Sep. 7, 2012 -- “¡Páralo allí! ¡Páralo allí!” shouts the gaudily dressed marionette known as La Comay, ordering the producer to pause a videotaped re-construction of the alibi proffered by a suspected murderer, Pablo Casellas. “Esto me parece muy raro!”
It’s about 6:30 in the evening in Puerto Rico and chances are a huge percentage of television viewers are tuned into Super Xclusivo, the island commonwealth’s highest-rated show, to watch a Miss Piggy-like puppet—voiced by a middle-aged man—give them the latest news.
La Comay (slang for comadre) is holding court as usual with her sidekick, Cuban comedian and producer Héctor Travieso, raging on about the latest unsolved crime she has taken up as a crusade, the murder of marketing executive Carmen Paredes Cintrón. It has been a week and a half since the island’s Department of Justice had declared her husband, Pablo Casellas, as a suspect, but the process was moving too slow for La Comay.
“¡Que bochinche!” she shouts her viral catchphrase, announcing a new round of juicy gossip.
The bizarre puppet orders a video clip played featuring leading radio host Luis Francisco Ojeda badgering an ex-DOJ special prosecutor. “This is a marionette that is doing what the Puerto Rico police won’t do,” insists Ojeda, and his guest agrees. “I think I could do a better job than Somoza!” she cackles, referring to Puerto Rico’s Attorney General Guillermo Somoza Colombani. The sound of a phone ringing is heard, and La Comay, wearing a shimmering black and silver checkered dress, turns to Travieso. “If that’s [Puerto Rico Governor] Fortuño calling, tell him I accept the job of attorney general!” Then she pauses, playfully putting her puppet hand to her puppet lips. “Has there ever been a female attorney general?”
La Comay, voiced by a once struggling comedian named Antulio “Kobbo” Santarrosa, is at the epicenter of a strange conjuncture between entertainment gossip, tabloid journalism, and what some might consider investigative reporting. Her show, which could be described as a cross between TMZ and 60 Minutes, has become a kind of town hall for the small-town culture that permeates the island, with La Comay playing the old lady of the barrio, chief gossip and guardian of the truth. “Santarrosa has used some very specific elements of Puerto Rican culture and exploits them,” said Sandra Rodríguez-Cotto, a publicist and columnist for local newspaper El Vocero.
The show has been on the air for 13 years. In the US, it airs on Wapa America, which is seen in 5.2 million homes. A couple of weeks ago, La Comay and Travieso held one of their typical celebrations when the ratings figures come out. With balloons and confetti flying, Travieso announced that for the period, Super Xclusivo received a 24.1 rating, beating out two episodes of Escobar el Patrón del Mal and American Idol spinoff Idol Puerto Rico. “Thirteeen years in a row,” he shouted, doing a half-step salsa turn.
In a profile published last year in El Nuevo Dia, Santarrosa comes off as magnanimous if somewhat full of himself. He began the Comay character with a gossipy marionette known as “La Chácara,” which he attributes to a comedian called Luisito Vigoreaux. Next he appeared on a noontime show on the local Telemundo outlet as “La Condesa del Bochinche.” Finally in 1999, he was offered the 6-7pm slot daily at WAPA, and Super Xclusivo has never looked back.
Over the years he has forged a team of reporters, usually with entertainment journalist chops, and police informers to tip off when well-known personalities have to appear in court. Super Xclusivo also receives many unpublished documents a la Smoking Gun, and now in the social media age, receives many tips through Twitter and Facebook.
Part of Super Xclusivo's formula is how it "makes 'celebrities' out of public figures that can be spoken of or commented on as if they were members of 'la farándula,'" said Professor Silvia Álvarez Curbelo, director of the School of Communications at the Univeristy of Puerto Rico. "It also has relatively low productions costs, with only Santarrosa and Héctor Travieso and reguarly appearing characters."
Rodríguez Cotto feels that the atmosphere of cutbacks and scarcity of journalism jobs on the island have made those with a job “complacent,” and says they don’t have the support of their employers to do serious investigative work. “Many of us who used to work in mainstream media,” says Rodríguez Cotto, who once toiled for El Nuevo Día, “have left for jobs in public relations or alternative websites like Oscar Serrano’s Noticel.”
