Cecilia Velazquez — five-foot-three Mexican whirlwind, a media maven both adored and despised — is seated in her Woodson Terrace office on a recent afternoon flexing her biceps.
"Look," she says, showing off muscles in between quick bites of lunch, a rosary hanging from her neck. "I'm working out."
Somehow she's found time to lift weights, this 40-year-old owner of Radio Cucui (770 AM). That is, when she's not hosting Latinos en St. Louis, a show on the government-access channel STL TV. Or raising money for charity. Or promoting the concerts of superstar Mexican bands.
Velazquez is perhaps best known as the driving force behind the free bimonthly Spanish-language newspaper Red Latina (which translates as "Latino Network"). With a circulation of 15,000 that stretches east into Illinois and west to Jefferson City, the paper is a mix of Latino society photos and practical living information, with immigration politics usually dominating its pages.
The bulging headline atop last week's issue reads: "SB1070," a reference to the controversial bill Arizona's governor Jan Brewer recently signed into law, which criminalizes living in the state undocumented and requires police and other law-enforcement officials to check the immigrant status of anyone suspected of being an alien.
"It's terrible," Velazquez says of the legislation, which, in her opinion, could grant too much power to police officers that might have racist tendencies. "This country is made of immigrants," Velazquez asserts, her raspy voice rising with emotion. "I can say with assurance that one of your ancestors was from another country."
In a black tank top and stretch pants, her thick dark hair pulled back tight, Velazquez radiates energy, ambition and charisma. She also displays impeccable timing. Twenty years ago, metropolitan St. Louis was home to 26,000 Latinos, according to census estimates, and a handful of organized Hispanic soccer teams. Today that community has more than doubled to 63,000 and formed four soccer leagues.
And for the past decade Velazquez has been riding that demographic wave, feeding it information and entertainment. Her newspaper's motto: ¡Seguimos Creciendo! (Translation: "Let's Keep Growing!")
For many years Velazquez herself wasn't supposed to be in the United States. She prefers not to dwell on the legal aspects of her life, but some basic facts are known. She was detained as an intending immigrant in 2000 and given two weeks to leave the country. She did not. After an arrest in 2003, her case came before a judge who ordered her removal. She appealed but lost.
Following a second arrest in April 2006, authorities deported her back to Mexico, despite letters of support from such elected officials as Jim Talent, Russ Carnahan, William Lacy Clay Jr. and Joan Bray, who described her as "warm, intelligent and ambitious."
Velazquez kept her enterprises afloat during her two-year exile by managing them from Cancún and working, as she boasts, "100-hour weeks." While there, she married an American man and was eventually granted a waiver to come back in the spring of 2008.
Since her return, Red Latina has won recognition from the national Hispanic press, this year taking home a pair of José Martí Publishing awards. In 2009 the local Hispanic Chamber of Commerce also lauded Velazquez by naming her Business Person of the Year, a distinction that honors someone who "has a good track-record in management."
Yet, so far in 2010, Velazquez has run at least three articles from a major newswire service, EFE, which says she has not paid for permission. In one case, she didn't even credit the author. She denies any wrongdoing.
The chamber also describes recipients of its annual award as those who "show support for other Hispanic entrepreneurs." Last year her rival paper, El Mundo Latino, purchased exclusive media sponsor rights for two different events. Refusing to be squeezed out, Velazquez showed up at both and unfurled large Red Latina banners. In both cases she was forced to take them down.
Never one to shy away from confrontation, the scrappy Velazquez was removed by police from two community festivals in 2008 and 2009 after heated arguments with adversaries.
She was also asked to leave Our Lady of Guadalupe church in 2008 when parish administrators spotted her trying to promote her business inside the church building — strictly a place of worship for Catholics — by handing out fliers to one of her bailes, or dances, after a Sunday Mass.
"She has very unorthodox methods," says Gilberto Pinela, host of Ahora San Luis on STL TV. Velazquez was his cohost when the show first began in 2001, and the two have remained friends. "She does not understand how protocol must be followed in the American system. But I think she's starting to learn, slowly but surely."
Many of her acquaintances, former employees and business associates declined to speak on the record about their experiences with her, fearing she might exact revenge. Some even refused to continue the conversation with the RFT at the mere mention of her name.
