Mariela Pichardo: Meat for the Tigers: How One Man and His Instagram are Convincing Thousands of Dominicans to Stay Home During COVID-19

Mariela Pichardo is a 2020 graduate of Brown University. She majored in English and Africana Studies, with a focus on Latin America and the Caribbean. She wrote this article for Stephen Kinzer’s “International Journalism: Foreign Reporting in Practice” course at Brown.

 

By Mariela Pichardo

San Francisco de Macorís, Dominican Republic—

Tens of thousands of Dominicans are spending their nights demanding carne, or meat, on reggaetón singer Miguel Ángel Valerio Lebrón’s controversial Instagram live stream. Lebrón, better known as Don Miguelo, is the host of “From Zero to Ten,” a sensual and comedic show in which scantily-clad women dance to earn a rating from the artist and his audience. After a brief hiatus (the program began at the end of March), Don Miguelo announced the revival of his show in mid-April. Excited fans welcome the Dominican tiger king back by flooding the comments of his live stream with meat emojis, an indication that they are already on the prowl and ready for the main event.

“We remind everyone not to forget these recommendations from the international radio host, D.M.!” Don Miguelo says in Spanish, using a deep radio voice and dragging out the last syllable. He presses play on his sound board, starting a pre-recorded show introduction. “Zero frogs, zero tilapia, zero ants, zero hippopotamuses,” it begins in his same low tone.

The former part of the host’s name, Don, is a title of respect similar to “Sir,” which Spanish-speakers typically reserve for older and knowledgable men. For women, the term is Doña, similar to “m’am” and is used in the same way as Don. Don Miguelo debuted with this stage name at age 25, when he released the 2006 hit single “Qué Tu Quieres,” or what you want. For his tremendous success that year, he won the “Relevation” award at The Cassandra Awards (now Soberano Awards), the most important annual event in Dominican music.

The now 38-year old host, a brown-skinned man with large eyes and a Dutch beard, takes a swig from a half-filled liter of vodka. “Zero chicken legs, zero chikungunya…the best women, lots of meat, oh my goodness!” the recording continues.

“46,000 and we haven’t even seen an ear yet!” he exclaims with a grin and puff of a cigar.

Don Miguelo will be joined by a voluptuous Peruvian woman in a tiny bikini. Unprompted, she will prop up her phone and drop to all fours, twerking into the camera. In the comments, viewers fall into a frenzy, filling the screen with multicolored hearts that float up from the bottom of the display. A collection of T-bone steak, fire, and Dominican and Peruvian flag emojis decorate the comments, along with declarations that the woman is an abuser, really meaning enchantress, scattered between them.

Under a state-mandated curfew aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 since March 20, “From Zero to Ten” appears to return a sense of normalcy to life in the Dominican Republic. A people that pride themselves on their sense of community and penchant for celebration, the show allows them to come together, albeit virtually. Physically congregating, particularly after curfew, is strictly prohibited. To ensure that gatherings or parties do not take place, law enforcement officials patrol the streets from five p.m. to six a.m. The current state policy is to arrest anyone found out on the street, regardless of their reason for disobeying the restriction. Exceptions to this rule include people experiencing medical emergencies and essential workers such as medical personnel, journalists, and food transporters.

While this policy has reduced the frequency of non-essential contact in the country, it has not managed to curtail it completely. According to Dominican Today, from the time the curfew was introduced to the first week of April, nearly 30,000  people were arrested for being out after hours. This number would likely have been much higher, however, had it not been for “From Zero to Ten.”

Don Miguelo’s Instagram Lives originally began as nothing more than a joke. “I turned on my Live, like I do every day, and said ‘okay,’ today I’m going to do a program,” he said in an exclusive March 30 interview with Dominican radio host Santiago “Alofoke” Matias. “Then, right there while live the idea came to me to do something that would allow people to vote. ‘From zero to ten’—who looks the best, who’s the hottest.” Within less than two weeks, the informal live stream transformed into a proper show and cultural phenomenon fit with its own sayings, songs and a massive following.

On April 1, Don Miguelo’s interactive nighttime show broke the Instagram Live record for the most simultaneous viewers at one time. Surpassing 389,000 watchers, it shattered the previous record, held by international popstar Taylor Swift. At one point prior to the arrival of COVID-19 to the Americas, Taylor Swift had amassed more than 150,000 viewers on an Instagram Live stream.

However, according to New York City radio station Power 105.1, Don Miguelo’s record was later broken on April 20, when African-American music legends Babyface and Teddy Riley surpassed 500,000 viewers during a catalogue battle.

With time, Don Miguelo’s audience has grown beyond the Dominican Republic and now includes a faithful following from Spain, Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, the United States and many more countries. A wide variety of international celebrities have tuned into his live streams including rapper Cardi B, tropical singer Prince Royce and reggaeton artist, Ozuna.

“From Zero to Ten” broadcasts multiple times a week and on average, brings in about 200,000 viewers with each stream. Don Miguelo attributes the success of the program to its carefree and lighthearted vibe. “People are tired of hearing about the virus,” he says. “They just want to have fun, and that’s what I’m giving them.”

On another stream of the show, Don Miguelo called a Dominican woman named Lisa, who is based in New York. Timid at first, the singer was tasked with convincing her to perform for his audience. After some brief encouragement she flashed a mischievous smile and replied with just the warning “protect yourself” as she propped up her phone.

donmiguelo

“Jesus Christ, oh my God—” Don Miguelo murmured, as the woman’s large backside came into view for the first time. Dressed in a grey tank top and black leggings, the guest began flexing her glute muscles. As her bottom bounced, the singer’s eyes grew wide, as if innocent with surprise.

