Gerson Borrero, freestyle ranter

Politicians, get in line -- the fire-breathing editor of New York's oldest Spanish language newspaper will happily tear you a new one.

By Rachel Scheier

Published October 31, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

Gerson Borrero has been sued, boycotted, shouted at and punched. A few months ago, he got fired from the best-paying job he's ever had. He is foulmouthed, likes to insult people publicly and, not surprisingly, has a lot of enemies. Among the people he's insulted in the past are practically every politician in New York, President Bush and Jennifer Lopez. He once got dozens of angry calls when, on the radio, he questioned the sexual orientation of Jesus Christ. ("All I'm saying is life is long -- he had to do something for pleasure.") He doesn't like to say where he lives, because people threaten to kill him all the time. One union leader described him as "evil, except that is not a strong enough word."

Life, in other words, could not be better.

Borrero is the editor in chief of El Diario La Prensa, New York's oldest Spanish language newspaper. His promotion last year to the top editorial job at the paper, where he had been a columnist for several years, surprised a lot of people who knew him, because until that time he had been quite happily occupied venting his outrageous critiques, both in his columns and on a popular weekday radio show.

"He's a smart guy, but he's very abrasive," one journalist who knows him says. Before Borrero became a controversial commentator, he worked in public relations. He advised some political candidates, and he helped found the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy, a research and advocacy group. Over the years, he got to know a lot of journalists and politicians around the city. He spoke out in favor of public school reform and against police brutality; he led a protest when Madonna rubbed a Puerto Rican flag between her legs.

But, Borrero is the first to acknowledge, times have changed. A quarter of the city's residents are now Hispanic. To be Latino these days, especially in New York, is to be courted by advertisers and politicians from every corner. The Bronx borough president, Fernando Ferrer, recently came close to becoming the city's first Puerto Rican mayor. So, when the editorship of El Diario was offered to Borrero, even though he hates "administrative crap," he recognized it as an opportunity for "greater influence."

Borrero gave up his column at the newspaper when he took the top job, but he kept doing his public affairs radio show called "Bajo Fuego" or "Under Fire," which was drawing high ratings on WADO, a popular Spanish-language radio station in New York.

On the three-hour daily show, Borrero was opinionated and prickly on the issues of the day and whatever else happened to be on his mind, from police brutality to baseball -- a sort of liberal, Spanish-speaking Rush Limbaugh. But the shock jock is still a new concept on Hispanic radio, and "Bajo Fuego" drew a lot of complaints. (Borrero's own mother refused to listen to it because it made her nervous.) Mostly, though, listeners found Borrero's show provocative and his irreverent style entertaining. Then last May, three local members of Congress who had been favorite targets of Borrero's -- Democrats Nydia Velazquez of Brooklyn's 12th District, Robert Menendez of the 13th District in New Jersey and Jose Serrano of the Bronx 16th District -- complained to executives at WADO's parent company about Borrero's "personal attacks" against them. (He called Serrano a "spineless human being" and frequently accused Velazquez of having "no political ovaries," to cite just two.) "We made it very clear that we did not care for WADO's journalistic standards and would not support its community programming," said a joint statement from the three. Station executives confronted Borrero and asked him to soften his critiques. He refused. He was fired a few days later.

So far, he seems to be taking the incident in stride. The only thing Borrero likes more than trashing people, after all, is when other people trash him. "It's the best thing that could have happened to me in terms of my career," he says. Indeed, in the weeks following his firing, WADO was deluged with angry calls from listeners. Borrero began giving interviews, and soon stories appeared in the Washington Post and the New York Times, as well as a piece by metro columnist Clyde Haberman decrying the politicians for engaging in censorship. (None of the three responded to requests for comment.) Even public figures who had been skewered by Borrero in the past came to his defense.

"I wear it with real honor, the fact that I pissed off three politicians enough for them to misuse their power against me," Borrero says. "Oh, I tell you, so far it ranks among the best things that have happened to me in my life." On the other hand, since he no longer has a platform to express himself, Borrero's friends and family members have been finding themselves suddenly trapped in a room with him or on the phone, converted into audiences for his impromptu rants.

At 4 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, he's pacing his office in Soho, which has sweeping views of the Statue of Liberty and lower Manhattan. On the wall is a framed photo of George W. Bush over the phrase "Nos jodimos" (loosely translated: "We're screwed,") and a picture of Borrero's face superimposed onto an image of Fidel Castro saluting in his trademark fatigues. Today he's wearing a charcoal suit and an immaculately pressed white shirt. He absently fiddles with the silver case for his reading glasses as he talks about foreign policy, racism and the president, whom he usually refers to as "The Forest Gump of the White House," though now he is reluctantly commending Bush for "showing restraint" in his response to the recent terrorist attacks. "I still think he's an idiot, but he's been doing pretty well," he tells me.

