Listening (Loudly) to Spanish-language Radio
This is the third post in Sounding Out!’s 4th annual July forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2015. World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, their effects on us. For Sounding Out! World Listening Day necessitates discussions of the politics of listening and listening, and, as Inés Casillas prescribes, a wider understanding of the power and meaning of volume as material sensation as well as listening practice, particularly in communities marginalized by U.S. racial and ethnic hierarchies. “Listening loudly in the face of anti-immigrant public sentiment,” Casillas tells us, “becomes a form of radical self-love, a sonic eff-you, and a means of taking up uninvited (white) space.” –Editor-in-Chief JS
Chicana and Chicano friends across the southwest share different renditions of a similar childhood memory. The one where Mexican parents or grandparents crank up the rancheras -mournful, classic Mexican melodies – on an early Saturday morning or what seems to be an inappropriate, way-too-late weeknight. They reminisce about listening as children in wonderment to the familial, communal sing-along that seemed to instinctively take place among extended kin. That, or they tell of listening, cringing in silence, in fear that the non-Mexican neighbors will overhear the radio and spontaneous serenade; a telltale sign that their family is, indeed, Mexican. “As if,” shared Deborah Paredez in her account, “those few white neighbors somehow didn’t already know you were Mexican.”
For unfamiliar ears, the sounds of Spanish, the mariachi ensemble, and/or accented karaoke all work together to signal brownness, working-class, and even, according to Jennifer Stoever, illegality. To me, the most provocative detail in these recurring childhood stories rests more on the volume, often stationed on one of two settings – “loud” or “real loud.” Excessive, “loud accouterments,” according to Deborah R. Vargas, are heard and identified as unforgiving, racialized and queer forms of surplus; what she calls “lo sucio” (a vernacular for dirty or grimy). The high volume allows Mexicans and Chicanas/os to publically flaunt their brown identities under the increasingly watchful gaze of a post-9/11 state, during a record-deportation Obama era, and when Latinos have officially outnumbered whites in the Golden (now brown) state of California. Listening loudly in the face of anti-immigrant public sentiment becomes a form of radical self-love, a sonic eff-you, and a means of taking up uninvited (white) space.
These stories, strikingly similar, often point to the ranchera song-style, specifically, the talents of Vicente Fernández and his regal voice as the beloved malefactor. The timbre in Fernández’s famed voice rouses (drunken) merriments of Mexico, with lyrical utterings about acrimonious, heteronormative loves and losses. The gritos or sentimental cries that accompany such songs are gendered, nostalgic stand-ins for an affect of displacement shared by both Mexican immigrants and Chicana/os. Simon O’Sullivan insists that, “you cannot read affects, you can only experience them.” I would add, “through sound” to stress the ways in which sound travels and emotionally anchor a listener’s body. The fact that so many Chicanas and Chicanos have these recollections and several (read: me) reproduce these loud practices with our own children says more about the continued racialized, brown experiences of Mexicans and Chicana/os in the U.S. than perhaps the prowess of rancheras themselves.
In many ways, the workings of race, language and labor resonate through radio. I argue that the very public nature of Spanish-language radio listening represents a communal, classed, and brown form of listening that differs markedly from “white collar” modes of listening, which offers more solitary practices, promoted by commuting in private cars and listening to personal satellite radios, iPods, or Internet broadcasts.
For instance, one can routinely overhear loud Spanish-language broadcasts from the back kitchens of restaurants (regardless of the ethnic cuisine); outside bustling construction sites and Home Depot storefronts as day laborers await work; or from small radio sets balanced heroically on hotel housekeeping carts. On-air salutations heard throughout the day on Spanish-language radio are vocal nods to worksites as radio hosts greet washeros (car wash personnel), mecánicos (mechanics), fruteros and tamaleras (fruit and tamale street vendors), and those, presumably farmworkers, toiling under the sun. Despite the passivity in terms such as informal, invisible, and “under the table” to characterize a significant component of both U.S. and transnational economies, these recurrent and strong vocalizations of work and worksites makes audible the statistics of economist Lisa Catanzarite. She cites that recently immigrant Latino men constitute 40 to 71% of low-level service work such as “construction, agriculture, and manufacturing jobs, including waiters’ assistants, gardeners and groundskeepers, cooks, farm workers, and painters.” Not only do patrons and those passing by overhear radio at/near such worksites but radio also makes routine reference to labor and laborers. These “brown-collared” occupations coupled with the swift growth in Spanish and bilingual (Spanish-English) stations, have crafted a not-so-discrete, brown form of listening.
Arguably, it’s difficult to not hear the growth of Spanish-language radio as heavy metal, oldies, and jazz radio dials have surprised English-dominant listeners by switching to banda, norteños, and morning chatter in Spanish. In 1980 the Federal Communications Commission identified sixty-seven Spanish-oriented radio stations on the air. The 2010 figures list over 1300 radio stations broadcasting exclusively in Spanish. Proving all too well that those media pundits and scholars championing the digital era do not tune into broadcast Spanish-language radio.
Spanish-language radio stations openly cater to a working-class and immigrant-minded listenership by advertising their call numbers and radio personalities at public transit stops. Latinos, loyal listeners of Spanish-language radio, are more likely to ride a bus or subway than to drive in a carpool lane to get to work. As an acoustic ally, these broadcasts not only assume listeners are a mix of undocumented persons, legal residents, and from mixed-status families, but radio hosts and radio programs openly rally in solidarity of their listeners’ civil rights, a provocative feat, given the recurrent changes in immigration politics. In fact, promotional billboards for radio stations often double as political statements. This one, for instance, featured Univisión’s then top rated morning host. The slogan symbolically pokes fun at unfriendly English-only attitudes and keenly reminds drivers that the United States is the second largest Spanish-speaking country in the world.
