The Giant of Sábado Gigante
Don Francisco, Chilean son of Holocaust survivors, marks 50 years hosting the wildly popular variety TV show
“When I wrote my first book, I told my father that I needed to know his story, why I was born in Chile, why he came to Chile. But he would not share his story,” Kreutzberger told me. “My father did not want me to feel hate toward anyone. And out of respect I did not push him.”
But in 2005, five years after his father’s death, Kreutzberger went on a March of the Living trip to Poland on the 60th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust, the same year he turned 65 (he is now 72). “I inherited this history but I never wanted to know it, until I was 65. I was scared to see it, to hear it,” he told me. “But finally, I had to go see with my own eyes.” He continued: “We thought of our father as a superman. He started out so modestly and had success, only to have it be taken from him and sent to a concentration camp and then having to move to a new country, Chile, where he didn’t even speak the language.” His father arrived in the new country damaged by the persecution. “It wasn’t only the concentration camp. It was the whole process of slowly being stripped of everything he knew.”
The process of being stripped of everything is well known to many Hispanics in America. Despite the loss of homeland, the language barrier, the political and economic turmoil, many Hispanics, like Kreutzberger, retain a deep orgullo, or pride, against powerful odds. Kreutzberger said growing up Jewish in Chile was difficult, but he was always proud of his heritage. “I always tried to live as a Jew and a good man who can cross religious borders.” When I asked him about anti-Semitism in Hispanic culture he said, “There is anti-Semitism in every culture, not only in the Hispanic world.”
In his autobiography, Don Francisco: Entre la espada y la T.V. (Between the Sword and the TV), Kreutzberger narrates the harrowing tale of how he was temporarily held hostage by Augusto Pinochet’s soldiers, who had appeared at his home in the early aftermath of the coup. The soldiers had been directed to take Kreutzberger to the headquarters of Channel 13 at the Catholic University in Santiago and announce to the nation that Salvador Allende had been overthrown by Pinochet. Kreutzberger managed to talk his way out of this and, he says, that is when he swore to himself to stay out of politics, even though he is now occasionally mentioned as a presidential candidate. “I always stay out of politics,” he told me. “I never share my personal political beliefs with my audience. Never. I have to reach everybody, and this show is not political.” This approach is perhaps what enabled him to stay on the air during the Pinochet junta, when most other shows were censored. In fact, his show achieved its highest ratings—as high as 80 percent, according to him—during the 1970s of Pinochet’s dictatorship, when the program ran as long as eight hours on Saturdays.
Though he is adamant about remaining apolitical, he does let slip later in our conversation that he is not always in agreement with Israel’s politics. But that statement is quickly followed by a poignant sense of bemusement: “I do not understand the obsession that other countries or people have with Jews. It always shocks me because when you ask people how many Jews there are in the world they rarely even know. Why can’t they leave us alone? Why so much focus on us? We are only about 16 million. I always ask myself why does it come back and back and back? Why are the Jewish people always in the middle?”
I, and others, might ask the same question about Latinos. Why are they in the center of a national debate about immigration? Why is Arizona, with several states following, raging against the Hispanic community, profiling, isolating, ostracizing, and segregating its members. Politicians seem to recognize that placing a community front and center in a hostile and contentious debate about what it means to be American can pay certain dividends. Some rail about national identity, the “browning of America,” La Reconquista.
Kreutzberger, consciously or not (and I would venture that it is conscious) recognizes this narrative, this story, this plight. It is deeply rooted in his very being. Sábado Gigante is meant to entertain, and for many of the more than 50 million Latinos in the United States that can come as a relief. Immigration policies come and go, but the show has remained an anchor for diverse Hispanic communities. Kreutzberger knows the risks of xenophobic policies. He understands what they can lead to. He witnessed the scars of his parents, which were so deep that they were never spoken of. And he became an MC, a man paid to speak for the silenced.
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