WBUR's José Massó Is 'The Teacher Who Plays Salsa Music'

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José Massó at WBUR (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
José Massó at WBUR (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Editor's Note: We don't usually report on our own, but this year José Massó is celebrating the 40th anniversary of his show on WBUR. You can also read and hear this story in Spanish here.

You can't tell by looking at him — always smiling with a fedora and a fresh suit — but these days José Massó is a worried man. On his mind is the government of the Dominican Republic's plan to revoke citizenship of Dominican-born Haitians, which he said is dividing Latinos in Boston.

"One thing is for you to have an opinion, the other person to have an opinion,” Massó said. “You disagree, but you agree to disagree, and you respect each other, the fact that, 'OK I don't agree with your opinion but you're entitled to it.' "

But Massó, the longtime host of the WBUR show ¡Con Salsa!, said that's not happening, and instead, bullying has taken the place of debate.

This isn't the first time Massó has navigated among Latinos over what can feel like matters of life and death. There's the Puerto Rican question of statehood versus independence versus status quo; the U.S. embargo against Cuba; and now the plight of Haitians in the Dominican Republic.

On a recent night in the WBUR studios — where he recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of ¡Con Salsa! — Massó decided to address the Dominican question in a message to his listeners.

"We ask that all of you listen to the messages of the songs I'm sharing with you tonight,” he said in his smooth Spanish baritone. “We have to live together, as people from different places, backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities and languages."

One man listening to the show was Jorge Santiago Arce, a Latin musician and theater teacher who lives in Roxbury. Arce said he knew Massó was referring to the Dominican Republic, though it wasn’t said explicitly.

"It came through immediately,” Arce said in his home. “And just by listening to that program, listening to the music, I knew in which direction he was going. He's a messenger, he's a messenger.”

Massó is one of the reasons Arce ended up in Boston from his native Puerto Rico. Massó helped bring Arce's band Haciendo Punto en Otro Son to the city in 1978.

¡Con Salsa! runs Saturday nights from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. Arce listens on the way home from gigs, and often turns it back on when he gets home. He said ¡Con Salsa! keeps him hip to the latest in Afro-Caribbean music — and the shows “are like concerts.”

“The interpretation, the arch behind it,” he said. “And it was not just rumba for the sake of rumba, or this for the sake of this. It has meaning and ... you could listen to it, every ramification, every detail of the music.”

'El Maestro'

This is a big year for Massó, who lives in Hyde Park, not only because it’s the 40th year of ¡Con Salsa!. He’s also beaten cancer and capped off four decades with his wife Divina Massó. With five children, seven grandkids and two great-grandchildren, they’ve got a lot to celebrate.

Massó left his hometown of San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1970 to attend Antioch College in Ohio. After graduating, he moved to Boston in 1973 to begin his career as a bilingual teacher.

He said his students urged him to bring his message to a wider audience, and two years later, at the age of 24, he started ¡Con Salsa! on WBUR.

Massó has spent much of his life's work taking young people under his wing, using his relationships and calling in favors to give others a step up.

One man he helped land a job is Bruno Rodriguez, who has known Massó since Rodriguez was a child.

“He was my teacher, and he was also my mentor, my father,” said Rodriguez, who grew up in Villa Victoria in Boston's South End. “I had a father, but my father said, 'You can go hang out Saturday nights with José Massó.' ”

Rodriguez now teaches at Fitchburg High School. He worked with Massó during the 1980s on the bilingual program Aqui, on WCVB-TV in Boston. Massó hosted for 12 years, six of them under Rodriguez.

Rodriguez says Massó's place in the community is that of "the teacher."

El maestro,” he said. “And in Puerto Rico, when parents send their kids to school, they hand the kids over: 'It's your child now, you teach them, you instruct them.’ And José developed that trust in the community. So they saw him as 'El Maestro,' that's pretty much it, que toca musica salsa los sabados por la noche.”

Translation: "The teacher who plays salsa music Saturday nights."

So Many Hats

Massó is a force, not just for salsa, but for Latino culture in Boston.

Jamaica Plain resident Eli Pabón recalls growing up in the city and seeing Massó everywhere.

“I just remember seeing him at all the festivals — he was always the emcee at a festival — and being like, ‘Wow, he has such an awesome voice,’ ” Pabón said.

Pabón is part of MetaMovements Latin Dance Company, which puts on the city's "Salsa in the Park," a weekly dance gathering that can draw 3,000 heads on a good night. She said Massó is key to keeping salsa alive.

“Maybe he's not a musician, but he's very much part of the promotion of salsa,” Pabon said, “which is very important, because you can have musicians and dancers all day, but if no one is there promoting it and ... helping people understand the importance of it and the roots of it, then it can die any day.”

Massó has worn as many hats in society as he does on his head — and there are exactly 38 caps in his collection. He's worked as a sports agent, a music promoter, a teacher, an activist, even an actor. These days he's director of community relations for Massport, working at Logan Airport.

Massó has held leadership positions in the public and nonprofit sectors too numerous to name. One post was Hispanic liaison for former Gov. Michael Dukakis.

"If you talk to people in the Latino community about José, they responded immediately,” Dukakis said. “They knew who he was, they listened to him, they listened to his show."

Dukakis says being the son of Greek immigrants gave him an affinity with Hispanics. He remembers the growing Latino population in the state while he was governor, and the significance of having Massó on his team.

"Awfully important to have somebody like José,” Dukakis said, “who was so bright, and so well known in the community — and was working that side of the street for me."

It's hard to imagine Massó in anything but top form, the man who dresses to the nines every day, who salutes everyone with a hug and a chat. But last year he got news nobody wants to hear: a diagnosis of nasopharyngeal cancer, a rare cancer that affects the head and neck.

One of the people he called was Vanessa Calderon Rosado, CEO of the South End nonprofit Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción. Rosado said she was blown away by the news — and even more by Massó’s attitude.

"This guy, who is going through it, is just the calmest thing, the most positive person, convinced he's going to beat this," she said.

And beat it, he did. After six weeks of radiation and three sessions of chemo, the doctors told Massó he was cancer free, with a very low chance of recurrence.

Massó wrote about his cancer in a letter to friends. He wrote, in part:

As I recover every day, I adjust to my new normal, a deeper voice, loss of appetite and taste buds and my “George Hamilton” suntan of my lower face and neck.

Massó turned 65 earlier this month. And with a grandmother who lived to be 112, and a mother and father who both lived to 93, he's ready to go another 40 years of talking patria y cultura.

This segment aired on August 31, 2015.


Simón Rios Reporter
Simón Rios is an award-winning bilingual reporter in WBUR's newsroom.



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