Velazquez dismisses her detractors as spiteful and jealous. "If they cannot do what you are doing, somehow you are the bitch," she says. "Whatever!"
Geraldine Cols, a Venezuelan journalist who has worked on the production crew of Latinos en St. Louis, believes Velazquez is misunderstood. "She's a very strong-willed woman, and sometimes that's perceived as cocky or aggressive," says Cols. "But to go where she wants to go, I think sometimes that means you have to step on some people. You're bound to make some enemies along the way."
On the wall of Velazquez's office hangs a photo collage in which a man's face is circled with red marker. The word "TRAITOR" is written beneath. That man, René Vences, is currently a mortgage banker in south St. Louis. At the request of a distant relative, he picked up Velazquez at the airport when she moved here in August 1998.
"I thought, 'This woman is crazy,'" Vences recalls with a smile. "I liked her." So began a close friendship. Velazquez already had management experience and degrees in psychology and journalism. Vences introduced her directly to the community's movers and shakers. One of them was Patricia Lange, the founder of the then-newly launched ¿Qué Pasa San Luís? newspaper. Lange hired her as an assistant who would sell advertisements.
"She was a hard worker," remembers Lange, who now lives in Mexico and Spain. "But she was very pushy with some of my clients." They had a falling out, and within months, Velazquez left the newspaper and started Red Latina in 2001.
Soon, the two rival editors were crossing paths in public — and with explosive results. Once, they nearly came to blows at a bookstore in St. Ann.
"Being Hispanic is being dramatic," explains Pinela, who remembers some of the conflicts. "There was a lot of animosity. Both felt they were deserving of the title of newspaper pioneer."
In March 2002 Velazquez got into a physical altercation with a city postal clerk. According to the police report, she walked up to the help counter at the Gravois post office while talking on her cell phone. The clerk asked her to finish her conversation off to the side before buying stamps. Minutes later, she got off the phone, paid for the stamps and then took the moistening sponge into the lobby for her own use.
The clerk asked her to bring it back. Velazquez refused. The clerk proceeded to leave her station and went into the lobby. Seconds later, the pair was wrestling on the ground, though the surveillance tape was "inconclusive" as to who started the fight.
The clerk claimed Velazquez threw the sponge and hit her in the mouth, while Velazquez, who suffered some facial scratches, told police she was "attacked for no apparent reason." Both were given a summons for "general peace disturbance."
René Vences remembers getting the phone call to come pick her up. "I always tried to help Cecilia whenever she was in trouble," he says. He admits to having strong feelings for her at one point. "I was a little obsessed because she was ignoring me, and I was like, 'Who ignores René Vences?'"
By 2004 Velazquez had carved out a prominent place among Latinos. She'd joined the boards of both the Hispanic Leaders Group and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. She'd launched La Rancherita promotions and started drawing big-name bands to town. She was also lighting up the screen as cohost of Ahora San Luis, the first Spanish-language show produced in the city, and possibly the entire state, according to STL TV production manager, Andre Holman.
"I was blown away with her style and her not having an in-depth background in broadcasting," says Holman. "She's a natural." She interviewed Albert Pujols and Sammy Sosa in Spanish and one year threw out the first pitch at a Cardinals game.
She also took to the radio waves, partnering up with Mateo Mulcahy, a long-time DJ on KDHX (88.1 FM), as well as Jaime Piccozzi, Debbie Kollinger and Pinela to create Radio Cucui. What began in 2001 as a lively five-hour Saturday slot on 770 AM peaked a few years later at 30 hours of programming that spread into the workweek.
"It was a mess," recounts Velazquez. "I was the only one selling ads and collecting money. It became my job doing everything."
Mulcahy paints a different picture, saying he and Piccozzi spent countless hours recording spots and making the schedule, while Velazquez was cutting certain clients special deals without consulting anyone. While hosting her show, claims Mulcahy, she sometimes ran advertisements that directly competed with her partners' other business ventures.
"We'd spend most of the time at our meetings discussing inconsistencies with Cecilia," he continues. "It was very hard to get anything else done, and it just became untenable."
Pinela was the first partner to bow out. "It was too much anger," he says. "I don't have time for anger." By 2005 the other partners had all followed suit, and Velazquez became sole proprietor of Radio Cucui, which by then accounted for 70 percent of the station's airtime.
