Afternoon Delight

Carlos Martinez has never met Lupita, a young Mexican woman who's just called him up in distress. You wouldn't know it, though, to hear their conversation. Lupita thinks she's pregnant, and Martinez is clucking sympathetically from his studio at KLAT radio, 1010 on the AM dial, in northwest Houston. In a soothing voice that sounds like a best girlfriend's after a few margaritas, Martinez starts asking question after increasingly intimate question. Is Lupita married, divorced, separated, going steady, abandoned, reunited? When was her last period? When did she last have sex?

The answers come surprisingly freely. Finally, from what he's heard, Martinez decides that his phone pal Lupita isn't pregnant after all. But still, there's the problem of her not getting her period ....

Martinez has an idea.
"Stand in front of the mirror," he instructs, with the comfortable, confidential tone of an older sister.

"Okay," Lupita says.
"Now take off your blouse."
"Mmmhmmm," Lupita says cooperatively, briefly muffled as she undoes buttons on the other end of the line.

"Okay, now ... Ya?' " Martinez asks, inquiring if she's finished.
"Now take a look at your breasts."
A silence hums over the airwaves.

"Take a good look at the nipples and areolas," Martinez goes on pleasantly. "Remember what they looked like 15 or 20 days ago. Lupita, do you see anything different? Any change in color? Any swelling or darkening?"

"No," Lupita reports, "they don't look like anything in particular."
"Then ... you're not pregnant!" Martinez crows.
"I'm not?" Lupita says, laughing happily.
"It's your NERVES, Lupita!" yells Martinez. "Just your NERVES!"

Lupita is still laughing, but the relief in her voice has transformed it. "Thank you, Carlos," she says. And in the vast audience that is Houston's Spanish radio, a collective sigh of release can almost be heard -- that, along with the occasional snarl of dismissal for this man who would say things like that to a woman whom he doesn't even know!

That mix of relief and outrage has made Carlos Martinez the undisputed king of Spanish talk radio in Houston. To his mostly female audience, he's a source of hidden information, a spy in the macho house of Latin love. To his predominantly institutional critics, he's vulgar, airing sometimes questionable advice about things that should be kept in the bedroom or the doctor's office. Alone in her home, Lupita may talk for all the world as if it's only her and Martinez on the line, but it's not. Sharing their tete-a-tete are thousands of Spanish-speaking Houstonians who listen with fascination to Martinez's show, Intimidades (Intimacies), every weekday from 3 to 7 p.m. In each show, Martinez offers them loud, off-color jokes, clinical sexual data and some commonsense advice: for instance, that a woman's nipples get darker in the first trimester of pregnancy.

Something about Carlos Martinez's voice, about the giddy way he giggles and whoops when someone first tells him her most intimate problem, seems to dissolve all constraints such as modesty and shame. Callers find themselves telling Martinez things they've never said aloud, as naturally as if they were describing a telenovela. And then, when Martinez starts asking for details -- about cycles, excretions, how long your husband spends touching you -- that assured, unembarrassed way of his somehow promises an answer. He, Carlos Martinez, human sexuality expert, will find it. Even if there's something slightly prurient about the way he goes about looking.

"Listen, I have another problem," Lupita says. "It's my sister."
"You have a sister!" Martinez cries. "Lupita! You have to introduce me!"
"She's kind of fat .... " Lupita falters.

"Nothing wrong with us fatties!" Martinez shrieks dizzily, overcome with his own self-generated mirth. "You know, we give satisfaction twice -- once with sex, and again when we climb off. They say, ahhh, thank God!" Unabashed, accurate sex talk, especially among women, has never been much of a tradition in Latino culture. But to the surprise of many, it's proved to be a resounding success in Houston, where Martinez's eight-year-old show is the number one Arbitron rated program out of about ten AM shows serving Hispanic audiences during afternoon drive time. Martinez likes to boast he has a clear lead over his AM rivals in Houston (he's also syndicated in Chicago and El Paso), and the numbers seem to agree; his closest competitor has only half his Arbitron market share. Some in radio, though, snipe that his numbers may be slipping.

