PHARR — With the characteristic warm buzz of its analog-recorded roots, the sound of a marching band begins to fill the air. Soon, a tenor voice that’s one part honey with just a hint of gravel rises above the brass crescendo to issue an enthusiastic welcome.
Though they cannot see him, listeners can nonetheless hear the smile that spreads across his lips and twinkles at the corners of his eyes as the voice declares, “A todos los que aman, y a todos lo que quieren el fútbol, buenas noches! Buenas noches fanáticos. Les saludamos!”
“To those who love, and those who like football, good evening! Good evening, fans! We greet you!” Hugo de la Cruz, 74, says at the top of his weekly Football Scoreboard radio show inside the Super Tejano 102.1 FM studio at R Communications in Pharr.
His is a voice that has filled the Rio Grande Valley’s airwaves on Friday nights since 1971, announcing the scores of football games from Roma to Port Isabel and Raymondville to Progreso. His distinct delivery, with its humor offset by perfectly timed sound effects, along with his fondness for a certain phrase, has earned him the nickname Mr. Nifu Nifa and could be heard in school buses, stadium parking lots and homes all over the Valley.
But, after spending time at three different radio studios and nearly five decades on the air, Mr. Nifu Nifa has announced he will be retiring from his iconic show at the end of the 2019 high school football season.
ALL ABOUT THE SHOW
Underlying de la Cruz’s readout of scores, the upbeat marching band music continues, its frenetic tempo driving the longtime disc jockey’s own fast-paced delivery. Interspersed throughout the broadcast, de la Cruz will play corridos — Spanish language ballads — custom written to celebrate the legacies of certain football teams.
He’ll take calls from devoted fans who have earned radio nicknames of their own. He’ll good-naturedly gibe a super fan after their team has lost by playing the sound of a crying baby or a laughing child, depending on the circumstance — salting the wound or lightly mocking sarcasm.
Through it all, he smiles. And stands. He never once sits during the hour-and-a-half long, off-the-cuff broadcast.
Those familiar with the show eagerly await an opportunity to hear him say the phrase which gave him his name. During a Nov. 1 show, listeners got their first chance when de la Cruz called the score for a game between the Vela Sabercats and the Edinburg Bobcats, during which the Sabercats shut out their crosstown rivals.
“El escore final: Vela, 56; Edinburg, nifu nifa!” de la Cruz says emphatically, drawing out the vowels on the last two words while pushing the sliders on the audio board up and down for maximum effect.
De la Cruz borrowed the phrase “nifu nifa” after watching a news report. It’s a phrase that originated from Spain, and one he knew could capture an audience.
And that it did. Ever since weaving the phrase into the Football Scoreboard in 1978, it has come to embody de la Cruz. Everywhere he goes, he is known as Mr. Nifu Nifa — even the priest of the Catholic church where he serves as a deacon refers to him as such.
De la Cruz got his first start in radio in Camargo, Mexico, in 1965. In 1966, he took his skills to his hometown of Miguel Aleman, before emigrating to the United States later that year. But, when he came to the U.S. to be with the woman who would become his wife, Maria Rebecca, he went from being a disc jockey to working at an okra processing facility.
Rogelio Botello Rios, a former colleague, however, had landed a job at KGBT radio in Harlingen, and soon went to Roma in search of his friend. Rios convinced de la Cruz to join him doing shift work at the radio station.
Not long after that, Program Manager Martin Rosales asked de la Cruz if he would be interested in doing a radio show announcing regional game scores after the Harlingen Cardinal games.
De la Cruz agreed, but found the delivery too dry, too boring. Wanting to inspire a little team spirit, de la Cruz picked up a guitar and wrote the first Football Scoreboard corrido. After hearing it, Rosales gave him free rein to add the corrido to the show, as long as it was successful with the audience.
“De allí empezo todo,” de la Cruz said. “From there, everything started.”
Soon enough, fans from other local teams began submitting corridos of their own. Then the call-ins started.
At first, de la Cruz wouldn’t put the callers on the air, but would instead repeat what they had said. When he repeated a comment that was critical of the Harlingen coach and school board, the subsequent complaints drove Rosales to suggest putting the calls on the air.
