pedro Martínez, chitchats with a cameraman near the door. The handsome 50-year-old holds a black sportcoat near his face to block his view of the sultry dancer.

"I am very sensitive to any concerns that I may be coveting or desiring the dancers. And they are very pretty girls," he says with a smile. "They're my friends and I respect them, but I'd rather not watch."

Martínez adds ethical shades to the show's often street-level banter. Since conception, La Cosa Nostra has included the voice of religion. By doing so, it acknowledges people can laugh at crude jokes, ogle sexy dancers, and still be decent, faithful people. (Pastors and priests are sought-after invitees to Spanish-language shows, a sign of reverence to Hispanic viewers' respect for the church. Indeed Martínez is in demand. He has appeared on more than 20 programs.)

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.

Martínez escaped Cuba in 1968 at age 10. His family settled in New York's Spanish Harlem. Seven years later, they were Miami-bound. At age 21, he married Maria, a year younger. God played a bit part in his life — if that. "I was not a Bible-reading person," he says. "I was really pretty critical of men who went to church. God plays those kind of jokes."

His faith bloomed in his early twenties, when Maria began attending a Baptist church in Hialeah. She would rehash the sermon as she cooked dinner.

While driving a bread delivery truck in the early Eighties, he heard a Bible passage on the radio calling him to the clergy. He ditched the bread route and attended seminary.

The couple started Iglesia Cristiana Amor in 1990 and ran worship services from a Radisson Hotel before moving to the current spot at SW 26th Street and 108th Avenue. About a decade later, they began a homeless mission, H.O.P.E. in Miami Beach.

Martínez was asked to speak about the homeless on América TeVé and soon became a go-to guest for ethical matters. In 2006, he was invited to join La Cosa Nostra's cast.

His wife, a pretty brunette with a bob and a New York accent, struggled with the content. "You mean they have all these ladies there half-nude?" she asked him. "Peter, what the heck are you going to do?"

A Wednesday-night prayer circle at the church had been asking God for media exposure. "I thought, God, we prayed for six to seven years for this. Did it have to be this sleazy show?" Maria continues. "It's not a show Christians are comfortable with."

After talking with his family, Martínez brought the matter to his congregation. Some didn't support his decision to perform on the show. Ten families left.

But he continued — and now adds a dimension rarely seen on English-language talk shows. He counsels the cast to be rational and holds up signs proclaiming his beliefs. On a show about gangs, his sign read, "I'm part of God's gang."

Early on, when female dancers graced the stage, he would turn his back. After one of the dancers confided that it hurt her feelings, he started shielding his view with a sheet of paper. He drew the line at the stripper. He departs the set when the crew hauls the pole onto the stage.

He gives this explanation to anyone who questions his place on La Cosa Nostra: "Imagine a room, totally dark. Isn't a little light at least better than none? That's what I'm doing there — being who I am. At least I'm a little light."

The show doesn't pay much — just enough to cover his weekly grocery bills. And it can stretch his workday to 15 hours, which allows only about five hours for sleep. "Many religious people don't like that type of programming," he explains. "They may feel, This might be a sinful program, so I don't want to be a part of the program. For me, secular TV is not a place to preach. It's a place you're invited to go. You have your view and they have their view, and that's okay."

On a recent Sunday before the morning service at the cozy Iglesia Cristiana Amor, churchgoers heartily support their pastor. A few dozen casually dressed members mill near a coffee stand. Drums and guitars sit on a small stage facing metal folding chairs. Near the pulpit is a mural depicting a blue cross and neon rays shooting from behind it.

Marvin Baltodano sings and plays electric guitar in the church band. The 24-year-old biomedical engineering student supports his pastor. "I think he's doing exactly what Jesus did. He's hanging around with the sinners."

Eduardo Cardounel has been a member since the church began. Says the graying, 68-year-old developer: "He has a mission on Earth. Like the Bible says, 'Go to the sick.'"

Perhaps — but hanging out in the dark with the sick can also be a whole lot of fun.

Click here for a behind-the-scenes view of La Cosa Nostra.

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