But the fact remains that it's more likely than not that, if asked, any Spanish speaker in Houston will admit to having listened to Carlos Martinez at least once. Three months after its debut on KLAT in May 1994, Martinez's Intimidades branched out into syndication; it's also bootlegged and listened to throughout Latin America. Martinez has even been a guest on the internationally viewed Cristina show, one of the bellwethers for media notoriety in the Hispanic world.

In Houston, Latinos talk about Martinez's latest show in barbershops, offices and taquerias, alternately laughing at or inveighing against the latest exchange they couldn't help but tune in to. They talk about the woman who called up last month and told Martinez she was excited by his voice -- so excited that right there on the air, she commenced to masturbate. Needless to say, Martinez didn't cut her off.

Or they ponder the virgin who said her gringo boyfriend showed his "love" for her by abruptly exposing himself. Martinez explained to the mystified girl that her boyfriend didn't respect her, and then warned her that North American men are like that -- cold and calculating.

In addition to gossip, Martinez's show has also been the subject of complaints, denunciations and legal threats opposing everything from its raunchy humor to the legitimacy of its advice. At least one activist, Martinez says, gathered names on a petition that denounced his vulgarity to the FCC (the petition went nowhere). Yet judging from the calls his show receives, the people Martinez has the greatest effect on are among Houston's most silent. They are the recent immigrants, particularly women, the ones who don't speak English and hardly ever leave their apartments. They are the shy illegals who came from villages in Michoacan and Monterrey to work the night shift cleaning offices. The women with whom no one's ever discussed even the idea of sexuality, much less their own sexuality.

And they're surprised to find that when Martinez finally does this, instead of humiliating them, he makes them laugh.

In the modest transmitting cubicle on the Northwest Loop where Martinez spends most afternoons, Thursdays are special.

"The Thursday theme's a bit controversial," Martinez, a well-proportioned, diminutive man of about five feet five inches, explains. He's dressed in what could be called sensuous casual, a meticulous assemblage of rich, subtle fabrics in black, teal and soft leather. There's nothing aggressive about Martinez, yet nothing fey either. His thick, salt-and-pepper hair is cut neatly, though not conservatively; his fingernails are unostentatiously buffed to a dull glow. His voice, also sensuous casual, is lulling, expressive, slightly nasal, but with a bass note that makes it almost mesmerizing. As if to accent the perfect balance of inner comfort manifested in both his attire and attitude, Martinez spends his four on-air hours in a singularly uncomfortable pose: poised on the edge of a backless, armless stool, feet barely grazing the floor.

"Thursday," Martinez says just before airtime, "is our tribute to 'Manuelita.' " And he smiles. With that, Martinez's assistant, a young man in his twenties who expressionlessly monitors each day's show from a seat at the control panel, clicks on a song. It's a raucous ode to a damsel called Manuelita; but in Spanish, "manuelita" is also a way to say "little hand." Thursday's theme is one of Martinez's favorite topics: masturbation.

The phones start to ring. One of Martinez's first petitioners today calls herself Letty -- a pseudonym, and a device that Martinez has to constantly request, remind about and sometimes impose on callers. Left to themselves, they'd often as not just tell him their real names.

"Hola, Carlitos!" Letty says eagerly.
"Letty, what can I do for you?"
Letty, it seems, is a widow. She's excruciatingly lonely. Every morning, she tells Martinez, she wakes up depressed and in pain for lack of sex.

"Of course you do," Martinez says soothingly. But, he assures her, her misery is just a sign that she's got a naturally strong, vital constitution. "Your ovaries must be swollen," Martinez coos. "What you have is a sexual pressure that you have to release or you'll do yourself harm."

"Tell me, Letty," Martinez says kindly. "You haven't heard of autosatisfaccion?"

Letty sounds flustered. No, she says, she hasn't heard of it. Well, maybe E the thing is, she's not interested, she confesses. It's just not the same as real sex.

The gauntlet's been thrown now: Martinez starts gently quizzing Letty for details about her sex life since she's been widowed. Actually, she tells him, she's been widowed three times.

"Letty!" Martinez yelps comically. "Letty, you didn't finish them all off with your appetites, did you?" Letty laughs with a bravado she didn't have a few moments earlier. Martinez than asks Letty about the last man she slept with; it was months ago, she says, unhappily, just someone she met.

