The caller clears his throat when Doctora Isabel asks about birth control. “The rhythm method,” he finally responds. In the background I hear a crackled announcement on what sounds like a warehouse PA system, followed by the caller coughing. Doctora Isabel interrupts: “The rhythm method is acceptable, but do you realize,” she asks, “that with this, biologically, your wife most wants sex precisely at the times you can’t have it?” The voice doesn’t answer; it isn’t meant to. In the pause, Doctora Isabel’s advice uncoils. She explains fertility cycles and female sexuality; she repeats the tenets of the rhythm method. “Very few men have the ability to resist a wife who wants to have sex with him.” She slows slightly. “Do you see what I mean?” The man assures her he does. I see him cupping the phone near the open door of a loading dock, plucking flecks of dirt from his nails as he nods, watching the clock and thinking about his wife, about how they got themselves into all this. He is middle-aged, I can tell from his voice. I understand enough of their conversation, too, to know that he is an immigrant, that he has five children, and that his problem, the reason he is calling Doctora Isabel, is that he doesn’t want to have any more. “How many years have you been married?” Doctora Isabel asks. “Nine,” he says. “So five babies in nine years,” she emphasizes. Her advice is now obvious.
I am jogging up a snowy hill in Iowa with my dog when I hear that call. Mornings like this are how I’ve come to listen to Doctora Isabel, “El Ángel de la Radio.” She is the most well-known Spanish-speaking callin advisor in the United States, “a Latina version of Dr. Laura, Dr. Ruth, Ann Landers, and Dr. Spock,” to quote her website. On Facebook— where Doctora Isabel poses with French-manicured hands and a frosted wave of hair—she has fourteen thousand fans. She reminds us to breathe, she tells us that “a head full of fear leaves no space for dreams,” and she posts, in both English and Spanish, on such topics as “the love boomerang,” food as medicine, happiness, erections, perfectionist children, angry teens, meditation, and sleep deprivation, all of which are