Super Xclusivo has a garrulous and sometimes raunchy sensibility, punctuated by Comay tag lines and by quick shots of local legends egging her on. “I have word here,” La Comay shrieked a few weeks ago, “that a group of dancers taped a new video for the latest Daddy Yankee album, to be released! They did this on April 23 rd, and THEY STILL HAVEN’T GOT PAID YET!
The show specializes in embarrassing celebrities and ambush journalism, planting reporters in courthouses and waiting for famous figures like ex-MLB star Juan Igor González when they emerge from family court; and an endless array of bloopers where rival journalists and politicians are usually the target.
"The show dismantles or attacks the reputation or character of public figures, often revealing their hypocrisy, cynicism and opportunism," said Álvarez. "In this sense, La Comay assumes a moral posture although using sensationalism and facts to pronounce judgments that she proclaims are those of the people of Puerto Rico."
But in recent years La Comay has taken to championing the causes of high-profile crimes that have gone unsolved, such as the Paredes Cintrón case, or that of eight-year-old Lorenzo González Cacho, better known as “el niño Lorenzo,” who was killed in March of 2010, and who is permanently memorialized with a makeshift altar at the right of La Comay on every broadcast. No arrests have been made in the case, and La Comay has gone hard after his mother Ana Cacho, who she considers a suspect. The case had a major development two weeks ago when William Marero, an ICE agent, was declared a suspect in the case, and his lawyer claimed it was a political maneuver by the Fortuño administration during election season.
La Comay has also been accused of homophobia, and when confronted by LGBT activist Pedro Julio Serrano, who went to the FCC after the marionette used a derogatory word for a male homosexual, was forced to apologize, vowing never to use the word again. While not much about Santarrosa’s personal life or sexuality is known, Rodríguez Cotto mentioned that he went through a bitter divorce. La Comay was embroiled in more accusations of homophobia this year when she questioned the decision of the Miss Universe pageant to allow transgender women to compete.
Still, Comay/Santarrosa’s focus on unsolved crimes has struck a deep chord among Puerto Ricans, who are suffering from one of the worst surges in violent crime ever experienced there. Not only has the crime rate exploded, but whether due to incompetence or lack of staff and funding, the Puerto Rico police leaves an uncomfortable number of violent crimes unsolved. La Comay uses a populist approach to gain sympathy by focusing on the wealthy, who she implies escape prosecution by using their influence with the police.
The Parades Cintrón case has gained a lot of momentum on the show because it seems to be a textbook example of this phenomenon. Paredes’s husband, Pablo Casellas, is a suspect but until recently had not been indicted supposedly because of the influence of his father, who is a local Supreme Court judge. Super Xclusivo has continually sent camera crews to the Casellas-Paredes posh home in Guaynabo and re-runs footage of the judge, Salvador Casellas, lurking around during the police investigation.
Last month, La Comay stepped up the pressure by using one of his regular reporters, Jessica Serrano, to ambush the elder judge. One night, after insisting that Paredes’ missing computer held important clues, La Comay teased the viewers. “Look at this video!” she shouted, as a video runs of an older unidentified man walking down an Old San Juan street in a guayabera, carrying a briefcase. “Who is this man? What could he be carrying in that case?”
“Did you enter the crime scene?”
“How do you feel that Pablo is suspected?”
“What are you carrying there?”
“I have no comment,” said the judge, entering the church. “Respect the house of God!”
The Paredes Cintrón case coincided with a referendum vote that was held on August 19th, where it was proposed that those who were accused of murder in certain aggravated cases (having to do with kidnapping, sexual abuse, and expressway shoot-outs) would not have the absolute right to bail, as per the 1952 constitution. A second item, a proposal to reduce the size of the legislature, was also on the ballot, but La Comay relished the opportunity to showcase the first on her show.
