It’s a long story how Tony Cervantes, longtime radio personality at WKAR-AM, got the nickname El Chayo — in a nutshell, it’s a homonym of a nickname of an inside joke from his youth.
Just don’t call him Antonio.
“I have a psychological problem with the name Antonio,” says Cervantes, 67, a Rio Grande City, Texas, native who moved to Lansing when he was 15. “Growing up, my nickname was Tonito, and whenever I heard ‘Antonioooo,’ I knew I was going to get it.”
And by getting it, he means either the belt from his dad or a mouth full of chili peppers from his mother (“For years I wouldn’t eat hot sauce, no seņor.”) This weekend, Cervantes celebrates 25 years with WKAR-AM (870) — his show, "Ondas en Espaņol," airs weekends, both days, 7:45 to 10 a.m. and 6 to 7 p.m. during daylight — and he doesn’t have to worry about holding his tongue anymore.
“I’ve always been a big joker, which is probably why I got in so much trouble as a kid,” he says. “But it’s also why I’ve been able to last so long in radio. They can’t find anyone who’ll keep talking as much as me.”
Cervantes’ history in radio actually goes back to 1968, with a fortuitous meeting at WKAR’s then-headquarters at the MSU Auditorium. Some of his friends in the Latino community were creating what was then the first all-Spanish language radio show in the state, and one of the first in the country. He says he just went out of curiosity, but it was these other men who urged him to put down his drumsticks (he’s been a percussionist since he was 11) and get behind the turntable.
“I told them I wasn’t that much into radio, and they kept saying, ‘But you’re a musician, you know this music better than anyone, just try it out,’” he says. “It’s funny — that morning, I was the only one who didn’t want to do it, and I’m the only one who stayed.”
Cervantes took to the medium quickly, honing his natural charm and broad knowledge of Tejano music.
“I would hear a song come on, and I’d start talking, you know, over the intro, about the artist or the song or the weather,” he says. “And I knew exactly how long I had to finish what I was saying before the singing started. I mean, I always knew how to do it — I just didn’t know it was useful.”
Within four months, Cervantes jumped to commercial radio, pinballing around several mid-Michigan commercial stations, including stints in Owosso and Mt. Pleasant. All the while, he kept playing with his band and, as he says, “fooling around.”
The life of a celebrity musician/DJ is wrought with temptations and unsavory characters — anyone who’s seen an episode of “Behind the Music” already knows the script. In March 1978, Cervantes got tangled up in some real trouble when one of his former friends — one of the men who met with him that first day at the MSU Auditorium, in fact — convinced him to go in on a drug deal. Cervantes claims he wasn’t into that scene, but went along based on the guidance of this friend. Cervantes says that this guy was actually working with the feds to bring down as many people as possible to get out of a lengthy term, and was setting his friends up. Cervantes said he walked right into it.
“I got busted,” he says. “Even though I was facing 10 years, they only sentenced me to three, and I was out in two. But I never spent one night in a cell — I worked every last day of those two years within the system as a translator or in the laundry or whatever. I also got my GED, and I got closer to God, as everyone does.”
When he got out, he slid right back into the announcer’s chair, and in 1987, found himself right back where he started, at WKAR-AM. The original show “Variedades en Espaņol” (“Varieties in Spanish”) was renamed “Ondas en Espaņol” (“Waves of Spanish”), and it still offers news, public service announcements and, of course, music, all in Spanish. He quit playing with the band after his back surgery, and settled into his role as the voice of the Latino community in mid-Michigan. Recently charity work has taken up more of his time, including Food Bank and Toys for Tots, Still, he does have regrets.
“I know I wasn’t there for my family, and that’s something I think about a lot,” he says. “One of my sons still has a lot of problems because of that, but all I can do is be there for him now. And for my grandchildren — they are the light of my life.”
Cervantes says he thinks about retiring about every five years or so, but he knows he can’t spin records forever. Both Cervantes and his wife are cancer survivors, which, for him, means he permanently needs a cane, but it does have him thinking of what’s next.
“Music is in my heart and my soul, and the only way I can enjoy it is by being on the radio,” he says. ‘I can’t imagine quitting. I can’t say the Latino community is going to miss me, but I don’t know what the reaction would be.”
He pauses, reflectively.
“I do know my wife’s reaction, though. She said, ‘If you retire, you’ll be a pain in the ass at home, so keep going.’”