And with that began one of the show’s other beloved traditions. “These people have been calling from the 50 years, or close to 50 years that he’s been on the radio,” de la Cruz’s oldest son, Victor Hugo de la Cruz said as he prepared for the Nov. 1 broadcast. “These are people that have been constant callers, every season.”
Victor Hugo, who has come to be known as “La Voz” (The Voice) has co-hosted the show with his dad for approximately 13 years, he said.
The most faithful callers have on-air nicknames, too. “Los bautisamos. … Aquí los ponemos. Aquí no se escapa nadie,” the elder de la Cruz said. “We baptize them. … Here we name them. Here, nobody escapes.”
There’s the late Father Nacho, a priest who was a stalwart fan of the La Villa Cardinals. And La Grandota, a philanthropist from Mercedes who got his feminized nickname because of his penchant for dressing in drag while playing charity softball to raise funds for the needy.
Then there’s El Wow Wee, former Port Isabel Police Chief Gualberto “Wally” Gonzalez, who not only calls into the show every week, but also serves as the game caller at Tarpon Stadium.
Another Laguna Madre area fan, retired justice of the peace Bennie Ochoa, goes by nickname El Hijo de la Playa that’s a slightly profane play on words when translated into English: The Son of the Beach.
Newer super fans have come to the fore and earned their own nicknames, such as El Gato Roñoso, a fan of the Raymondville Bearkats, El Leon Mayor of La Feria, and El Pirata Mayor of Hidalgo.
De la Cruz spent the first 40 years of his show on KGBT radio. After that, the show moved to Que Pasa 99.5, before landing at Super Tejano 102.1 FM, where the show now resides. Along the way he has racked up numerous accolades, including national awards from the Associated Press and the ESPN network.
He looks back with pride on what drove him to do the show: an idea to unite parents with their children, to encourage Latino children to participate in school sports during a time when few Latino names were on the rosters.
But after so long in the business, he has begun to feel the effects of fatigue. “Ya me canso,” he said. “Now, I get tired.”
He is humbly proud of the success he has built, and says those memories will sustain him in his retirement, but feels now is the moment to pass the baton on to his son. “Le hecho cosas muy bonitas que me han sucedido en este programa. Y me las llevo conmigo. Y ahora es la responsibilidad (que) cae sobre el.”
“I’ve done many beautiful things that have sustained me in this show. And I’ll take that with me. But now the responsibility lies with him,” the elder de la Cruz said of his son with a note of pride in his voice.
“To me, it’s very important to continue the legacy,” Victor Hugo said, adding that his father’s departure from the show marks the end of an era.
“Yes, it’s the end of the era, but I think that we gotta continue. We gotta at least try,” he said.
The show has been more than just the labor of love between father and son that it has evolved into these latter years. From the beginning, de la Cruz had another member of his family right by his side, serving as a producer: his wife, Maria Rebecca de la Cruz, who became known as La Hembra Mala (The Bad Woman).
As father and son sat recounting their memories of the show, Maria sat quietly listening, a small smile playing across her lips. “Pobrecito, por que ya son muchos años,” she said afterward. “Poor him, because it’s been so many years.”
She added that she doubts her husband will be able to stay too far away from the studio, even after Victor Hugo takes over. “Aunque esta mi hijo allí, el va venir, por que allí esta el.”
“Even if my son is there, my husband will come, because that’s where he is,” she said, describing how the studio is de la Cruz’s sense of home.
Growing up in poverty in Mexico, de la Cruz went to work at a circus at the age of 12 in order to help support himself. “Esa edad era adulto uno,” he said. “At that time, one was an adult at that age.”
He transitioned to radio after a fall from a trapeze forced him to quit the circus. As a young man, de la Cruz’s siblings openly wondered at his choice of profession, wondering how he would ever make a living by talking on the radio. But radio has allowed him to make what he calls a beautiful life with his wife and his family by his side. Now, in retirement, he hopes to be able to attend an Edcouch-Elsa Yellowjacket game in person from start to finish.
The team, which has remained dear to his heart, is the one exception he makes on the show. He will never play the sound of the crying baby if the Yellowjackets lose. But, the corrido of La Maquina Amarilla (The Yellow Machine), as the ‘Jackets are known, is frequently played on air.
“Amo ese deporte,” de la Cruz said. “I love this sport.”