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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."