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.
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.
After a stint as a security guard at a South Beach hotel, Caceres was referred by a friend in 2000 to América TeVé, a local network that had been founded six years earlier. It catered to Cubans, which was rare back then, and programming included mostly infomercials.
The first thing he produced, El Mikimbin de Miami — a popular variety show inspired by the Cuban slang word for lowbrow in its title — was canceled after five years. Two years into filming, he began work on La Cosa Nostra. He modeled it after Crónicas Marcianas (The Martian Chronicles), an irreverent Spanish late-night hit that began in 1997. Hosts discussed topics from masturbation to terrorism. Breasts often played a starring role.
From the beginning, La Cosa Nostra was politically incorrect and honest. It was hosted by Ceriani and Omar Moynelo, a Cuban radio personality and telenovela star. While sitting around a massive table, the pair and supporting characters hashed out topics such as "Where does the caca go?" and "Should a woman shave her armpits?" They even lured O.J. Simpson, who was swarmed by amorous blond women when he appeared. They also produced segments about more serious subjects such as breast cancer and homelessness.
In 2005, dapper entertainer Boncó (real name: Conrado Cogle) and pudgy comic Carlucho (José Carlos Pérez) took over hosting. That was also the first year the fledging América TeVé earned a profit, the Miami Herald reported at the time.
These days, the Cuban duo continues in the principal seats. The supporting cast includes a reverend, a stripper, a dwarf, a gringo, a redheaded diva, a clever young strawberry blonde, a flaming gay singer, a psychologist, a man with a speech impediment, and a Cuban who feigns being a snooty Spaniard and uses words such as felación (fellatio) instead of blowjob to refine the group.
Each has an earpiece that feeds to Caceres, who tells dirty jokes and, like a puppet master, directs the cast when to speak or shut up. Typical nightly fare includes humor sketches, an irreverent look at the news, on-the-street interviews, a monologue by Boncó, and more. One recent show discussed whether a woman should reimburse a soon-to-be ex who had paid for her breast implants. Another tested male cast members to see if they were gay. There were videos of skeletons giving oral sex, a man in a Bill Clinton mask dancing the robot, and a cast member marrying a horse.
"One of my goals is to move smoothly between comedy and drama," Caceres says. "One minute you're crying and the next minute you're laughing — the kind of emotions that you experience in real life."
It's 10 on a weeknight at América TeVé studios in Hialeah Gardens, just past the Road Runner truck stop and due south of Okeechobee Road. The parking lot is packed. Factory lights twinkle in the distance, a lone dog barks, and semi trucks heave as they downshift into nearby seedy motels that flash neon.
Backstage in the hall that leads to a parade of dressing rooms, cast member Juan Espinosa mulls over campaigning for state representative. This is remarkable for several reasons: He is 24 years old. He is sincere. He is four feet two inches tall.
He leans against the wall with arms folded over his white polo shirt. A diamond stud glimmers from his left ear in the fluorescent light. Producers began encouraging his run for office months ago, he says. On air, Espinosa has pledged to lower taxes and home and car insurance rates and to improve schools.
The station airs his political spots during La Cosa Nostra with plugs for local businesses such as U-Pick Auto Parts in Medley as well as national ads for cars and men's clothing.
The downside of his campaign, the goateed Espinosa explains, is that, if he wins, he will have to give up his spot on the show. "It started as a joke, but now it's getting really serious," he says earnestly. "I don't think there has been a little person who has run for office. And that would be pretty cool to be in the Guinness World Records."
Show business found Espinosa about six years ago. The recent high school graduate was selling Hawaiian shirts at Dolphin Mall when a chubby Cuban customer who happened to be comedian José Martínez asked if he was interested in entertainment.
Espinosa, born in Key West to Cuban parents, had no experience but decided to give it a shot.
He and Martínez performed as a comedy duo on América TeVé's Payo en Llamas, a Sunday show that began around 2003 and included sketches about drunk plumbers sneaking into a hot girl's house. Espinosa was periodically paid $20 to cover gas. At the time, that was okay. He was hungry to perform.
"I got paid every once in a blue moon when I'd ask [Martínez]: 'Hey, look, I need money. I'm broke,'" Espinosa says. "I took it as a hobby; then I started to realize that people were getting paid and I wasn't. Now I'm older and wiser."
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."
"He'll be a good father," nods Triana. "It's good that this is happening now because, who knows, [the boy] could grow up and fall in love with one of his sisters."
