The power of hearing Chicana voices on the air is loud and clear. Indeed, when I heard Chicana feminist scholar Gloria Anzaldúa discussing her theory of hybridity and borderlands on the program The Mexican American Experience (1977) I was not only moved by the sound of Anzaldúa’s voice, but also by my intimate interaction with this influential feminista made possible through analog radio and digital technologies. Such experiences made me want to trace my own genealogy and find other Chicanas involved in radio production. I began to listen for Chicana radio activism on the airwaves, and document when, where and how Chicanas utilize radio not just as a tool for the transmission of sound, but also as a feminist community-building platform.
My entry into radio came about when I joined Soul Rebel Radio—a radio collective composed of college students, environmentalists, musicians, comics, poets, and community activists in the Los Angeles area. A youth-centered radio program, Soul Rebel Radio airs monthly on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles and focuses on themes—such as the environment, war, and young women’s issues—and current events through comedy, youth voices, opinion pieces, editorials and interviews. With no prior radio or production experience, I joined the collective in October of 2007 hoping to fulfill my life long ambition of being on the radio. This experience of collective collaboration, which is both inspiring and challenging, became a cornerstone in my thinking about the empowering nature of media making, especially community radio. I cultivated the power of my voice through my participation in Soul Rebel Radio by learning how to write, edit and produce radio segments.
Now, as a Chicana feminist scholar and community radio practitioner, I am interested in collective, community-centered research projects that help transform the neoliberal, corporate institutionalization of media production and higher education. Although the content of my research is rooted in analog technologies, I work to ground the analysis of Chicana/o radio production through a digital Chicana feminista praxis, which includes the use of digital tools such as radio, digital film and open source software. This digital Chicana feminista theory and method may help uncover the ways in which community radio production constitutes an epistemological soundtrack to Chicana feminist activism, asking what are the sounds Chicana feminisms? Who are the Chicana activists of the 1970s and 1980s that utilized radio to build community, while incorporating an important aural element to their activism?
In answering these questions, I explore the ways in which digital tools can be utilized to uncover and reclaim subjugated knowledges. However, I am in no way suggesting that digital technologies should supersede or replace face-to-face community building. In fact, my current project—from which this blog post is drawn—documents and creates an archive of Chicana radio activists, including radio station managers, producers, news directors and on-air hosts. I discuss how community radio production provides Chicanas and other marginalized groups the space to harness digital technologies and engage in the process of producing traveling sounds that speak back to discriminatory and oppressive practices. While my methods include digital film production, online archive building and curation, my writing here focuses on oral history collection, particularly my documentation of Radio KDNA.
On December 19, 1979, Radio KDNA (pronounced cadena, meaning chain) transformed the airwaves becoming the first full-time Spanish-language, non-commercial radio station in the United States (Radio Bilingüe KBBF 89.1 FM, in Santa Rosa, founded by farmworkers and Sonoma State undergraduates, was the first bilingual radio station, going on air in 1973). Located in Granger, WA, Radio KDNA’s goal was to utilize the accessibility of radio to build community while serving as a resource for the mostly Mexican and tejano migrant farm workers in the Yakima Valley. The founders of Radio KDNA believed radio was an accessible tool for Mexican and Latino farm worker communities who had little access to other media. Beginning in 1942, Mexican workers entered the United States under the Bracero Program whereby mostly agribusinesses contracted Mexican workers in response to labor shortages of World War II, which in turn caused the lowering of wages. Thus, many Mexican American and tejano farmworkers migrated to places such as Idaho, Oregon and Washington. With a growing population of a Mexican Spanish-speaking community, Radio KDNA used its Spanish-language radio platform to reflect the sociopolitical needs of this shifting demographic.
The oral history I conducted with Rosa Ramón—the only female co-founder of Radio KDNA who served as the station manager from 1979 to 1984—uncovers the radio station’s historical significance within community radio production, specifically as a site of Chicana feminist activism. Rosa’s testimonio reveals the process by which many Mexican-American, and specifically tejano families migrated from the Southwest to the Northwest in search jobs, many ending up in Washington’s Yakima Valley, an area in need of labor to harvest its crops. The migration of Mexican and tejano families served not only as a vital labor force in Yakima’s fields, it also created a community that needed and greatly benefitted from a radio station that addressed the needs of this community, both in content and language. Although Rosa was born in Arizona, her Mexican mother and tejano father decided to migrate north, stopping in Arizona and California before settling down in Eastern Washington where her family purchased a small farm. As Erasmo Gamboa illustrates in his monograph Mexican Labor and World War II, “After 1948, northwestern farms used fewer braceros as they stepped up the recruitment of Mexican Americans from the Southwest” (123). Rosa’s family is one of many families that migrated to the Northwest, a region that needed and greatly benefited from their labor.
