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Joe Putrock

DJ Willie Col
ón has found redemption through music, and he shares his insights and experiences with his radio audience
By Travis Durfee

Barricaded behind a mountain of 250-CD books, Willie Colón begins another 10-hour day behind the mike at UAlbany’s WCDB (90.9 FM).

Bienvenido mi gente y gr-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-acias por sintonisar a este show favorita, La Salsa 90.9 efe eme,” Colón rattles rapid-fire, his head bobbing and his body shaking in a salsa-inspired fit of energy defying his 47 years of age. It’s 8 AM on Wednesday, and Colón pops in a disc by Alex Torres y los Reyes Latinos. “That’s some good salsa, man,” Colón says as the percussion begins to click and the horns punch. “I’m telling you, there is a hunger in the area for Latin music, and the people are just eating it up.”

For the past five years, Colón has strapped his massive collection (15 books in all) of merengue, bachatas, mambo and salsa albums to a luggage cart and brought them to DJ booths throughout the Capital Region to broadcast the music he so loves. Over the past few years, Colón has settled at WCDB, and has been given room to stretch his legs this summer; as one of the station’s few summer DJs, Colón is on five days a week for no fewer than four hours per show. Some marathon shows last as long as 12 hours.

“People call in and tell me their cats are dancing, their dogs are dancing,” Colón says. “People are just loving the hell out of it, I’m telling you.”

But married to the festive beats and celebratory set lists are notes of seriousness. Each week, Colón dedicates some of his time on the air to transmit the misadventures of his wasted youth. Colón laments the years he spent drinking all day and running with gangs, and tries to dissuade others from following a similar path.

“I’m supposed to be dead,” Colón says, pointing to a jagged, 4-inch scar on his throat. “I came this close from getting my jugular vein [cut] hanging out with the gangs. I’m carrying two bullets in my back still.”

Colón warns of another danger that affected his life: unprotected sex and intravenous drug use. Colón’s brother contracted HIV from an infected needle and died of AIDS in the early 1980s.

“At the time we didn’t know what AIDS was, you know, nobody knew what it was,” Colón says. “We thought we had to keep our distance from him, and that was hard. My mother would feed him with plastic forks so we could just throw them away when he was done. I never got a chance to really love my brother, to be affectionate with him, to give him a hug before he died. That was hard.

“Who better to warn people about these things than me?”

Born in the South Bronx, Colón moved to Albany 14 years ago and dabbled with music as a percussionist in bands and drum circles in Washington Park late at night. But what Colón truly enjoyed was drinking—a lot.

“I’d just drink—all day, every day,” Colón says. “Wake up in the morning and crack a beer. I used to love 40-ounce bottles of O.E. “My friends would call me Santa Claus, ’cause I liked to buy the beer for everybody.”

Whether Albany Police were aware of his nickname or not, they certainly knew his given name, and Colón says they knew it well.

“It was the routine,” Colón explains. “I’d be drinking out on the streets and the cops would call me over and tell me to dump out my beer. I’d start backing up, they’d walk up to me and slap the beer out of my hand. I take a swipe at them and they’d arrest me. I’d be in front of the judge, ‘Yeah, yeah, two weeks. Yeah, I know, $50 fine.’ But as soon as I’d get out, I’d be back on the streets, drinking again.”

Colón says that his girlfriend at the time also drank heavily and used drugs—and that she dabbled in other drugs and prostitution, even while pregnant with their daughter, who was born with cerebral palsy and other birth defects. Her drinking and drug-use problems continued, and she had to be sent to a detox center.

“Just after they picked her up, I was walking home and I stopped off on Lark Street to pick up a 40,” Colón says. “Walking out of the store, I went to open it and the bottle just slipped out of my hand,” he says, gesturing a malt-beverage explosion that evokes a mushroom cloud.

“Now any other time I would’ve gone back in there and asked for another one, but something pushed me,” Colón says. Maybe it was God, maybe it was his dead brother; Colón isn’t sure. “But something pushed me and I didn’t look back. I didn’t want to look back. I took a long walk that day.”

That was five years ago. Colón’s walk took him away from drinking and drugging. “The 10 hours I used to spend out on the street drinking, now I spend that time in the booth. It helps me stay sober.”

Colón’s audience find the show cathartic as well, regularly calling in to share their experiences on the air.

“They feel comfortable because they know I’m real,” Colón says. “If I want [listeners] to feel comfortable with me, I’m going to have to tell [them] about me first. I tell them about me and then I say, ‘Now tell me your story.’ And they do.”

In the past few months, Colón began inviting various community-service providers onto his program for a weekly bilingual Q&A and discussion on various issues affecting the Capital Region’s Latino community. Representatives from Legal Aid Society, the AIDS Council of Northeastern New York, Albany City School District, Hispanic Outreach Services and Catholic Charities have all been on Colón’s show discussing various concerns and services or treatment options.

Charles LaCourt, a program manager with the AIDS Council of Northeastern New York, was on Colón’s show earlier this month to discuss services available to people in the area living with HIV and AIDS.

“We did it in Spanish and in English,” LaCourt says, which was important because “there is a lot of misinformation among different groups that are disconnected from the mainstream, like minorities and Spanish-speaking people. It’s good to go to their media and show that this information is out there.”

Melanie Pores, bilingual family literacy teacher with the Albany City School District, echoes LaCourt’s sentiment.

“Spanish-speaking people in our city don’t live in one neighborhood,” Pores says. “They live in all four corners of our city, so there is sort of a disconnect that occurs. That limits them when they try to have a voice. When you have a program like Willie’s on the radio, that gives people a voice.”

Colón’s work as conduit for service providers and those in need continues off the radio as well, says Beatriz Aviles, youth director and caseworker with Hispanic Outreach Services. She remembers last fall, when Colón sought out a computer to donate to a 10-year-old girl who’d been hospitalized after being attacked by a dog. Colón passed the name of the business, Next Generation Computers, onto Aviles to see if they’d be willing to work with Hispanic Outreach Services. “As a result, we successfully gave out 25 computers to families that didn’t have them,” Aviles says.

For his work in the community and on the radio, Colón will be given an award of gratitude this Saturday at Albany’s 8th Annual Latinfest in Washington Park. Colón—who has been recognized twice before at the annual festival—will also emcee Saturday’s festivities, a job he coveted in his drinking days.

“I’d be so drunk, right up front, and I’d see the guy up on stage and I’d say to myself, ‘Man, I can do this,’ ” Colón says with an impressionistic drunken slur. “I’d start yelling to the guy, ‘Hey man, give me the mike. Let me up there.’ They’d just wave me off. They didn’t want to have anything to do with me.”

“But now people see me and they shake my hand,” he says. “People thank me for things I do for the community. It just feels so damn good.”

“His attitude, for me, is tremendous,” Pores says. “It is a message: You don’t have to make a million dollars to make a million dollars’ worth of difference in a person’s life.”

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