Carlucho is used to his personal life creeping onto the small screen. People often stop him around his Westchester neighborhood to ask about the show, he says. He and his wife have discussed the child. If it's true, she'll forgive him. "I'm a gordito, and to find out that there's a woman out there with a fantasy that she had my child, well, today, I feel more alive than ever," he says. "The program is like that — a diversion."
Raised in Havana, Carlucho first appeared on television at age four. He was on a Saturday children's show, Siempre Brilla el Sol. He played the sun. Growing up after the Cuban revolution, he spent his early years taking classes in the morning and picking strawberries and tobacco by afternoon.
At age 18, he was accepted into a selective arts school where graffiti in the boys' bathrooms read, "Yo quiero ser Hamlet" ("I want to be Hamlet"). "I wanted to be a leading man," he recalls.
"But with this body and this face?" chuckles the portly comedian lounging near the pool of his gated, half-million-dollar Spanish-style home on SW 83rd Avenue on a recent day.
At the acting school, Carlucho earned a role in A Midsummer Night's Dream. After he uttered his first lines onstage, the crowd exploded into laughter. It wasn't supposed to be funny. A teacher advised him to pursue comedy. The 19-year-old quit school and began working in theaters and cabarets. At one he met Liz, a 17-year-old dancer, who would become his wife.
In the early Nineties, he began Bufomaniácos, a duo steeped in the island's vaudeville tradition. He and his partner toured underground clubs and theaters, using the act as a way to criticize the modern-day regime of Fidel Castro. Carlucho stepped into the role of a handlebar-mustached Spaniard called El Gallego. His partner donned blackface; El Negrito was a clever character who painted his counterpart as a fool, Carlucho says.
"It has nothing to do with racism," he assures. "It's what the characters say that makes it so controversial."
But he believed his career had peaked in Cuba. "I don't know if the government totally understood," he says. "They must have understood something because they never gave me the opportunity to be on TV."
He and Liz left the island in 2001 with their eight-month-old daughter Miacarla. They arrived in Miami by way of Mexico. Carlucho quickly found gigs in nightclubs and was eventually picked up by Univision Radio. In 2005, the year he joined La Cosa Nostra, he became a host on 98.3 FM La Kalle's El Traketeo, a morning show. Carlucho quit radio work this past March.
He's happiest on La Cosa Nostra.
"People laugh, cry, and then a woman comes to talk about sex toys," he says. "When the program goes well, it's because no one took their pill for the anxiety. When it goes badly, it's because everyone took the pill."
He admits the show confounds many viewers — even his 69-year-old mom, Ofelia. "I have a mother who has never told me that the show is bad or good. She falls into the group of people who watch it like this," he says as he turns away, holding an imaginary remote control while stealing disgusted glances.
Interviewed later, Ofelia, who lives with Carlucho and his family, says she prefers reading bedtime stories to her granddaughter, though she acknowledges seeing the photos of Carlucho's alleged child. "He doesn't look like my son. My son was never chubby like that as a child. He got chubby here."
On the April show, during a taped segment set to a sappy rock ballad, Carlucho chases the boy and pushes him on a tire swing. When it ends, Carlucho's cheeks glisten with tears. A pastor at the table holds a sign: "If Carlucho is not the boy's father, he should become his godfather." The cast sniffles.
Carlucho pledges, "I have to admit I'm the father of two daughters but I've always wanted a boy. The producers aren't such hijos de puta. This boy just needs someone to call Dad."
A commercial break comes, and Boncó returns with comic relief. Dressed in a dapper tweed suit and matching hat, the 38-year-old pushes a chair to the entrance of the set. Gregorian chants sound and a pretend pope emerges with his hands pressed in prayer. He lowers himself into the chair.
"Let me kiss your ring, Pope," a cast member requests.
"Wait, wait!" Boncó shrugs sheepishly. "I have the ring! I have the ring! Sorry, Pope, this is Miami."
Tonight's show is nearly over. The fake pope sits behind Boncó and Carlucho. "We didn't have the dancers on out of respect for the pope," Carlucho announces.
"I told the producers: 'I have no problem with the dancers,'" the pope says in his version of an Italian accent.
"C'mon, it's his birthday!" Boncó says, referring to the pope, and they head offstage. Peraza soon mounts the table to canned whistles. She slips off her top with dangling beads that bounce against her taut belly.
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.)
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.