With a presence in radio, TV and print, Velazquez was the person that many Hispanic organizations turned to when immigration reform became a hot-button national issue in early 2006. She hesitated to get involved at first, she says, for fear that becoming the face of the local reform movement would jeopardize her legal crusade to remain stateside.
At last she relented and lent her voice to the cause. "And exactly what I thought was going to happen happened," she says.
On the morning of April 7, 2006, just two days before the big rally for immigrant rights outside the Old Courthouse, officials arrested Velazquez at her north-county home. She remembers sitting in jail, distraught, watching herself on the local news broadcasts.
To this day, she suspects Patricia Lange was somehow involved and believes government officials were punishing her for advocating immigration reform. Velazquez was escorted back into her native Mexico on April 14, 2006.
Two months later she married American Andrew Jones, whom she says she'd previously met at a Starbucks in St. Louis. The couple bought and began to operate a bed and breakfast in Cancún, all while Velazquez coordinated with her employees back in St. Louis. The deportation saddened her, she says. "But we had such a good time in Cancún," she remembers.
That summer she heard a shocker: Three of her girls from Red Latina were teaming up with René Vences, her dear friend and former DJ at Radio Cucui, to establish another newspaper called El Mundo Latino.
"I loved him; I really believed he was my friend," Velazquez says, with an uncharacteristic softness to her voice. "And suddenly everything changed. He put a knife in my back."
The annual Cinco de Mayo festival on Cherokee Street began as a block party in the late '90s. It has since morphed into a quarter-mile stretch of crowds, blaring music and the aroma of grilled meat. It was here in 2008 that Cecilia Velazquez, freshly back from Mexico, tried and failed to stage a comeback.
She bounded up onto the main stage that May afternoon and took the microphone from her new archrival, El Mundo Latino editor René Vences, who was emceeing the event. She was allotted a brief time slot to announce her flashiest concert to date: Los Tigres del Norte, a powerhouse Mexican band coming to Chaifetz Arena. But after two minutes, nobody could hear her. The festival organizers cut off her mic because, they said, Velazquez had exceeded her time limit.
Writing about the incident later in a letter addressed to Russ Carnahan, a St. Louis City Circuit Court judge and several others, she complained of being "humiliated in front of hundreds of people."
"Since I was unable to get on the microphone and promote the event," she continued, "only 2,000 people showed up, and we were expecting 10,000 people, and La Rancherita Promotions lost close to $46,000." Plugging her concert on the main stage, she asserted, was her right "as a sponsor."
Except that she wasn't a sponsor that year, according to Jason Deem, a Cinco de Mayo organizer. El Mundo Latino had paid to be the sole media sponsor, and it was only after "multiple emotional requests" from Velazquez that they gave in and allowed her the chance, free of charge, to promote an outside event.
Vences and El Mundo again bought exclusive media rights to the 2009 festival, but headstrong Velazquez found a way to make her presence felt. She offered some free ad space in her paper to Carlos Dominguez, the owner of a prominent grocery store on Cherokee. All he had to do was hang her $1,000, two-story banner from the side of his building facing the main stage.
And so he did. The banner read: "Red Latina: Always Present at the Best Events," giving the impression that Velazquez, not her rivals, was the event's sponsor. (On the front page of her next issue, she splashed a photo of the festival crowds with her banner looming in the background.)
When the organizers discovered what she'd done, they prevailed on the grocer to take it down. Around 2 p.m., Aída Fuentes, El Mundo's marketing director, caught up with Cecilia, and a shouting match erupted. Vences swooped in and grabbed his former friend's arm, demanding that she leave.
That was enough for Velazquez to file a restraining order against him.
"I knew I shouldn't have touched her," Vences later testified in court. "But she was right up in [Aída's] face." The shouting match broke up, but police soon tracked down Velazquez, told her it was time to go and walked her out to her car.
When Velazquez's petition for a restraining order came before the judge, he heard an hour of testimony and declined to grant one. The drama spilled over to STL TV after Fuentes, who works with the station, sent producers an e-mail detailing what had transpired. Velazquez countered with her own written version.
"I basically told all of them, 'Whatever you need to do to work this out, do it, because STL TV wants to support both of you,'" recalls Andre Holman.