Although the small community where Rosa grew up was mostly comprised of Mexican and tejano families, she experienced and witnessed racism and discrimination, especially at school where she was reprimanded for speaking Spanish and mocked for eating tacos instead of bologna sandwiches. Rosa was only one of four Latinos that graduated from Grandview High School. These early experiences of marginalization and her family history served as an impetus for Rosa to work in non-profits that benefitted her community, including Northwest Rural Opportunities, a community based organization set up in 1968 to provide services to seasonal and migrant farm workers in Washington state. Here she met Ricardo Garcia, another co-founder of Radio KDNA.
In an effort to bring Spanish language radio programming to the Pacific Northwest, in particular for the migrant farm workers in Eastern Washington, Rosa and Ricardo, along with Daniel Roble, and Julio Cesar Guerrero, worked tirelessly for five years to obtain a broadcasting license for a community radio station in the Yakima Valley. However, Radio Cadena was producing radio content even before opening the doors of their Granger, Washington studio in 1979. In 1975, Northwest Rural Opportunities began a training program for farm worker youth to learn radio production skills in Linden, Washington. They also began an educational training program for Spanish-speaking individuals who were learning English. In May of 1976, Radio Cadena began broadcasting on a subcarrier signal provided by Seattle-based community radio station KRAB FM, with the assistance of its station manager Chuck Reinsch. The use of this signal meant that listeners could only tune in through a special home receiver, which limited the number of people who could actually tune-in to Radio Cadena’s programming.
Ramón’s oral history reveals the importance and central role women played in the founding and development of this station, particularly in its focus on programming for, by, and about women. Her family’s migratory trajectory is an example of how Mexican and tejano communities who moved to the Yakima valley to work in the fields established a community that needed and benefited from community radio. Radio Cadena is an example of the ways in which the migration of people created the conditions for the founding of a community radio station that traversed sonic borders and infused its airwaves with stories of resistance.
As part of its community building activities, Radio KDNA trained women, especially farmworker women, to produce radio content. As Rosa shared with me during her oral history, Radio KDNA and the show Mujer (woman) were instrumental in centering women within the radio production process, by playing music by women like Mercedes Sosa and Lydia Mendoza, interviewing local women, creating news content, and training women to actually produce radio programs. Indeed, this model of Chicana radio production was instrumental in the founding and day-to-day activity of Radio KDNA, and it represents a vital technological component of the Chicano Movement era. Chicanas such as station manager Ramón, producer Estella del Villar, and news director Berenice Zuniga, not only held positions of power at KDNA, but they also produced Mujer, which aired weekly and whose goal was to provided farm worker women with news stories, music and other informative pieces addressing their distinct subjectivities. These female producers and their audience demonstrate the transformative power of community radio production and the role of women in a movement that often downplays their contributions.
By deploying Chicana historian Emma Pérez’s concept of the decolonial imaginary within Radio and Sound Studies to uncover the hidden voices of Chicanas within radio production, I document stories that compel scholars to conceive of a new framework that listens to the sound migrations of Chicana media activism, the third spaces and technological tools of the Chicano Movement not just in the Pacific Northwest, but throughout the country. The historical significance of Radio KDNA as the first full-time, Spanish language non-commercial radio station in the United States recasts Chicana/os as technologically adept and as active participants in the development of community radio. Moreover, Rosa Ramón’s oral history provides another example of the ways in which Chicana feminist activism emerged in conjunction with other social justice movements, further challenging the idea that Chicanas came to feminism after their white or African American counterparts. My historical analysis of Chicana radio production contextualizes current participation in media making, as radio can provide women of color and other marginalized groups the space to harness digital technologies to speak back and broadcast their concerns. When remixed with other components of Chicana feminisms, the sounds of Chicana radio activism constitute yet another track of resistance to the narratives that seek to silence these movements..