This magnanimity does not extend to Mayor Rudy Giuliani, however, whom he has nicknamed "the Pinochet of City Hall." The day before I spoke with Borrero, Giuliani broached the subject of overriding term limits and running for reelection. "What is so fucking great about what Rudy has done?" he shouts, pounding his fists on his desk. "He's held press conferences. That's what we elected him for! Now he's the star of the show, the ringmaster. Hel-LO? What the hell is he doing different than he did before?"

Borrero begins pacing again. "People asked whether he was running again and he said he hasn't had time to think about it -- he's a lying scumbag! He's a vile person, he's a dictator and he's unscrupulous. He has the totalitarian mentality that he thinks he can reverse the will of the people!"

Borrero is 50 years old, and he has lived in New York City nearly all his life. The first thing most people notice about him is his voice, a silky Bronx baritone. If you hear him speak and you haven't met him first, you might imagine him to be very large and dangerous-looking, but he is stocky and not terribly tall, with a round face and balding head that make him look almost cherubic. When he laughs -- which is often; Borrero finds the world funny as hell -- or when he's outraged about something or other, his face turns red and he tends to bang his fists on the furniture. He is a master of the freestyle rant. One minute he'll be talking about the media ("They should get off their asses and ride the subway") and the next he'll be shouting about welfare reform ("For God's sake, there's got to be some humanity!").

He also has extraordinary stamina. Once, on the night of the disputed presidential race between Bush and Gore, he talked on the radio for 12 hours straight. Borrero is a doting father, especially when it comes to his 18-year-old daughter Taina, with whom he talks on the phone several times a day. He hates technology and he doesn't drink. He insists that he doesn't enjoy hurting people's feelings, and he often seems mystified as to why people are upset by his critiques. He says he likes to be criticized, he only wishes there were more people who could do it intelligently. On the other hand, he says, "I just don't have time to beat around the bush."

Borrero likes to see his own story as a tale of immigrant struggle and success. He was born in Puerto Rico, but his single mother, determined to offer her two sons a better life, moved them to New York when Borrero was 4. Growing up on the streets of the South Bronx, "I got my ass kicked every day," Borrero says, by Irish and Italian kids. He eventually dropped out of high school. Later, he went back and got his GED, took some college courses but never graduated, and slept on the floor of his studio apartment because he had no money to buy furniture. It wasn't until he began working at the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy and speaking out on Hispanic issues that he began to find his way. A friend who was a producer at a local Spanish language TV station asked him to do occasional commentaries and he discovered that there was a market for his belligerence. In 1995, he started doing the column in El Diario full time. But many who know him say his true mitier is broadcast. "He was an incredible gabber -- electric," says Wayne Barrett, a political reporter at the Village Voice and a longtime friend.

On the day of the Democratic primary in New York, Borrero spends the morning walking around to polls and chatting with people, which is something he likes to do on election day. Then he has a meeting with his attorneys (Borrero loves lawyers) to discuss the possibility of suing WADO. He doesn't arrive at the office until late afternoon. He breezes in and rants for awhile about the election and other various things, and then a couple of editors troop in and sit down on Borrero's big black leather couch to brief him on the biggest stories for tomorrow's paper.

The stories include the primary, a follow-up to a story about a prominent Dominican in New Jersey who shot his ex-girlfriend on her wedding day, and an investigative piece about which someone has tipped Borrero and which he is particularly interested in, involving Bob Menendez, the congressman, and his alleged lobbying on behalf of some New Jersey companies with ties to Sudan, a nation accused of harboring terrorists. Every few minutes or so, one of his phones rings. After the editors leave, he turns on the television for a few minutes, which is broadcasting a Giuliani press conference. Borrero riffs for a few minutes on the mayor, and then he suddenly pauses. "I am starving," he says. "I forgot to eat lunch."

Borrero hates politicians. He thinks they're corrupt and self-serving, and even those who have high ideals before they take office usually turn dirty after they're elected. Something he likes to say is, "There are a lot of creepy people in this town, and they're all in public office." Borrero's third and current wife, Ruth Colon, was nearly fired twice from her job at the city Housing Authority, thanks to some of her husband's more extreme Giuliani bashing. Not surprisingly, he has stirred up criticism from some in the Hispanic community who find his incendiary style divisive and extreme. "He has a reputation for picking fights," as one person put it.