"How would you rate him?" Martinez asks. It's one of his most frequent questions. "On a scale of one to ten."

"Ten? How long did you spend caressing?"
"Three hours."
"Three hours? He caressed you for three hours?"
"No. He was lying there accepting caresses from me."

"How can you give this guy a ten?" Martinez wails, gesticulating in the silent studio with his gold-and-diamond ringed hand. "Letty, how can you give him a ten when he's really a zero?"

Martinez loves asking this question.
Woman after woman will call him complaining about painful sex, fear of sex, apathy about sex, and each one will tell Martinez that as a lover, her spouse rates a nine or ten. Martinez then probes a little deeper, and when he hears what he knows he will -- about men who don't kiss, men who prize seduction but not lovemaking -- he denounces them as zeros, then gently repeats his mantra. Women are not furniture, Martinez says. You are sexual beings whose needs must be respected.

That's just what he tells Letty. On the other end of the line she laughs shyly. Martinez elaborates, telling her she's being used by pickups who don't know her or care about her. Better, he says, to try autosatisfaccion.

"But .... "
"Sure, it's not the same," Martinez agrees cheerfully. "But you know what they say: without bread around, tortillas taste pretty good! Letty, you don't think it's fair that you satisfy yourself?"

He has a point. "Bueno," Letty says in an upbeat voice. She'll try his advice. "Thank you, Carlitos."

Pulling up to the Atchafalaya Cafe in his green BMW, Carlos Martinez looks like a man for whom being born poor and outside the U.S. was a mere error of fate. With his cell phone, his confidence, his natural inclination to select the most succulent, elaborate dish on the menu, Martinez is one of those people who seem destined to prosper.

Yet when he sits down, places his phone neatly on one side of his plate and politely leans forward for questioning, the 47-year-old Martinez says this: "I am from the border, and the border is what I'm all about." Though a man famous for explicit speech, here Martinez is not talking literally. What he means is that the peculiar laws of the frontier, both physical and intellectual, are what defined his life.

Geographically, the frontier in Martinez's life was his hometown of Reynosa, Mexico. When he was growing up, Martinez says, Reynosa had two major industries: an oil refinery and Boys' Town, a legal "tolerance zone" of cantinas, brothels and theaters that constituted a riotous, 24-hour-a-day mecca for young American males.

This second industry was the one that shaped not only Martinez's family history, but his world-view. It was in the cantinas that Martinez's father conducted one-half his life's work: consuming alcohol. The second half was beating Martinez's mother, who worked as a maid. "It was a full-time job -- tomar and abusar," Martinez says coldly. He seems to have few other memories of his father besides these; at eight, he says, he took over the paternal role himself, supplementing the tiny family income by selling newspapers and shining tourists' shoes. When he was 17, his long-absent father died. Today, Martinez's two sisters and his mother, who lives in Houston, still consider Martinez the head of the family.

The violence and machismo of his home both traumatized him and shaped his mindset, says Martinez. "It's one of the reasons I am so pro-woman," he says. "My father was a macho E I grew up thinking I'd never be that way." Instead, he became what is sometimes the other side of the same coin: a ladies' man. "From very early on, I was always a picaro," Martinez says in his dulcet voice. He loved older women; they apparently loved him as well. Almost predictably, Martinez claims he was a mere boy when he first had sex. But his experience wasn't that of the classic Lothario. Instead, he says, he was ten years old when he was raped by a 30-year-old woman. She was a friend of his mother's, an angry, unhappily married woman who spent an inordinate amount of time at the Martinez household. One day while his mother was working, the woman lifted him onto the bed and said, "I'm going to teach you something."

"I was frightened. I didn't know what was going to happen," Martinez says. "At first, I was interested. But she didn't want to stop. I was scared, and cried E. I was just a little boy, not fully developed. Instead of ejaculating, I peed inside her."