Featured Image: Monica De La Torre interviews J. Kehaulani Kauanui at the radio kiosk, No. 2, Women Who Rock 2011 conference, Seattle University Pigott Building, February 18, 2011, From the Women Who Rock Collection, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division, University of Washington Digital Libraries.
Monica De La Torre is a doctoral student in the Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington. Her scholarship bridges New Media and Sound Studies by analyzing the development of Chicana feminist epistemologies in radio and digital media production. A member of Soul Rebel Radio, a community radio collective based in Los Angeles, Monica is specifically interested in the ways in which radio and digital media production function as tools for community engagement. She is an active member of the UW Women of Color Collective and the Women Who Rock Collective. Monica earned a B.A. in Psychology and Chicana/o Studies from University of California, Davis and an M.A.in Chicana/o Studies from California State University, Northridge; her master’s thesis was entitled “Emerging Feminisms: El Teatro de las Chicanas and Chicana Feminist Identity Development.” Monica received a 2012 Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship, which recognizes superior academic achievement, sustained engagement with communities that are underrepresented in the academy, and the potential to enhance the educational opportunities for diverse students.
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In this podcast Sounding Out! interviews Amanda Brennan, the meme librarian at Know Your Meme. Here, Amanda explains well known audio memes like The Harlem Shake, The ASMR Whisper Community, and Holophonic Sounds. She talks about the emotional bonds of Internet communities, the similarities between memes and gossip, and the scientific bias of Wikipedia. For anyone interested in the replication of sound online, this interview is essential listening.
CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: Interview with Meme Librarian Amanda Brennan.
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For as long as she can remember, Amanda Brennan loved the internet. Combining that love with a passion for archival research while earning her MLIS degree at Rutgers University, she explored tagging systems and the habits of the Internet group Anonymous. Currently, she is the resident librarian at Know Your Meme where she studies viral content and watches a lot of cat videos. You can find her on Tumblr, Twitter and Last.fm.
[O]ne of the chief values of living with music lies in its power to give us an orientation to time.– Ralph Ellison, “Living with Music” (1955)
Early this past fall, my wife and I moved back to Brooklyn after three years in central New York State. We spent two of those years on a back street in a mostly rural area of Cortland, NY, where are there are more dogs than people and more cows than dogs. Those dogs were probably the most intrusive neighborhood sound—a barker would get going and that’d set off a chain reaction from yard to yard, like a real life version of the “Twlight Barking” from 101 Dalmations. Still, I could get used to it, ignore it, zone out. The only other sounds that penetrated our home were the nearby freight trains, but their sounds are almost soothing—the rhythm of the clacking rails like Paul Simon singing “Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance. . .” or a relaxation tape.
Now back in New York City, I am very aware of the different degree, frequency and quality of sounds I am subjected to while in my living space. Reconsidering living with noise put me in the mind of Ralph Ellison’s 1955 essay “Living With Music” from High Fidelity magazine. Like the living situation Ellison describes, our new place is a rear-facing apartment and we get the sound of echoing voices, car horns or yowling cats (fighting and/or making more cats) bouncing off the back wall of a garage on the next street. However, as most city-dwellers know, it is our neighbors that provide the most persistent and profound sonic disturbances. Ellison himself was disturbed at an upstairs neighbor’s overzealous singing, vocalizing “[f]rom morning until night.” In our case, another four-family apartment house abuts ours and through the two brick walls sandwiched by two layers of plaster, we can frequently hear the shrill cries of teenage anguish. The violent screaming between teenaged siblings or between one or more of them and their parents can shake the walls. It is difficult to ignore.
The noise of children in New York City apartments was a topic of a New York Times feature a couple of years ago, but in that article the age of the children makes it easy to sympathize with the parents and to cast the complainers as insensitive villains. Little children cannot be expected to regulate their own crying or the seemingly ceaseless energy that is so easily transformed into cries of glee or the galloping of those baby shoes. In the case of my neighbors, it harder to sympathize when the sound is from near-adult children screaming about how life isn’t fair, or getting forced into frequent violent disagreements with a similarly aged sibling with which they must share a tiny part of an already tiny space—a New York City apartment.
