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This Latin American Life

A new podcast aims to bring complex stories and real emotion to Spanish-language radio.

Jorge Rivas writes about race, politics, and culture at Colorlines.
Michael Perez is an illustrator based in Minneapolis.

Original?2012

Reza Salazar had lived in half a dozen cities in Peru, Colombia, and Argentina before his family settled in Durham, North Carolina in 2000, just as a wave of Latinos immigrated to the state. In the cafeteria at Salazar’s new high school, he found himself an outcast: Black students sat on one side of the room, white students on the other. The two groups barely interacted.

He doesn’t remember how it happened, but the black students took him in, even though he didn’t speak much English.

Just as Salazar started to fit in—picking up the language and dressing in baggier pants, Timberland boots, and cornrows—his friends erected a new boundary: Never use the N-word. They didn’t explain why and regularly used it themselves in front of him. 

“I was 15, and the most important thing in my life was being able to say ‘nigga’ with my friends,” Salazar says. After a year of practicing his pronunciation at home, Salazar finally had the courage to test it out. 

“I walked in to the cafeteria, I sat down, and just before lunch was over, I looked at my best friend, and I just said, ‘Hey, what’s up my nigga?’ And there were three seconds where I thought to myself, ‘These guys are going to kill me, they’re going to kick the shit out of me.’ And then my friend just replied with, ‘Oh yeah, what’s up my nigga?’ ”

As Salazar tells the story in Spanish, he switches into English for the quotes. N.W.A.’s “Niggaz 4 Life” plays in the background. I’m following along on the brand-new podcast Radio Ambulante, or “radio on the move.” It’s the first of its kind: a long-form storytelling program in Spanish, designed to look deeply at what it means to be Latino today—in short, to do what This American Life does for the English-speaking set.

Stories like Salazar’s are exactly what the show’s founders are looking for: a human face on the migration narrative central to the Latino experience, a nuanced exploration of how crossing national boundaries means negotiating undefined ones. Ultimately, Radio Ambulante tries to tell stories that can only be told in Spanish, so “you can hear the details, the humor, the particularities of speech, of dialects,” says Peruvian-born co-founder and host Daniel Alarcón. (In Salazar’s case, that dialect is Argentine-accented and peppered with English words.)

A novelist by trade, Alarcón became interested in radio after working on a BBC radio documentary in Peru and realizing how an interview’s emotional quality can wither in the dubbing. Despite thin broadcasting experience, he started Radio Ambulante to provide a platform for authentic Spanish-speaking voices.

The two 50-minute episodes released so far present a handful of stories from across the Americas. As Alarcón navigates the segments, his tone is conversational—he sounds the same on the radio as he does in our interview. A musical interlude between each piece helps listeners recalibrate their ears to the new dialect that will inevitably follow. (Imagine a radio show with Brooklyn, South African, and Alabaman accents in one episode.) Some stories follow their characters across borders: from Honduras to Washington, D.C., Peru to New York. Other pieces dead-end at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“We’re really trying to tell stories that are uniquely Latin American,” senior producer and NPR veteran Martina Castro says, “zeroing [in] on these human stories that can open your eye to something you’ve never heard about before but also make you feel a little less alone.” She adds, “It’s important because it unites us.” 

The show is still in its infancy. Just two of the first season’s four episodes are online, while the team streamlines its production process and looks for distribution opportunities. The focus is on high-quality content to attract an audience of media-savvy Latinos, Alarcón says—“The type of person who reads The New Yorker of their home country.”

If that audience is out there, it’s one that Spanish-language media typically overlooks. 

As the population of Latinos in the United States grows, so does the number of radio stations catering to them. Texas alone is home to 154 Spanish-language stations, up from 25 in 2000. Rarely does the ratings-driven programming branch out beyond music, talk, and sports shows. Producing original stories takes practice, time and money, and in the conglomerate world, that formula doesn’t work.

“As Latinos, so much of the narrative that we hear in the United States in our language—in Spanish—is very flat. It’s missing the complexity of our collective experience,” says Favianna Rodriguez, co-founder of CultureStrike, which supports collaborations between artists and activists in protest of Arizona’s SB 1070 law.

Alarcón knows he’ll have to find a way to move the show from the internet to the radio if he wants to increase its reach. Between 94 and 96 percent of Latino adults in the United States listen to the radio, according to consumer research company Arbitron. But just two-thirds of Latinos are online. For the generations of Latin Americans that migrated to the States, radio is a way to keep in touch with their home country, get the news, and access community resources. Now Radio Ambulante wants to attract second-generation immigrants, and the educated elite in their home countries. 

Preliminary interest seems to exist: Tens of thousands of people from at least 100 countries have visited the Radio Ambulante website, according to Alarcón, and a recent Kickstarter campaign surpassed its funding goal, with 600 donors contributing more than $46,000. Alarcón’s team is in talks with radio stations and networks in Long Island, Chicago, Colombia, and Mexico.

“One of the main critiques I’ve heard is that no one in Peru is going to care about what’s happening in Venezuela, or that no one in Mexico wants to hear a story about someone in Argentina—but I just don’t think that’s true,” Castro says. “We’re out to prove that that’s not true.”

End