Part of what made the experience confusing, says Martinez, is that he had to admit it was also pleasurable. Thus began a career as a devout womanizer, even as the episode sharpened his perception of how people use sex to exploit others. Not that anyone ever spoke to him of such things. "In our [Hispanic] culture, no one gave us information," Martinez says. "There was, instead, a chain of disinformation. We're educated to think that a woman should be used like a piece of furniture." Traditionally, he says, Latin women are as misinformed as men, taught that they were born to keep house and to breed, that they cannot experience sexual pleasure, that male violence is natural and correct.

Growing up in Reynosa, Martinez soon began teaching himself -- and being taught -- differently. At 12, lured by money and excitement, he settled full-time into the hectic world of Boys' Town. While working as a waiter, a dishwasher and a bartender at places such as the Paris Nightclub, Martinez says, he was "watching how the world behaved." His girlfriends were prostitutes. Since he didn't give them money, he says, they demanded that he learn how to please them, providing him his first instruction in the truism that for men, just as for women, sexual ability is an acquired skill. Boys' Town taught him a respect for women's sexuality, Martinez says -- and a disdain for hypocritical men. He recalls that the brothels where he worked had special private rooms for priests, who called in advance to make sure their visits would go undetected.

"That's why I say abstinence doesn't exist," Martinez says now. "In Boys' Town, I learned not to abandon my faith, but also not to place it on Earth. From the ages of 18 to 23, I explored all kinds of religions, but I always found the same thing: hypocrisy and moneygrubbing."

It was at age 18 that Martinez left Boys' Town. Barely educated, but with a persistent belief he wouldn't always be poor, Martinez didn't know what to do. He played congas for a while in a band, then got a job advertising household goods on one of those deafening stereo systems attached to vans that rove Mexican neighborhoods. Then in 1971, he drove across the border with two companions in a giant green 1968 Dodge. Someone had given him a fake passport, and the immigration officer didn't look twice.

The owner of the Dodge was a friend of a friend, a guy who Martinez remembers only as Robert. "I wish I knew where he was now," Martinez says. "I remember having a long talk with Robert during the drive. He said to me, 'Carlos, if you never change how you are now, you could conquer Houston.' " Somehow, Martinez says, what Robert said made sense to him. But it was hard to discern, back in those days, how a sharp restlessness and an education in Boys' Town could translate to success in Texas' largest city.

The calls keep coming in, nonstop, for four hours. Today, only one male is among them, a youth wanting to meet a couple who on an earlier show inquired about forming a threesome. Martinez puzzles briefly about what to do, since he doesn't keep any identifying information about callers. Here's what we'll do, he tells the youth. They're most likely listening. We can have them call in today and leave their address, and you can call the station later, after the show's over, and get it from me.

"Thanks, Carlos."
As far as Martinez is concerned, the people who object to his show have a problem with everything he condones -- threesomes, open discussion of sex, anything that challenges traditional Latino culture, which he believes is filled with repression and misinformation. After all, this is a man who has discussed the symbolic significance of the rectum on the air ("We Latino men," Martinez explained, "fear we are gay if we let someone touch it"). He also harps, over and over, on a women's right to enjoy sex, or "buy herself Chiclets," as he sometimes likes to put it.

"The language that I use is colloquial," he says over lunch one day before his show. "That disturbs some. But I talk to people on their level."

Indeed, it is the blunt, barroom vocabulary that Martinez uses so exuberantly that puts many listeners off. "It's common," says one middle-class Mexican-American matron. "He loves to be disgusting. He's just vulgar."

But that's not the only reason people talk about Martinez. To some, what's more scandalous is that he has no official training in sexual subjects, no university degree to back up the suggestions and facts he so blithely scatters over the airwaves. Although he had a year of naturopathic study in Spain and a bit of psychology course work in Mexico, Martinez's vast, unflappable knowledge of all matters intimate is self-taught. And although he and KLAT carefully label his program opinion, not medical treatment or advice, Martinez, his critics say, is nothing more than a quack.

To be sure, it's hard to find a professional -- either in radio or medicine -- who wants to attack him publicly. Some in the medical profession say they're afraid of committing libel, and in the radio industry, as one colleague of Martinez's points out, criticism can sound like sour grapes from the competition. Still, despite Martinez's unconventional style, it's also hard to pin him down on real infractions.

