Chata Gutierrez was a salsa DJ legend and Mission District icon who fought for recognition — and pure enjoyment — of Latin music via the KPOO and KPFA airwaves. She died Tuesday morning in the hospital after a 12-year battle with liver cancer — continuing her salsa show until just a few weeks before her death. She was 60.
“She broke a lot of barriers for Raza women and for the movement of world music — from Cuban music to Puerto Rican music to local music,” said long-time friend Ray Balbaran.
Described as a fierce revolutionary, Gutierrez was a pioneer of Latin music in the 70s as the Latino community struggled to carve out an identity in San Francisco. “Now Latin music is very much a part of public radio, but it wasn’t then,” said Emiliano Echeverria, a cohost and close friend. “We had to go through a lot of struggle just to be heard back 40 years ago. And Chata had a whole lot to do with seeing to it that our voices got heard.”
Gutierrez’s legacy was “Con Clave” on KPOO, the longest continuously-running Latin music program in the Bay Area. Her show racked up loyal fans and accolades, including the local Tom Donahue Radio Award in 1977 and was voted “Best Salsa Radio Show” in 2000 by SF Weekly. (“If her sensuous voice weren’t interrupted by the best salsa on the airwaves, you’d wish she’d just talk for four hours straight,” read the prize.)
Gutierrez got her start in radio at KPFA, a Berkeley-based radio station, in 1972 when she met Echeverria, who was a DJ at the station. Gutierrez — just 18 at the time — was one of several workers scheduled to be interviewed that evening about her work at the Centro De Cambio, a drug counseling organization. But Gutierrez was immediately attracted by the radio control room, and decided to help Echeverria air the show rather than go on the air herself. She was fascinated by the control room and asked him to teach her how to create radio shows. He showed her the ropes. “She took to it like a duck takes to the water,” Echeverria remembers. “She picked up that microphone and she knew what she wanted to do.”
Echeverria and Gutierrez soon began “Unidos,” a late-night radio show featuring salsa, oldies and R&B. Gutierrez began hosting Con Clave at KPOO in 1979 and worked stints at KPFA through the 90s. Con Clave ran every Saturday from noon to 3 p.m. up until just a few weeks before her death on December 17, 2013.
“She is probably one of the gutsiest women you would have ever met in your life,” Echeverria said. “To have the terrible suffering she was going through and every week to get herself up — as sick as she was — to go do that show, shows her dedication to her community.”
Gutierrez’s parents immigrated to San Francisco from the Mexican state of Michoacan. A lifelong Missionite, she was born on March 4, 1953 at St. Luke’s Hospital and named Micaela; “Chata” or “pug face” was a nickname from infancy that she’d go by for the rest of her life. Gutierrez attended Edison Grammar School, James Lick Middle School and Mission High School.
Her radio show — which drew listeners ranging from teens to jamming viejitos — often included community speakers between tracks, and drifted from Spanish to English to Spanglish. “She’s a pocha,” Echeverria said. “She was born in this country but raised in two different cultures. She was comfortable shifting from James Brown to salsa.”
Community radio was Gutierrez’s passion — but an unpaid one. She also DJed around the Bay Area, and worked as a journeywoman ornamental plasterer, helping restore City Hall in the 90s. She was briefly married in the 70s, and has an adult daughter, Quetzali Cortazar.
Emiliano Echeverria will dedicate a KPOO program to Gutierrez this Friday from 9 to 12 p.m. Friends and family will be flying in from across the country to talk about Chata and her love for Latin music and the Mission. In 2011, the Mission Cultural Center hosted a fundraiser to help her medical bills for the cancer that she faced with a stoic resignation. “Her concern was not about dying,” Echeverria says. “Her concern was making sure she got that next program out.”
Listen to Gutierrez’s archived “Con Clave” programs here.