By Tanzina Vega
The New York Times
It’s been a bad few months for puppets in the media.
In October, Big Bird was dragged into the presidential debate over PBS funds and in November, Kevin Clash, the puppeteer behind Elmo, left Sesame Street after allegations that he had sex with minors.
The latest puppet scandal involves a gossipy, big-haired crone puppet in Puerto Rico, known as La Comay, who has become one of the most controversial media figures on the island — and one of the most watched. On a recent show, the puppet commented on the murder of a 32-year-old publicist by pointing out that the victim was in an area frequented by prostitutes and wondered whether he was “asking for this.”
The reaction was swift. A Facebook page calling for a boycott of La Comay has drawn more than 72,000 signatures, and prominent advertisers like Walmart and AT&T withdrew their ads from “SuperXclusivo,” the program that features her.
The outrage was in part because of fears over a growing crime wave on the island and a reaction to La Comay, a puppet version of the television program “TMZ” with gossipy segments about celebrities, politics and crime.
La Comay (roughly translated as “the godmother”) was created by Antulio Kobbo Santarrosa, a former comedian and television personality. Since 1999 the show has been broadcast on WAPA Television, an independent Puerto Rican network owned by the private equity firm InterMedia. Before WAPA, Mr. Santarrosa had shows with similar characters on other networks including Telemundo.
“SuperXclusivo” is broadcast on the island but also on the mainland in states with large Puerto Rican populations like New York and Florida. On the hourlong show, La Comay frequently asks viewers to call her show with crime tips, which producers investigate. “We tried to use her to bring out issues that other mediums would not touch,” said Jose E. Ramos, the president of WAPA.
In the last Puerto Rican race for governor, two of the candidates visited the show the night before the election, Mr. Ramos said. “People will report incidents and things that happen on the island to La Comay instead of going to the police and going to the newspapers,” he said.
“She ensures that the police and the government cover the main issues and are on top of the issues, and she does it in a way that is very entertaining, that’s what offends some people,” Mr. Ramos said.
In an e-mail, Mr. Santarrosa said: “We respect our audience and it was never my intention to offend anyone with the information we presented, which had already been presented in other media.” The comments were similar to the ones made by La Comay on her show in the days after the controversy where she tried to apologize to the audience.
The uproar began when, on Dec. 4, “SuperXclusivo” featured a segment on the publicist José Enrique Gómez Saladín, whose disappearance had been extensively covered by local media. On Nov. 29, according to published reports, Mr. Gomez Saladín attended a meeting in San Juan and then called his wife to tell her he was on his way home.
Instead, Mr. Gomez Saladín’s body was found four days later. He had been doused with gasoline, burned and then bludgeoned to death. The case is being handled by the United States Attorney’s Office in Puerto Rico. Four people were arrested on Dec. 4 in connection with the crime. They have been charged on two counts, carjacking resulting in murder and bank fraud. A preliminary hearing is set for Wednesday. The crime, which came less than two weeks after the shooting death of the boxer Hector Camacho, rattled the island.
After the news of the murder, residents began a social media protest for peace called “Todos Somos José Enrique” (We are all José Enrique).
Details of what happened that night remain unclear, with some reports saying Mr. Gomez Saladín had been a victim of a carjacking. But in her Dec. 4 segment, La Comay raised another issue: Mr. Gomez Saladín was on Padial Street in Caguas, a town near San Juan. The street, La Comay said, is “a center of male and female prostitution.”
Couching her statements with the phrase “apparently and allegedly,” La Comay asked, “Was this man, José Enrique, asking for this?” Of the four suspects in the case she asked, “Was he friends with these people? Did he used to be a client of these people?” At the end of her remarks she called for Puerto Rico to reinstate the death penalty.
The remarks created protests against the puppet, her show and the network.
“We didn’t know that this was going to explode the way it did,” said Carlos Rivera, an unemployed I.T. specialist from Puerto Rico who created the Facebook page calling for the boycott of La Comay by advertisers and viewers.
Mr. Ramos of WAPA said the boycotts have not hurt the show’s ratings. “If anything they have increased,” he said. “People want to see what’s going on.”
This was not the first time that La Comay has faced opposition over comments. “This is not a new problem,” said Pedro Julio Serrano, a human rights activist and spokesman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, who described La Comay and her show as “sexist, misogynist, racist, homophobic and xenophobic.” Mr. Serrano said Mr. Santarrosa uses La Comay “to hide himself and defame public figures and private citizens.”
Melissa Mark-Viverito, a city councilwoman in East Harlem, a neighborhood with a large Puerto Rican population, recalled previous protests in her remarks to the City Council on Dec. 10. In 2010, Ms. Mark-Viverito and other politicians petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to investigate the language used on the show. “People are really organizing in a way that is unprecedented on the island.” she said. “It’s time to end this.”
Mr. Ramos said the station did not “condone anything that promotes violence.” And he acknowledged that La Comay was “a very controversial figure” that, despite all of her detractors, also had many supporters. (Facebook pages and Twitter accounts have been created by supporters who have posted photos with the phrase “Todos Somos La Comay” or “We are all La Comay.”)
Mr. Ramos said the network was going to scrutinize La Comay’s talking points more closely because of the boycott. (She does not use a script.) Mr. Ramos said the company tends to review in advance anything that could be considered controversial but that in the case of Mr. Gómez Saladín, it had not.
Mr. Ramos said he respected the decision of the advertisers that had removed their commercials from the show.
He agreed that maybe it was time to consider whether the benefits of keeping La Comay on television outweighed drawbacks. “I can assure you that I think of that a lot, the owners of WAPA think of that,” he said. “There has to be a breaking point where you say is this really worthwhile?”