Not a hair on his salt-and-pepper pompadour is out of place, but there are huge bags under Elias Bermudez's eyes. He's behind the microphone on a recent Wednesday morning, at KIDR 740 AM. You can catch his radio show on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 7 to 9. The show reaches a lot of people. The frequency is one of the oldest in town, and well known for talk radio and news in the Spanish-speaking community. The station's changed owners a few times, but today, all its shows focus on the immigrant community, which widely views KIDR as a valuable resource.
Except when it comes to this guy. It's not easy being Elias Bermudez. And he makes sure it stays that way. Today, his message to his listeners — many of whom are undocumented immigrants — is a ballsy one: Go back to Mexico.
"I'm saying maybe you are right," he says, sounding like an evangelical preacher on Judgment Day. "Maybe the United States is right. Maybe it's time for us [Mexicans] to leave."
That is not a sentiment shared by other immigrant rights activists. But Bermudez, leader of the Phoenix-based Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras (Immigrants Without Borders) has planted himself firmly to the right of other Hispanic activists. Like similar groups, Inmigrantes holds demonstrations to protest anti-immigration laws, and Bermudez has staged, with mixed results, several labor and hunger strikes to grab attention. The group also holds information fairs where Bermudez teaches immigrants what to do if stopped by police, and he reminds them he runs a business that will prepare immigration documents — for a price. Currently, the group is pushing Arizona employers to resist a sanctions law that goes into effect January 1.
When Bermudez talks about giving a voice to the undocumented, he becomes misty-eyed. But not everyone is convinced of his sincerity. So he works alone, or with strange company.
Bermudez is not afraid to announce his support for Republican Senator Jon Kyl, and he boasts that he campaigned for President George W. Bush. Twice. He's been quoted calling Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio a "friend" (the two used to share a cordial public relationship, though they've never interacted socially) and, on one occasion, his group marched in support of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps.
In the Spanish-speaking community, it's no secret that Bermudez has left a bad taste in the mouths of other activists. Former Democratic state Senator Alfredo Gutierrez has publicly criticized him on his own talk show on Radio Campesina 88.3 FM. Gutierrez complains that Bermudez isn't organized and doesn't help the community. When Bermudez does something other activists think is wrong — kneeling before the sheriff, for example — Gutierrez is sure to bring it up on the air.
Gutierrez declined an interview for this story, saying he prefers to talk about things that are positive, and that therefore, "I have nothing to say about him."
Privately, Bermudez's critics say he's hard to work with, he's egotistical, he's financially corrupt, and his past is a problem.
His past is checkered. If his story weren't a matter of public record, it would be impossible to believe. At 56, Bermudez is the former mayor of the Arizona border town San Luis. He's a convicted felon. And he claims to have the ear of the president of Mexico.
As much as his enemies — and members of the Spanish-speaking media — hate him, the English-speaking news media love Bermudez. His antics are outrageous, and he's incredibly quotable.
Recently, he grabbed headlines as the brains behind an alleged plot to murder his "friend" Arpaio. Nothing came of an investigation into the supposed plot, but it says a lot that no one is accusing Alfredo Gutierrez, Hector Yeterallde, Isabel Garcia, or Roberto Reveles — other prominent immigrant organizers — of trying to off the sheriff.
(The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office declined to talk to New Times for this story.)
Bermudez's visibility irks his critics, but the immigrant rights movement needs Bermudez — or someone like him. Today's undocumented immigrant has few people to look up to, and the English-speaking community, or at least the portion of it that continually votes in favor of anti-immigration laws, has few people to change its mind about immigration.
There is no César Chávez rallying the undocumented, no Martin Luther King Jr. calling for a higher moral standard.
Bermudez is in a position to become that leader. He's incredibly charismatic; when he speaks, it's impossible not to give him your full attention. A clever politician, he has the potential to become the strongest leader of a movement in desperate need of a potent national figurehead.
There's just one problem, though, and it's a big one. His own people don't trust him, and among his critics there is a general feeling that Bermudez does the movement more harm than good.