Take, for example, a recent call from "Maria" (by far the pseudonym of choice for Martinez's listeners, and for which he likes to tease them).

"Maria! Que original! What can I do for you?"
This particular Maria has two daughters, she tells Martinez, and wants to know how to have a baby boy.

Well, he advises, do this. Calculate the first day of your period. It's the 20th of the month? Now counting that as day one, count 13, 14, 15 days from that day. Got it?

Maria's a little confused, but Martinez patiently starts again and walks her through the equation. For a baby boy, he explains, Maria should have sex exclusively on those three days. Not one day before, not one day after. Do this, he directs the delighted Maria, "It's given us very good results."

That may well be, says Dr. John Buster, a reproductive specialist at Baylor College of Medicine. But, Buster says, any success with this scheme would likely be a product of luck.

"First of all, [the idea] has not been proven right or wrong," Buster explains. "No one knows." Martinez's advice, he says, derives from an old notion about how male sperm swim faster than female sperm, but don't live as long. So if a couple has sex close to the time of ovulation, the male sperm have a better chance of reaching the egg. The technique was first promulgated by a physician several decades ago, although it was never proven. "But [given a] lack of good sex-selection technology, this is all people have," Buster says. "I know that popular books on sexuality say that this may be true." For a talk show host, he adds, this is about the only information that can be offered up about how to have a male child.

"It's something to do when there's nothing you can do," Buster says.
In fact, popular books on sexuality are one of the main fonts of Martinez's wisdom. Although he has held many jobs since he immigrated from Reynosa 25 years ago, Martinez is the first to admit that all his training about sexuality has been informal -- originally learned from firsthand experience, then later by compulsive study of every sexology tome he could find written in Spanish.

Waiting in his cubicle before the show begins, Martinez suddenly disappears for a minute to gather his reference books. When he returns, he's respectfully cradling a stack of heavily perused volumes. There's a dense medical text by Krupp, Schroeder, Tierney and McGee titled Current Medical Prognosis and Treatment. There's also Life, Love and Sex, a set of three Spanish sex encyclopedias that look to be the equivalent of a Time-Life series. Kinsey, Kegel, Masters and Johnson, and other establishment authors, Martinez says, fill his library shelves at home.

So widely read is he, he claims, that he's just about exhausted the entire literature on sexology. That's why today he reads psychology, parapsychology and spiritual texts. Everything he tells people, Martinez insists, is documented somewhere. And when he's in doubt, he'll consult doctors. If he's wrong? Well, says Martinez, he'll just correct himself on the next show.

That's not enough for some critics. "People consider it entertainment," says one colleague in Hispanic radio, who asked not to be identified. "The audience he's targeting are Hispanics who are not assimilated or educated ... in my opinion, he is giving medical advice without the expertise to back it up. I think it's gross misrepresentation. I'm sorry he hasn't been called to the mat on it. I don't know if the FCC doesn't understand [Spanish], or hasn't been following his show closely enough."

"I know it's generating numbers for the station," she adds with exasperation. "As long as he does that, the station's happy."

That very day, the radio professional says, she heard Martinez mouthing off on a topic he couldn't possibly know about. "He's telling some woman that if her vagina isn't lubricated she's got some kind of hormone imbalance," she says. "How can he say that? I feel sorry for the people who buy into that." Like other critics, the radio professional also takes a dim view of Martinez's penchant for recommending natural and herbal remedies on his program. Since Martinez owns two herbal healing shops as a side business, she complains, "It's like his show is one big advertisement."

Other Hispanic leaders, though, especially those in grassroots education, have a more positive take on Martinez's offerings. For one thing, they note, he educates listeners on AIDS and, in knotty cases, recommends counseling and second opinions. He also advises women in abusive marriages to get help or to leave, a radical idea for traditional Latino culture. Francisco Lopez of the Central American refugee group CARECEN also points out that he's never heard Martinez claim to be accredited; instead, Martinez simply says what the symptoms sound like to him.

"In our community, it's a taboo to talk openly about sex," Lopez says. "I think he offers a very important source of information, and breaks that taboo. He uses the concepts of popular Mexican humor so that people listen, and then they learn."

