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.

The publisher throws out the first pitch at a 2002 Cardinals game.
courtesy Cecilia Velazquez
The publisher throws out the first pitch at a 2002 Cardinals game.
Gilberto Pinela (above), host of Ahora San Luis on STL TV and Best of the STL on KDNL (Channel 30), says Velazquez is "misunderstood."
Gilberto Pinela (above), host of Ahora San Luis on STL TV and Best of the STL on KDNL (Channel 30), says Velazquez is "misunderstood."

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Editor's Note: Village Voice Media, in a national series, is chronicling the stories of Hispanics among us and the struggles they face amid the groundswell of anti-immigration anger. The project also addresses the consequences when federal authorities lack a coherent immigration policy. Read the series on our website, at www.riverfronttimes.com.

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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.

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