It is common knowledge in Puerto Rico that most major politicians feel that an appearance on Super Xclusivo is a must. The tradition began, as Rodríguez Cotto tells it, during the election campaign between Anibal Acevedo Vilá and the former governor Pedro Rosselló in 2004. “Everyone knows Santarrosa is for the statehood party, but when he asked [statehood candidate] Rosselló to come on, he refused, saying ‘I don’t go on puppet shows,’” said Rodriguez Cotto. “But Anibal did, and La Comay told the audience they should vote for him.” After Acevedo Vilá’s victory, no one dared refuse La Comay again.
Current governor Luis Fortuño doesn’t hesitate to appear, and neither does the president of the senate, Tomás Rivera Schatz. In fact, when Fortuño faced his first major crisis in 2010, when students demonstrated in front of the Capitol building and were beaten back by police, Fortuño appeared on the show, and faced confrontational questioning from WAPA staff reporter Rafael Lenín López.
Before the referendum, La Comay invited Acevedo Vilá, who argued against the amendments and Governor Fortuño, whose party initiated the amendments, to come on and gave them 10 minutes each to state their position. Acevedo Vilá argued that the referenda were politically motivated , and that to change the constitution to eliminate the absolute right to bail would not reduce crime. “It’s like giving an aspirin to cure a cancer patient,” he said, smiling.
Fortuño followed the next night insisting the referendum was not political, that it amounted to a minor change that would greatly help to relieve citizens and the victims of violent crime. “This is about protecting working people,” insisted Fortuño. “It’s going to bring peace to Puerto Rico.” After the break, La Comay announced that she was supporting the amendment, saying the issue was not political, despite showing footage that came from ads clearly labeled as paid for by the statehood party. “We have to do something! I recommend everyone vote yes!”
On August 19, both amendments were defeated in a surprise vote, 54% to 46%. The Monday show had La Comay with her red sunglasses on, which signified a “descarguita,” which means that she is about to deliver a major rant about something. “Ponme tensión,” she said in her trademark way, cueing the playing of foreboding music. She scoffed at the result, saying only 33% of the electorate showed up, as opposed to the “77% who went to the beach.” (It’s the new math!) “ I don’t want anyone to go around leading marches [about the crime problem]…I don’t want anybody crying.”
The reaction came off like sour grapes, especially when so many on the island celebrated it as a rejection of politics as usual. But in a strange way, even though La Comay urged everyone to vote “yes,” the appearance of Acevedo Vilá, who came off as more believable, on Super Xclusivo may have ultimately influenced the voters more than her personal recommendation.
Just this week, however, the themes Super Xclusivo had been pushing came to a hysterical climax. Pablo Casellas was finally charged with murder, a firearms charge, a charge of destroying evidence and giving false information to the police. La Comay came on almost beside herself, insisting that the show’s reporters had not only beaten everyone else to the story, but was still delivering the most cutting-edge coverage.
This time Jessica Serrano led a shaky-cam charge towards Casellas, dressed in a navy blue suit, as he walked from the Bayamón court house parking area to the main entrance, harassing him with questions as the Jaws soundtrack played in the background. She goaded him with questions about his daughters and how he hid the body, but there was of course no reaction.
Then La Comay jockeyed with Travieso about how he’d heard that the police superintendent had been left out of the arrest process by Attorney General Somoza, as footage rolled of a police lieutenant violently pushing away the paparazzi came to read Casellas his Miranda rights. It was a suffocating spectacle that brought up more questions about possible political motivations.
As La Comay ranted on about how Casellas’s father had already paid the $4 million bail in cash, she taunted those who voted against the amendment to deny the absolute right to bail. “The man is a flight risk,” insisted Travieso, despite the fact that he was required to surrender his passport.
Just as La Comay is prone to speculate about how the fix was in about the suddenly suspicious ability of Judge Casellas to come up with the bail, she was leading her audience to speculate about something else. Why was it that, a few weeks after an embarrassing loss at the polls, the Fortuño administration had suddenly prioritized the cases La Comay had been railing on about for months? How convenient was it that they were able to provide an example of a high-profile murder case that involved a controversial bail scenario, even if letting Casellas rot in jail would have little effect on the explosive crime problem on the island?