Truth is, rather than knowing no limits, Martinez derives his success from the exact opposite: an exquisite and intimate knowledge of what boundaries are all about. He consistently dances over frontiers his audience desperately wants someone to cross. And just as shrewdly, he tends to recognize the boundaries that keep him legal. Perhaps most deftly of all, Martinez also intuits which transgressions are so over-the-top that it's unlikely anyone will take time to challenge them. It's a delicate art that has proved uniquely successful in radio -- but much less so elsewhere. Take television, for example.

One Latino Houstonian (who, yes, asked not to be identified) remembers with a mixture of laughter and embarrassment Martinez's ill-fated attempt at a TV show in 1992. "Carlos was insisting that human semen is the best thing for a woman's complexion, the oldest line in the book," the man says. "Then he started going to all the ladies in the front row of his audience, asking if they didn't agree. Of course every last one of them looked mortified and pretended they didn't know what he was talking about.

"He might have gotten away with it on the radio, but on TV, it was totally gross. You just can't do that same kind of humor on television."

When confronted with this story, Martinez momentarily loses some of his buoyant good humor. Though he smiles at the naughtiness of the tale, he looks more than a tad irked that someone has questioned his facts. Then he rallies. "It's true, you know," he says. "There are statistics. In Hollywood, 90 percent of the actresses buy face cream made with human sperm. It was reported some time ago, in an article I think by UPI.

"The [women] don't contract young men for this, of course," Martinez adds matter-of-factly. "They go to sperm banks."

Clearly, Martinez's showmanship is part of the reason for his program's success. Without his marketing instincts, in fact, it wouldn't exist at all. Cooking it up, Martinez says, was the result of a careful look at Houston and at his own talents.

After he arrived in Houston in the green Dodge, Martinez recalls, he embarked on his first and last stint of manual labor. It was a murderous job, hammering out rolls of metal mesh into stiff hurricane fences. From there, Martinez quickly graduated to jobs more to his taste: emceeing at the Latin World ballroom, observing human frailty firsthand as a room-service waiter and finally hosting a three-hour Spanish-language music show at what was then KWBA in Baytown. Liking the radio work, Martinez then moved to KLBL for five months, where he worked as both a DJ and program director. Then it was on to KEYH, where, until 1985, he was an announcer. Along the way, he got married to a woman he met dancing at the Latin Ballroom and fathered two daughters, now in their early teens.

By 1985, though, Martinez's life had started falling apart. His marriage collapsed; KEYH changed its format from international Latin music to pure ranchera, a genre Martinez loathed, and laid him off.

It was during his three years outside of radio, says Martinez, that he began plotting how to make himself indispensable if he returned. While supporting himself with a southwest Houston nightclub and two herbal-remedy shops, Martinez spent his spare time analyzing mainstream radio. He found himself entranced by Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who dispensed clinical advice but never intimidated her listeners. Howard Stern, on the other hand, both intrigued and repelled him. Martinez loved Stern's charisma but hated his verbal abusiveness. Both radio personalities, Martinez realized, had no parallel in Hispanic radio. But if sex-talk radio were available in Spanish, he decided, audiences would love it.

So in 1988, Martinez approached KXYZ with a plan for a sexual advice show. With some nervousness, the station accepted. Almost immediately, Intimidades was a hit.

True, during those first years, when Martinez was more a jokester than a counselor, great clumps of the Spanish radio audience were shocked. In 1988, Martinez claims, the Catholic Church, in the form of the Houston-Galveston Archdiocese, even tried to file a lawsuit to get him off the air, citing him for blasphemy, vulgarity and improper medical practice. (The Archdiocese replies that if anyone ever considered a lawsuit, it's news to them. For that matter, the Archdiocese says Martinez is news to them; a spokesman was unfamiliar with his name. And court documents don't indicate any legal action of the sort Martinez remembers.) Still, KXYZ station manager Evarardo Morales does concur that there were numerous complaints and a few legal threats during Martinez's first year as a sex guru.

They were never enough to threaten Martinez's stardom, however. Eventually, Martinez says, he left the station on his own, saying it wasn't quick enough to expand his show into other markets. In 1994, he and Intimidades moved to KLAT. At his current station, he says, his salesman's instincts are much more respected.