The portable and inexpensive cost of radio sets makes it possible for Latinos to tug their sets to work with them. Indeed, a recent listening report verified that the average Hispanic radio listener makes less than $35,000 a year and tunes in as early as 4am; indicative of graveyard, swing shifts and/or early treks to work. Closely aligned with my own assumptions about listening, Jose Anguiano’s doctoral study includes an insightful chapter on the listening preferences of custodial workers during late night shifts; in particular, how workers decided on where to place radio sets to optimize the acoustic sound of empty building spaces.
Yet, a troubling National Public Radio (NPR) segment devoted to the difficulty of finding a simple radio set bared the distinct classed uses of radio and radio listening. Producers visited high-end specialty stores in search of an AM/FM radio. The program broadcasted their collective laments at finding one radio set at their fifth store. Of course, their pursuit would have ended much earlier if they had visited a local swap meet, a K-Mart, or asked any of said laborers above where they had purchased their radio set. During my own research for Sounds of Belonging, twenty-seven of the thirty-three immigrant focus group participants interviewed indicated that a radio set was their first media purchase in the U.S.
Of course, such lucrative opportunities to woo radio listeners are not lost on corporate media. Latino listeners (whether they identify as Spanish-dominant or not) tune in to radio an average of three hours a week more than the “general” (white) U.S. radio listener, with an impressive 13.5 percent of all U.S. radio now broadcasting in Spanish. Univisión, a name long associated with Spanish-language television, now reigns as the empire of radio, owning the most Spanish-language radio stations in the United States.
Although tabulated figures showcase the popularity of left-leaning political broadcasts on Spanish-language commercial radio, Mari Castañeda and Monica de la Torre remind us of the significance and efficacy of community-based, Low Power FM radio for rural, Spanish-dominant Latino communities. Without the privilege of corporate sponsors such as McDonalds, or Kohls, small and fiercely independent, community-based bilingual and Spanish-language radio still thrives in farmlands across the U.S.
Sound, especially at high volume, daringly seeps and trespasses across public, racial boundaries. The policing of sound, according to Derek Vaillant, beginning in the nineteenth century were orchestrated civic attempts to eliminate unsightly and “noisy” cries from poor, ethnic immigrant street vendors peddling their goods. Another instance, during World War II, foreign language broadcasts were outlawed out of monolingual American fears that enemies were communicating via radio. City transits often post rules asking that passengers use audio/video equipment only with headphones. Public etiquette about appropriate levels of volume enforced through noise ordinances and ways of listening (privately) speak to larger issues about race, labor, and class. Not only do these public campaigns and transit rules privilege the dominant, western ear but it also, according to Jennifer Stoever, focuses on white sensory orientations of noise which inherently positions those most marginalized as the “noise makers.”
For generations, Chicana/o and Mexican listeners have gravitated to radio for far more than the musical sounds of homelands imagined or left behind. Raising the volume on Spanish-language radio sends neighbors a racialized sign of “Mexican-ness” often heard as unruly, “noisy,” and perhaps worse, unassimilated. High volume from the private spaces of homes and cars disrupts the quiet, public acceptance of ear buds while also providing sheer, public glee. An audible, unabashed reminder of other forms of “lo sucio” – high credit card debt, more than 2.2 children, vegetable gardens in front yards, too-much-cologne or Virgin de Guadalupe adornments – and the brown refusal to tone, much less, to turn it down.
*Inspired by my six year old’s attempts to grito along with “Volver, Volver.”
Featured Image: Inside Espacio 1839 in Boyle Heights, California, retail and performance space and home of RADIO SOMBRA, a 24/7 community-based Internet radio station, Espacio is located at 1839 E. 1st Street and is open Wed-Sun, 12-8 pm. Image by Oliver Wang for KCET Artbound
Dolores Inés Casillas is an associate professor in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies and a faculty affiliate of Film & Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She writes and teaches courses on Latina/o sound practices, popular culture, and the politics of language. Her book, Sounds of Belonging: U.S. Spanish-language Radio and Public Advocacy, was published in Fall 2014 by New York University Press as part of their Critical Cultural Communication series.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
“Speaking ‘Mexican’ and the use of ‘Mock Spanish’ in Children’s Books (or Do Not Read Skippyjon Jones)“–Dolores Inés Casillas
“Óyeme Voz: U.S. Latin@ & Immigrant Communities Re-Sound Citizenship and Belonging” –Nancy Morales
“Sonic Brownface: Representations of Mexicanness in an Era of Discontent“–reina alejandra prado saldivar
“Chicana Radio Activists and the Sounds of Chicana Feminisms“–Monica De La Torre
Chicana Radio Activists and the Sounds of Chicana Feminisms
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 by Angelica Macklin: 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.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Eye Candy: The Absence of the Female Voice in Sports Talk Radio–Liana Silva
Listening to the Border: “’2487’: Giving Voice in Diaspora” and the Sound Art of Luz María Sánchez–Dolores Inés Casillas
Yellow Rain and The Sound of the Matter: Kalia Yang’s Sonorous Objection to Radiolab–Justin Eckstein