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The untold story of the SBS broadcaster who died on 9/11

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Alberto Dominguez was the first Australian to die on 9/11. Better known by his nickname, ‘El Pocho’, he perished on-board American Airlines flight 11, the first plane to plunge into the World Trade Center on 9/11. He was a pioneer, one of the first broadcasters to breathe life into SBS Radio, where he worked for 13 years.

But in spite of being a beloved and prominent figure in the Spanish-speaking community, when news of his passing hit mainstream Australian media, he was only remembered as a 66-year old migrant, a ‘Qantas baggage-handler.’

A hero sung and unsung: Remembering Alberto 'Pocho' Dominguez, the 'Spanish-speaking' Australian
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Listen to the Radio feature (in English)

 Death is a fact of life. But how we’ll die and how we will be remembered is uncertain. Pocho’s friends, colleagues and listeners say he lived an exceptional life. He also died in extraordinary, albeit tragic, circumstances.

Hard and fast facts about Pocho’s day job eclipsed the reporting of his legacy. But a closer look reveals a greater story – one that is deeply intertwined with the history of migration and multiculturalism in Australia, and the inception of SBS Radio or 2EA, as it was first called.  15 years on from his death, it’s time to set the record straight. 

For most of us, every stage of our lives weaves a new layer of self into our personal history, redefining the answers to the essential questions of who we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re headed.  But for migrants, the struggle for identity and belonging is threefold. Our sense of self is fragmented: we are who we were back home, who we are now, as perceived in the wider collective of our newly adopted country, and we are also who we epitomise in our community.

Most days we live life disregarding that today could be our last. Migrants live with the acute, heartbreaking certainty that every family visit may be the final embrace.

Pocho went to the United States with his wife Marta to help her ailing sister, who was undergoing brain surgery to have a tumour removed. After a couple of weeks, Pocho had to return to work, but Marta decided to stay longer.

He had planned to return home to Lidcombe on September the 10th, but decided to delay his departure and stay an extra night.

That put him on Flight 11 out of Boston the next morning, the first flight that would be hijacked, then flown into the tower.

Born in Uruguay, Pocho described himself as a “Spanish-speaking Australian.”  That wasn’t far from the truth. He was generous and dedicated much of his time to altruistic causes.

His friends portray him as a charismatic character, a man of sports, a natural leader and a good mate.

Everyone remembers the 9/11 attacks vividly. But the SBS Spanish Radio broadcasters who were on shift, experienced a particularly uncanny occurrence.

Ruben Fernandez, former SBS Spanish Executive Producer, says he had known about the attacks before coming into the office, but he didn’t know Pocho was on one of the flights.

“When I got to SBS early that morning, my colleague Nepo showed me something weird was up with his computer. He had not logged in yet, but his screen had gone to blue and froze inexplicably. There was only one line of text saying, 'former Uruguayan cyclist champion dead in 9/11 attacks.'"

"It looked like a breaking news wire or update, but Nepo’s computer was not running iNews, the program we used for that purpose.”

“We called the family, and they confirmed the news. That afternoon, we informed the Spanish-speaking community about Pocho’s death on the program. It was heart wrenching. Everyone was shocked to the core,” Ruben says.

Soraya Caicedo, SBS Radio’s Executive Producer was there. She also saw the blue screen.

 

“It was the strangest thing. We called the IT department, but they couldn’t explain what had happened. To this day, we believe that was Pocho’s way of telling us he had died. He gave us the scoop.”

 

As a broadcaster, Pocho was one of those exceptional voices that connected deeply with his audience. As migrant families searched for their sense of place in a foreign land, Pocho’s voice was a soothing balm. He entered people’s homes and struck a chord in their hearts, as they huddled together around the living room radio to listen to him, just like it had been in the golden days.

Pocho's sign-off was premonitory: 

"It's time for us to say goodbye. It may be goodbye forever. This program has come to an end. Good night, all the best to all of you. We'll meet again someday. This is, forever, Pocho Dominguez."

 

 

Darwin Rodriguez, journalist and Sports Editor for Australia’s oldest Spanish-language newspaper ‘El Español’, remembers Pocho had a special ability to transport listeners to their old haunts, their childhood neighbourhoods, to the sites and scenes they desperately yearned.

 

“Everyone listened to Pocho’s program, especially back then,
when our (South American) migration had just begun."

 

"Most of us had just moved to Australia, and to be able to listen to a show about Tango, about music, and to hear the voice of a Spanish-speaking broadcaster was very important… because most people had no family here. Pocho came into all our homes through 2EA”, says Darwin. 

But Pocho was already well known to many. Back in Uruguay, he had been a sports hero.  In 1953, he was the national cycling champion. He pedalled for his homeland in two Pan-American games and won medals at various international tournaments.

Darwin Rodriguez, recalls that Pocho had “three main passions in life: his family, cycling and tango.

“His family was his most important passion by far… But he was a very good cyclist and he loved it."

 

"He represented Uruguay at many international competitions, in Argentina, Brazil and the United States...
He won a silver medal in Chicago in 1959,” Darwin says. 

 

English

In the early 70s, life in Montevideo, the Uruguayan capital, had become increasingly difficult, even for a famous athlete who also slogged as an electrician.  Democracy had been flattened by the first winds of political turmoil, and the threat of the ferocious dictatorship to come was strangling the economy and human rights.

Ruben Fernandez, a fellow Uruguayan migrant, describes Montevideo in the 70s akin to a ‘Soviet Republic’:

“It was grey. A growingly authoritarian Government and the Armed Forces controlled everything. The streets were empty at night. The military were a constant threat, patrolling the streets at all times.”