It would be wrong, though, to attribute Intimidades' popularity simply to marketing. Martinez sells something besides basic sexology and a way with a double-entendre. To Houston's Latino immigrants, Martinez also explores their culture, their sexual mores and their drives -- the same drives that defined his own life when he first came here. And if the circumstances of Martinez's past are more dramatic than others', they seem only to have heightened his empathy for his audience. Inveighing against the machismo and chauvinism he knew firsthand while growing up, Martinez still leaves no doubt about his Mexican pride. And if he's seductive with the women who call him, it's because he knows the remote manners of Mexican and U.S. physicians can make them feel afraid or demeaned. As an immigrant from poverty, Martinez knows what it's like to be illegal and undereducated, and he often uses that insight in advising his callers.

Yet the more you listen in, and the more Martinez reveals about his current life, the clearer it becomes that he also is relating to his audience on a more subtle level. Watching him perched on his chair, dispensing advice into thin air, one is struck by how intense he looks, even though no one can see him. The typical woman who calls Martinez does so from some kind of solitude. Somehow, it's a condition that the gregarious Martinez knows a lot about.

It was there in his childhood, of course. He says solitude was also there in his marriage, which he claims ended when his wife refused to outgrow her role as a subservient housewife. Not that Martinez has any lack of female company now, mind you. To hear him on the phone making a date with one of his "women friends," as he coyly terms them, is to hear a bilingual Casanova at the top of his form. At the same time, Martinez says, in the years since his divorce, he hasn't found a new mate, and he doesn't expect to. "I had a vasectomy. That makes it hard to find a woman to settle down with," he says. "Among Latinas, everyone thinks they're born to reproduce." Martinez also has no close male friends, he says. Never has. "All the men I've been friends with have hurt me," he says.

With a big house near Katy, a number one radio show and the quickest and bluest quips in any cantina, Carlos Martinez will never be mistaken for anyone's victim. Nevertheless, the most crucial skill in his arsenal is his knack with people who really may be victims, his ability to tease vulnerable women brashly, yet not degrade them.

The secret, as one listener has pointed out, seems to be in Martinez's rhythm, the way he yowls with laughter and crude jokes at the start of a call, then effortlessly carves out a few seconds of sanctuary in which normally unlistened-to women can reveal their fears, and even laugh back. Once that happens, it seems, they don't forget it. Twenty-six-year-old Esperanza is one of these women. An immigrant from Michoacan who works nights cleaning office buildings, Esperanza says she was once shocked by Martinez, but now idolizes him.

When she was 20 and new to Houston, Esperanza explains, she wanted to have a baby but couldn't conceive. One doctor told her she was infertile, but needed $500 to confirm the diagnosis; another said there was nothing wrong with her. Her main alternative source of advice was her mother-in-law, who called her a failure for being childless.

"Then one day, a woman called Carlos with my same problem," Esperanza says. "He said that after having relations with her husband, he should lift her feet in the air and hold up her legs.

"Well, before, I didn't like Carlos. I thought he was barbaric. Very vulgar. After I heard his advice, though, I tried it myself. I got pregnant six days later! What he said sounded ridiculous, but it was very effective. Now he seems to me a good, good, good man."

There's another reason why Esperanza likes Martinez. It takes a little while for her to work up the courage to say it; these things are much easier to discuss when given the anonymity of a radio show. Face to face, talking is tricky. But Esperanza finally notes that she thinks Martinez has, well, helped her husband, too.

"From where I come from, my village, you just grab your woman and mount her and that's it," Esperanza says. "My husband was like that, too. He never would even kiss me when we had relations."

About three years ago, though, Esperanza noticed a change. Her husband suddenly took more time with her, acted more tender during sex. Though he never said anything, Esperanza thought she knew the reason.

"I knew he'd started listening to Carlos," she says. "One day I heard [Martinez] on the radio, and I said to my husband, 'You like him, don't you?' He said, 'I listen to him once in a while.' We don't talk about it. I know my husband listens to the show by himself, and I listen by myself. But for me, it's almost like Carlos dropped down from heaven.


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