It’s been a banner year for José Massó, the longtime Boston public servant and nearly 50-year host of the groundbreaking WBUR program “¡Con Salsa!” Late last year the city unveiled the mural “Afro-Latin Music and Dance” at Mozart Park in Jamaica Plain, which features Massó’s oversized likeness in a white suit and fedora.
In the spring, Massó learned that his full name — José C. Massó III — would be unveiled as part of the 1965 Freedom Plaza, the circular grounds surrounding ”The Embrace,” the new monument on Boston Common dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. The plaza honors 69 social justice leaders who were active in Boston between 1950 and 1975.
Most recently, to kick off Latinx Heritage Month, Massó, 73, was on hand at City Hall Plaza in mid-September to emcee a city-sponsored celebration with live music and dancing. That day, organizers surprised him with a papier-mache puppet with a huge head in Massó’s image — a cabezudo — atop which was perched his trademark porkpie hat.
The honorary puppet was carrying a cane, a more recent addition to Massó’s dapper fashion sensibility. In recent years he has been hospitalized twice because of frightening bouts with sepsis, a consequence of his treatment for nasopharyngeal cancer in 2014. His wife of 48 years, Divina, bought him the cane when he was recovering. Now it just adds to his presence.
And that presence has been larger than life over his 50 years in Boston, his adopted city. Besides his bilingual radio show, which has shared Afro-Caribbean music with Boston’s Hispanic community (approximately 20 percent of the city’s residents identify as Latinx) and English-speaking enthusiasts alike, Massó has been an educator in the Boston Public Schools system, a cultural liaison for then-Governor Michael Dukakis and then-Mayor Thomas Menino and, until his retirement in 2021, director of policy for Massport. His son, José Massó, is Mayor Michelle Wu’s chief of human services.
But the music has always been his primary love. Massó was the emcee for the historic anti-apartheid concert at Harvard Stadium in 1979 that featured Bob Marley and Massó’s hero, Eddie Palmieri, whose signature song, “Puerto Rico,” he chose as his theme when “¡Con Salsa!” debuted in June 1975.
His love for salsa goes all the way back to his childhood years — not in Puerto Rico, but in Japan. The son of a Puerto Rican military officer who saw combat for the United States in France during World War II, Massó was born in 1950 in an Army hospital in Old San Juan. The family, including an older brother and sister, later moved to a base in Japan.
They spent four years there. One day the family attended a USO concert featuring the Cuban bandleader Perez Prado — the “King of the Mambo.” For 6-year-old José, it was life-changing.
“I was enthralled,” he recalls, sitting in the McKim Courtyard of the Boston Public Library, where he was recently named to a five-year term on the board of trustees. His father got Prado to sign the program, which he still keeps at his memorabilia-filled home in Hyde Park.
“That was the first time — boom! — when music got into my heart.”
As a teenager in Puerto Rico, he hoped to earn enough money to afford a drum kit. So he took a job on a construction site, swinging a shovel alongside men much older than he was for $55 a week.
When it came time to collect their pay packets, he noticed that many of the men signed their receipts with an X. It was, he recalls, an early — and moving — lesson in the importance of literacy.
He considered enrolling to study journalism at Boston University before settling, at the suggestion of a friend, on Antioch College, where Horace Mann was the first president. Ohio was a culture shock, he says.
One of only three Latinos on campus, he had to explain to his classmates that speaking Spanish did not mean he was Spanish. He was used to dressing fine, but his hippie acquaintances didn’t always bother to change their clothes from day to day.
After several homesick calls to his parents, his father told him to keep an eye on the mail. A few days later, several boxes arrived, containing the 500 or so records that made up his collection at the time.
Today, he says, he has at least 5,000. They’re on display along the wall in his basement, from which he broadcasts his late-night Saturday radio show these days, as well as a Sunday afternoon YouTube program that he launched during the pandemic.
The fact that music remains at the core of Massó’s community outreach was “a double bonus” for the team at Embrace Boston, which oversaw the installation of “The Embrace,” says executive director Imari Paris Jeffries.
Massó, who was just beginning his career in public life in the mid-1970s, is one of the youngest activists acknowledged on the Freedom Plaza, Jeffries notes. He was speaking to the young people of the day on their own terms.
“We engage art and culture as the means in which we do our work,” which is to address structural racism, Jeffries says. “The message is in the music, so to speak.”
Upon graduation, Massó ended up in Boston after all, accepting an offer to teach in a bilingual classroom at what was then Copley Square High School. He applied for a grant from the Department of Education and used the money to purchase some of the films and other materials he’d studied during high school in Puerto Rico.
He also began bringing his records to class. The students loved it.
“They were the ones that urged me to do radio,” he says. “They said, ‘You’re in the wrong profession.’ They kicked me out of the class!”
Though he did not remain a teacher, Massó has been educating the public all of his adult life. For the library, he recently created a 10-part series on the history of Afro-Latin music in the United States. That work is being developed into a forthcoming book on the subject.
He’s also finishing a memoir that he started back in 2009, following the death of his father, at age 93.
With “more yesterdays than tomorrows” of his own at this point, Massó says, he continues to challenge himself to be a better person every day. We’re all raised with cultural influences that we have to overcome, he says. In the Puerto Rico of his youth, for example, “machismo, misogyny, and homophobia were … pshew!” He waves a hand over his head.
He loves to relate an anecdote from one winter during college when he had a paid internship in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. (He’d accepted the position because he liked the idea of living on the beach, he says. It was, of course, freezing.)
While cleaning out a refrigerator, he came across six containers of lemon yogurt. Many of the students at Antioch at the time virtually lived on yogurt. It looked disgusting, he’d always thought.
But now, on a whim, he decided to try one. He liked it so much, he ate two more. By the time he got back to his apartment, he was grinning maniacally. His roommates thought he’d gone over the deep end.
Ever since that day, he claims, he has been a student of self-reflection.
“And I blame it all on yogurt,” he says with a laugh. “Because it made me reflect on both the baggage I see other people carrying and the baggage I was carrying.”
The emerging generation of leadership gives him hope for the future, he says: “Because of them, I sleep well at night.
“Compared to 53 years ago, we’re very much closer to the goal. But we still have a long way to go.”
If we are in fact headed in the right direction, Massó’s contribution is etched in stone.
James Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him @sullivanjames.