In 1974, Pocho fit his life in a suitcase and moved to Sydney with his wife Marta and their four children.

Australia was the new ‘Promised Land’ for many South Americans (mostly Argentinian, Chilean and Uruguayan), seeking refuge. But safety and hope also meant sacrifice.

Back then, moving to a country as distant and foreign as Australia meant near-total disconnection from your place of origin. There was no such thing as ‘Multicultural Australia’. Migrants stripped off their identities in best efforts to fit in. This was emotionally taxing.

Darwin Rodriguez remembers: “We came to Australia and it was total isolation… We had little to no connection to our homes.”

Spanish-speaking broadcaster Nestor Alzamendi, who worked with Pocho in community radio up until his last broadcast before his death, says that even telephoning home was a priviledge. International calls to South America could cost anything between $10-$20 per minute, and the average income for migrants was about $50 a week.  

 

“To call home we had to go to the city, to the post office, where it used to be in Martin Place...There were many booths. You gave them the number and then you waited for hours to get connected to your family”, Nestor says. 

 

On June 9 1975, former Immigration Minister Al Grassby launched Radio Ethnic Australia, with the aim of explaining the new Medibank scheme to migrant communities in different languages. Broadcasting began in Greek, Spanish and four other languages on 2EA in Sydney, and in eight languages on Melbourne's 3EA.

 

Radio Ethnic Australia was a much-needed lifeline. 

The broadcasts had a profound effect on migrant communities, so the service stuck. What started as a 3-month experiment grew into the Special Broadcasting Service we know today. Last year SBS Radio celebrated its 40th Anniversary and now broadcasts in 74 languages.

English

Spanish-language broadcaster and music events organizer Mario Soca says conditions were initially precarious. “Radio was the only media we had. There was nothing else. Absolutely nothing. People from different countries, including Pocho, got together to try to convince the Government to create ‘Ethnic Radio’ 2EA.  And they succeeded, but they had to work as volunteers for some time and it was a struggle.”

 

“For us it was incredible. We would come back to our houses after work, feeling homesick because we had left our homelands, hoping to build a new, better life for ourselves in this country, but there was nothing for us. Our first victory was coming home and listening to them on the radio. For us it was like wining the lotto,” Mario says. 

 

The Spanish-language team broadcast three programs a week. Pocho’s brainchild, ‘Folklore, Tango and Roses’ a radio show about music, culture and nostalgia, was like no other.  

Jose Da Silva, from the charity group ‘United Uruguayans’ in Australia, used to record all of Pocho’s programs. He did this to listen to the Spanish broadcast daily, even on days when they were off air. 

“He transported us to our roots with his music, his comments, his persona, they way he spoke. People trusted him and everyone who heard him became a new SBS listener”, says Jose.

Nestor Alzamendi believes “Pocho was the right person to help us heal our wounds. We had left our homelands behind. He kept us connected to our neighbourhoods, to our countries."

“He wasn’t a broadcaster or an entertainer in the strict sense of the word, like a quiz show host, no. He got through to people. He spoke like family”, Nestor says.

English

But in spite of being a likeable character, Pocho could prove difficult to work with. Some felt he was blunt, ‘too casual’, and disorganized. Ruben Fernandez remembers Pocho instigated many incidents and near misses, but this was also part of his genius.

“When Argentina won the World Cup in 1986, Pocho and I were broadcasting the final match live on SBS Radio. Then, without warning, Pocho invited people to come to the studio on Clarence Street to celebrate.

“People came in large groups, waving flags. Security guards and radio operators were going nuts… As the crowd grew, the police also came. The crowd was getting out of control, stopping traffic. 

“It was wonderful, and we can laugh about it now, but it was a scramble. We could’ve organised all that and avoided the mess. But Pocho was unpredictable. He had these sudden bright ideas that got people into trouble. He had a gift and a vision of doing radio with the people,” Ruben says.

Pocho worked for SBS Radio from 1975 to 1988. In 1979, he contributed a regular column to the Spanish language newspaper, ‘El Expreso’. From the late 80s and until his death, he hosted many other shows on various public and community radio stations across Sydney.

He also gave generously to the Spanish-speaking community in Australia. Pocho was a founding member of a number of associations and charities that continue to thrive today: the Uruguayan Club, the Association of Spanish-Speaking Grandparents and the Latin American Relief Foundation (established following Hurricane Mitch in 1998). He was also instrumental in the creation of ‘United Uruguayans’, a grass-roots charitable organisation that collects funds to send to hospitals in Uruguay.  

Since 2001, many tributes have been organized to honour Pocho’s memory. His son, Alvaro spoke at the inauguration of ‘Tango Day’ in NSW, which coincides with his father’s birthday. "Dad left us and we feel like we’re still waiting for him,” Alvaro said. 

English

Mario Soca feels that Pocho’s death on 9/11 is ironically fitting for a man of his stature. “I don’t mean any disrespect, but something good came from that awful tragedy. His name is now on that small plaque where those towers used to stand. It’s there forever, in perpetuity,” Mario says.

Pocho’s daughter Virginia told SBS: "We appreciate that people, especially the community, would like to remember him. He was a pioneer... He made us proud."

Alberto Dominguez, ‘El Pocho’, ‘the Spanish-speaking Australian, taught his audience that displacement and belonging are not irreconcilable.

Thanks for sharing photos, recordings and information:

Rodolfo Rivarola
Eduardo Rotunno
Mario Soca
José Da Silva
Darwin Rodríguez
Néstor Alzamendi
Familia Domínguez

Credits

  • Words: Claudianna Blanco

  • Production: Soraya Caicedo and Esther Lozano

  • Photos and Video: Esther Lozano

  • Coordination: Florencia Melgar