It is easy to get angry when they get going. A teenager is not a chorus of barking dogs, a small crying child, or even some jerk honking his horn a block away who doesn’t realize how far the sound can travel, but ostensibly someone developing into a functional adult. The things they are screaming about can often seem beyond ridiculous to older people, and thus their need to scream about them is particularly offensive when I am simply trying to enjoy a evening of catching up on Mad Men or (more importantly) an afternoon writing my dissertation. As my wife often asks, “Why don’t their parents regulate?” But I try to remind her, it is the attempt to regulate their behavior that often starts the screaming matches. Like a 2-year old testing the range of her voice, these teens are exploring their own boundaries. Furthermore, unlike the class entitlement permeating the NYT Real Estate section feature, the economic reality of living in row houses in Bensonhurst changes expectations regarding the living experience.
The sonic disturbances often come when I am trying to get some writing done, so it is not hard to think about Ellison’s essay, since writing was also what he endeavored to do when bedeviled by his neighbor’s practice of “bel canto style.” The way noise can carry in these apartments creates a form of anonymous intimacy. Think of Duke Ellington’s “Harlem Airshaft,” a musical representation of just that urban intimacy.
As he said of the apartment airshaft that inspired that piece,
You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear people making love. You hear intimate gossip floating down. You hear the radio. An air shaft is one great loudspeaker, you hear people praying, fighting and snoring.
While I don’t know my neighbors better than a polite nod of hello when I pass them sitting on the stoop, I am ear-witness to their dramas, and more than that I am sometimes drawn into them, finding myself banging the wall with a forearm and calling through the wall “enough already!” Or spending time discussing the family’s private affairs with my wife, speculating about the arguments. Similarly, Ellison’s trepidations about trying to silence his neighbor come from how her practice makes him intimately aware of her aspirations, even as that same intimacy drives him to build a stereo to blast at her in an attempt to conquer their shared sonic space.
Urban sonic intimacy is tightly tied to Ellison’s assertion regarding music and our orientation to time. However, Ellison’s observations can be expanded beyond music, because remember one person’s music is another person’s noise, as Scott Poulson-Bryant discussed in his Sounding Out! post on music and New York City apartment life in “The Noise You Make Should Be Your Own” (August 2010). A noise can likewise orient me in time: the sound of freight trains will bring me back to my time in Cortland, and more profoundly, that teenaged screaming brings me back to my own volatile adolescence, asking me to reconcile that version of me with the one I am now.
In Ellison’s essay, he arrives at two conclusions regarding music. The first is the above-mentioned orientation to time and the second is deep sympathy that arises from that realization, as he associates his upstairs neighbor’s intrusive singing practice with his own childhood attempts to master the trumpet. The orientation to time he discusses is not only a matter of looking back and making associations with a younger self’s relationship to music, but also comes from an adult understanding that there were those “who were willing to pay in present pain for future pride. For who knows what skinny kid. . .might become the next [Louie] Armstrong?” The anonymous intimacy of city-living has made me reflective regarding these screaming matches and I have begun to develop a sympathy that lets me tolerate the disturbance, to understand it in a context of living and growing. For how do I know that those volatile teenaged emotions might not develop into the sensitive and thoughtful adult attitude I try to have in my own life? There is no need to imagine that these kids will grow into anyone special (though the world could certainly use a couple more Louis Armstrongs or Ralph Ellisons), but their noise is a signal for the need for empathy, to remember our own ability to make noise not only through simply living but in trying to grow, to become. . .
Ellison may have thought that “the enjoyment of music is always suffused with past experience,” but I think enjoyment is just the tip of an iceberg of sonic experience, because it also holds out the possibility for an affective relationship with sound that can shift from annoyance to understanding without actually having to enjoy. It is not just music, but noise that “gives significance to all those indefinable aspects of experience, which. . .help to make us what we are.” Noise transforms in the cramped urban setting from a residue of life into a connective tissue that signals a challenge to boundaries, requiring greater empathy and patience. The very noise that endangers our peace is also a reminder of how close and alike we really are. It is only time that separates me from the screaming of a teenager and it is only time that stands between me and a screaming teen of my own.
Osvaldo Oyola is a regular contributor to Sounding Out! and ABD in English at Binghamton University.
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Summer Soundscapes, East Coast Style–Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman
The Noise You Make Should Be Your Own–Scott Poulson-Bryant
Sound-politics in São Paulo, Brazil–Leonardo Cardoso