The beef didn't end there. On the sweltering day of June 21, 2009, the Kansas City Wizards squared off with the Mexican team Atlas in a professional soccer match on the Saint Louis University campus. Once again, El Mundo had exclusive media sponsorship. Velazquez arrived and took pictures, recalls Dave Borchardt, public relations manager for the Wizards. Then she hung up an eight-foot-by-eight-foot banner. Officials asked her to remove it.
"She asked if she could put it up, and I said no," Borchardt remembers. "But she did it anyway."
"She's very obsessive in pursuit of her goals," says Pinela. "And that's what irks people about Cecilia. She's totally committed. It's not a hobby for her. She is like, boom, 24-7, and people don't understand that."
During the summer of 2008, Velazquez entered the church building of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Ferguson, just after a Sunday Mass. She began handing out fliers promoting one of her bailes, which caught the eye of 66-year-old Maria Lucrecia, a native Colombian who works in the parish's Hispanic ministry.
The two women already had a less than amicable relationship. Lucrecia attempted to stop Velazquez that day among the pews but couldn't. Monsignor Jack Schuler was forced to step in and convince Velazquez to take her activities outside.
"The real issue is, we just don't sell things in the church," says Fr. John-Paul Hopping, now the church's pastoral administrator. "It doesn't matter what it was, we just don't do that. But she's welcome to come pray with us."
Velazquez returned for the parish festival on October 12, 2008. She knew some of the DJs working the sound system. According to Lucrecia, she asked them to plug her bailes over the loudspeaker. Velazquez denies doing this. A fiery exchange of words ensued between the two women. Lucrecia left the scene and appealed to a parish priest, who returned with some police officers. They escorted Velazquez off the grounds.
Lucrecia claims that the following Sunday a couple of people relayed a message, reportedly from Velazquez, that unspecified harm would befall the parish worker.
"A lot of people think she does brujerías," Lucrecia says. "So I told [the messengers], 'Since you like relaying news, tell Cecilia that if she does witchcraft to me, it's not going to stick, because I'm with God. And if she sends someone to kill me, I'll go to Heaven, and she'll go to jail.'"
Velazquez laughs it off. "Come on, I'm a psychologist, that's ridiculous to me." Then, with an impish laugh, she adds, "And she's the one who's the witch!"
The publisher went so far as to recount the incident in the early November issue of Red Latina, claiming she was ejected "for no reason" and referring to Lucrecia as "a wolf in sheep's clothing" who runs "petty schemes" from within the sanctuary of the church. Velazquez insists she got an apology from parish priests but not from Lucrecia.
Lucrecia says she prays for the editor of Red Latina. "I think she doesn't know herself, and she's grasping to find out who she is. At the same time she's hurting herself by doing all these crazy things," says the parish worker. "So I pray that one day she finds herself and stops bugging people."
A trailer home caught fire in the wee hours of January 27, 2005, in Fairmont City, Illinois. Juan José Martín and his wife Silvia escaped with their daughter, Yoseline, and one of their twin babies. Silvia tried without success to pull the other twin from his bed and burned her hands severely. The seven-month-old boy died in the blaze.
Not content to simply feature this story on her front page, Velazquez decided to throw a fundraiser at Casa Loma Ballroom, where she collected enough donations to give the Martíns $8,000 and two automobiles. They used the money to pay for a new home.
Sitting on her couch in Fairmont City five years later, Silvia Martín says she was so devastated by the loss, she didn't even want to go to Casa Loma that night. But once she arrived, Velazquez's concern made her feel better. "I know a lot of people don't like Cecilia," Martín says. "But for me, she's an angel."
Another time, Velazquez organized a Posada, or symbolic journey from house to house commemorating Joseph and Mary's attempt to find shelter on Christmas Eve. Donations were collected for a Nicaraguan teenager whose osteoporosis was so advanced that he needed an electric wheelchair. Then, just last March, Radio Cucui raised $14,000 for the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
"She's a good person," Pinela says. "And she legitimately cares about the Latino community and the migrant community — a lot."
Jorge Riopedre, executive director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, describes Velazquez as "a joyful person" who has "always got a smile on her face." Their business relationship, he says, has always been "cordial."
Jealousy colors people's perception of her, suggests Pat Brannon, owner of Casa Loma. She's recently sold out two big shows at his venue: Los Tigres del Norte (back again) and Espinoza Paz. She devoted some of her emcee stage time trying to convince her Hispanic brethren to fill out their census forms.