“She shook it! She shook it!” a wide-mouthed Don Miguelo yelled about six times. “The devil, damn!” he exclaimed and flipped a switch on the soundboard. As “Let’s Get It On” by Marvin Gaye began to play, the singer threw up his arms and sank into his rolling chair, besides himself at her performance.

This moment would inspire the creation of the first of two original soundtracks for “From Zero to Ten.” In this instance, “Lo Vibró,” or she shook it, a dembow song which features rapper Bulin 47.  The chorus of the track is the chant, “She shook it! She shook it!” which the two exclaim in unison. In the background, throughout the song an overwhelmed Bulin cries out with delight, his words unintelligible.

The music video for this song, which topped the YouTube Top 100 list in the Dominican Republic on May 2, is a reenactment of Don Miguelo’s Instagram Live videos. Its first verse is also the recorded introduction of “From Zero to Ten,” delivered as a rap. With this upload, Don Miguelo displaced chart strongholds such as “Yo Perreo Sola” by Bad Bunny and “Rumba” by Rochy RD.

Despite the overwhelming success of “From Zero to Ten,” it has faced some criticism. Following Don Miguelo’s record breaking show, evangelical pastor Maiker Carpiadosa publicly reproached the singer on his own Instagram Live stream.

“Tell Don Miguelo that the pastor said if he does not stop those Lives, the promotion of pornography, the hand of God will deal with him,” Carpiadosa bellowed with fervor. Contrary to the pastor’s accusations, however, Instagram has a strict no-nudity policy, and Don Miguelo immediately removes any participants that attempt to expose their intimate areas on his show.

Other critics, particularly journalists, have claimed that Don Miguelo’s shows are inappropriate and disrespectful to the difficult situation the country is currently experiencing. The Dominican Republic leads the Caribbean in confirmed coronavirus cases, with well over 10,000 since the country reported its first one on March 1. To date, more than 400 people have died. Native to and based in San Francisco de Macorís, the original epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the country, Don Miguelo has also been accused by some dissenters of not using his platform to educate the people or share his economic resources during the COVID-19 crisis.

San Francisco de Macorís is a munincipality located in the northern Cibao valley region of the Dominican Republic, located about two hours outside of the capital Santo Domingo. Home to approximately 133,000 people, it was placed under strict quarantine after the positive cases of COVID-19 rose to 19 in the Duarte Province, the majority in San Francisco de Macorís. This measure, which remains active today, prohibits unnecessary entry or departure into the city. During curfew, public streets are powerwashed and communal spaces sanitized.

“I’m worried about the quarantine violations I’ve seen,” Dr. Ráfael Augusto Sánchez Cárdenas, the director of the Dominican Ministry of Health said after a visit to San Francisco de Macorís on March 24. “People don’t talk about panic. On the contrary, it’s the opposite.”  During his visit, Dr. Sánchez Cárdenas witnessed locals celebrating Carnaval, a popular festival where people wear folkloric costumes, play music, and dance in the streets.

One likely reason why citizens violate the quarantine, is the curfew approach the Dominican Republic has taken to combatting COVID-19, which still allows people to circulate and go about their regular lives from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. On April 11, Dr. Sánchez Cárdenas recommended a 24-hour national lockdown, which he said would greatly strengthen the chances of reducing the spread of the new novel coronavirus in the country and drive home the gravity of the situation to Dominican citizens. President Danilo Medina, however, has refused to seek this permission from congress. In a country where the majority of people live off of the money they collect day to day, people cannot afford not to work. “So coronavirus isn’t out during the day?” one commenter said in response to a Diario Libre post on Instagram dispelling rumors that the curfew had been converted into a 24-hour lockdown in April.

Don Miguelo says he’s done his part, but managing the COVID-19 epidemic in the country is beyond him. “If people listen, there is a break where I give commercials and say some things jokingly. I say, ‘Stay home, avoid getting arrested and sleeping on the floor,’” Don Miguelo contends. “If I grabbed my phone right now and did a live, started talking about that, all the dead people, all the cases, I’d bet I would not even reach 1,000 viewers. Why? Because people are tired of seeing the same thing. People don’t say it jokingly like I am. I mean it, but I say it jokingly.”

Prior to the implementation of the national curfew, Don Miguelo made national news for constructing a new home for Doña Juana, an elderly woman with ten grandchildren living in a collapsing home. He also did the same for an older man called Don Francisco, living in similarly haphazard conditions. These humanitarian efforts were the latest in a series of community-based home improvement projects initiated by Don Miguelo, which began in 2017.

On April 11, to the dismay of many, Don Miguelo announced what would be his final show. To celebrate its success and give back to the community, $1,000,000 Dominican Pesos (DP) worth of food rations were donated to families in ten municipalities deeply affected by COVID-19. Among these, was San Francisco de Macorís, to which the singer later donated an additional DP$250,000 of his personal funds.

san francisco de macoris
Image from the entrance to San Francisco de Macoris via Antonio Guzmán avenue. San Francisco de Macoris has been paralyzed by COVID curfews. Photo by Ayuntamiento SFM.

This goodbye was short-lived. Bombarded with requests for more Lives, T-bone steak emojis filling the comments of his Instagram posts, Don Miguelo was back in little more than a week’s time.

“The tigers want meat!” Don Miguelo shouts in an early post-hiatus video, through puffs on a cigar. He flips a switch on his soundboard, playing his latest track, “Carne” which features three-time Latin Grammy Award winning producer Maffio. Like “Lo Vibró,” this song is inspired by the show and earned its title and chorus from signature phrases Don Miguelo uses on his show.

“So, let’s give them meat,” he says, and calls his next participant.