But many are also quick to give Borrero credit for taking on the role of a watchdog in a community that in the past has tended to shy away from criticism of its own. "The ethnic press in New York has always tended to protect and even promote the political leadership of its own community," says the Voice's Barrett. "Gerson's always had a much more skeptical attitude."

People say Borrero has fashioned himself in the image of his predecessor and late friend, Manuel de Dios Unanue, a muckraking writer and editor of El Diario who later also had a radio show titled "What Others Try to Silence." In 1992, de Dios was shot to death in a Queens Restaurant by Colombian drug lords he had attacked in print. When Borrero was appointed editor in chief by publisher Rossana Rosado, who was a friend, some questioned whether he had the journalistic credentials for the job, his only news experience being as a commentator after spending much of his career in public relations.

Meanwhile, other Hispanic journalists in New York say the 88-year-old paper, which for years served a mostly Puerto Rican Latino minority in the city, sorely needs to change with the times. Last spring, a few reporters left to start Nueva Era, a Spanish-language weekly with a more modern flavor. "[El Diario's journalists are] always writing about people that don't have heat in their houses, or people that need a liver or kidney," one of the defectors was quoted as saying at the time. "We think the Hispanic community is much more than that."

Borrero waves away such criticism, pointing out that Nueva Era folded within a few months. "These are my readers," he said. "I'll be damned if I'm going to pay more attention to some visiting dignitary than I am to a woman who has her ceiling falling off." But Hispanic media has suddenly become hot on Madison Avenue and Wall Street. (El Diario's parent company, Entravision, recently staged a $750 million IPO; NBC recently paid $2.7 billion for Spanish language broadcaster Telemundo.) The paper's comfortable reign as the only Spanish language daily in town has drawn to a close. In 1998, Newsday began publishing a competitor, Hoy, whose circulation recently surpassed El Diario's.

Some of the journalists at El Diario were also uncomfortable with the confrontational tenor of Borrero's radio show. "That type of verbal violence was not good for the image of the paper and the supposed objectivity we're supposed to have in the newsroom," said Josue Rivas, a former editor, adding that Borrero's abrasiveness often extended to the paper's office. Borrero once accused Rivas of being anti-Puerto Rican, he said, because they disagreed about a front page. On the other hand, employees also said that despite his temper Borrero is an exceptionally fair boss in a business that remains in many ways an old boy's club. And the adage "There's no such thing as bad publicity" is certainly not lost on Rosado, the publisher. "He has brought a lot of visibility to the paper," she says. Roberto Ramirez, the Bronx Democratic Party chairman, who has known Borrero for years, sums him up this way: "He's very, very proficient on praise when he thinks it's merited, and he's lethal when he thinks someone has conducted himself below the standard he has set for the world."

Whether people like Borrero or not they tend to regard him with respect. This is true even among people who've endured repeated bashings from him. "He hasn't singled anyone out -- he's pretty much insulted us all," says Herman Badillo, a former congressman from the Bronx, whom Borrero once referred to as an "ex-Puerto Rican." (For that particular insult, Borrero's wife stopped speaking to him for a week.)

After Borrero's abrupt dismissal from WADO, Badillo was among the first to protest and offer him his support. A few years ago, Borrero was a guest on a journalists' roundtable on the local television news network NY1. Apparently, one of the panelists said something during the show that enraged Borrero, and he stormed off the set on the air, shouting, "This is bullshit!" Heated words were exchanged afterwards between the show's host, Andrew Kirtzman, and Borrero who, according to some who were watching, challenged him to a fight. Borrero was not invited back. But recently Kirtzman said," I was sorry to see him go. He was good on television, he was outspoken and he represented his point of view really well." Even those who think Borrero is wrong about most things give him credit for this. "Few people know the Hispanic community, especially in New York, like Gerson does," says Jose Arango, a Republican Party leader from New Jersey who disagrees with "maybe 90 percent" of what Borrero says. "Some people say he's dividing the community, but you know what? He's putting the issues on the air."

Borrero says he'll stay on as the editor of El Diario until someone in the corporate office decides to kick him out. "I appreciate the run, I really do. I know it's not easy having a person who's controversial, but I think I sell papers too." In the meantime, his radio show has obviously been missed. "I have seen people come up to him in supermarkets and want to talk about Pinochet," says Rosado. "You have to remember, this is a sector of the community for whom there is no 'Crossfire.'" Many, though, predict it is only a matter of time before Borrero is back on the radio, or perhaps even on TV, arguing bitterly with his guests or his co-host about capital punishment or election fraud, shouting passionately, calling them names. And when it's over, they'll shake hands and go have a drink.

This story has been corrected.

Rachel Scheier

Rachel Scheier is a staff writer at the New York Daily News.

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