"I think there's a gender discrimination in the Mexican population," he says, observing that all the other big concert promoters in St. Louis are men. "They're not used to seeing women achieving as much as Cecilia. But she's earned it all. Nobody gave her anything."
When Andre Holman at STL TV heard she'd returned from Mexico, he quickly sought her out to host Latinos en St. Louis, a thirty-minute show of short interview segments. He calls it "a great success."
"She has a chemistry with people," he says. "I've seen her take people who were kind of hesitant and just bring them out. Her personality is unbelievable."
Gisela Castillo-Munoz, a 29-year-old from Aguascalientes, Mexico, keeps a white binder stuffed with documents. They tell the story of her months working at Red Latina. "I hope this changes things," says Castillo, who hesitated for many months before speaking to the RFT. "Someone has to stop her."
Fresh out of St. Louis Community College-Meramec last spring with a certificate in graphic design, she began freelancing for Red Latina. Velazquez offered to sponsor her for a three-year work visa, which requires employers to spend thousands in government and legal fees. But, as Castillo tells it, Velazquez asked to be paid back because times were tight. Castillo knew this was illegal but wanted to stay in St. Louis, so she agreed.
Soon, the publisher was creating a buzz about her new graphic designer, featuring her on radio, TV and in the pages of Red Latina. At one concert, Velazquez sang Castillo's praises into the microphone. Later, some girls in the restroom noticed the young lady and asked to pose in a picture with her. Thanks in part to all the publicity, Castillo says, her freelance graphic-design work soared.
"That's what she does," Castillo says. "She gets a new person and makes them famous."
On one memorable day, Castillo says, her boss let her see her some video footage of a scuffle she'd just gotten into. The video showed Velazquez confronting Michael Graff, a lawyer on Cherokee Street.
As Graff remembers the incident, Velazquez ambushed him with a video camera, demanding payment for some ads she'd run for him. Graff told her he wasn't sure he owed her anything. Velazquez then started shooting the inside of his office, he says, and when he tried to snatch away her camera, she threw a punch.
It never happened, sniffs Velazquez, "He grabbed my arm. And how can I stay in business if people don't pay me?"
"I don't like her heavy-handed methods of collection," Graff says. "But she's probably no different from the rest of us. Business is tight, and she's trying to make it. I don't hate the woman."
On another day, Castillo recalls, the two were delivering some newspapers to a grocery shop on Cherokee when she noticed Velazquez hoist up a stack of El Mundo copies and drop them in the van. Asked what she planned to do with them, the publisher replied she was going to toss them in the trash. Impossible, says Velazquez, for she only delivers papers far from Cherokee, near her home in north county.
Castillo was fired from Red Latina the very same day her visa came through. The two women give conflicting accounts as to why. But whatever the reason, Castillo says, she'd blown thousands on a useless visa.
Velazquez insists that Castillo owes her money and never paid for her visa. "We have everything in writing," she says.
So does Castillo. She's obtained checks from her bank showing that she reimbursed Red Latina for at least part of the work visa fees that, under federal regulations, employers must always assume.
Castillo says that in the days after departing the newspaper, her cell phone lit up several times with calls from acquaintances wishing to share what they'd gone through with Velazquez. Some of the callers did so without giving their names. "It was kind of scary," she says. "I didn't even know some of these people."
Last Saturday, more than 2,000 people poured into the Kiener Plaza amphitheater downtown following a march for immigrant rights. As a group of speakers assemble onstage, Cecilia Velazquez moves up to the front of the crowd. She wears a neon-green Radio Cucui hat, snaps pictures and shoots video.
She doesn't take the microphone this time. "No way, José," says Velazquez, a permanent resident still awaiting naturalization as a U.S. citizen. "I learned my lesson on that!"
Velazquez says she's happy with the turnout, but noticed a lack of Hispanics in attendance. "Maybe they were afraid," she says, signing a petition for immigration reform. She leaves behind several bundles of Red Latina on a petition table.
She's tan, having just returned from a cruise and a vacation to her native Mexico. Asked recently what kind of child she had been growing up there, she says she was always organizing the other kids, convincing them to go to the park or play hooky. "I don't know if I had ADD or what, but I was always doing something," she says.
"I was always the leader."