Thursday, June 11, 2009

NAT: The Voice of Home

Voice That Sounds Like Home Welcomes Mexico’s Outsiders
By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD, Fresno Journal, June 9, 2009

FRESNO, Calif. — The voice trembled with anguish.

“Please,” Esmeralda Santiago pleaded, calling into a radio show here aimed at the poorest of Mexico’s emigrants, indigenous people from the southern state of Oaxaca. “This is for Sylvia Santiago. Please, if you can hear us, call. Our mother is worried because we have not talked with you in a while.”

Filemón López, the host of the show, listened and nodded. He had heard such heartache before. The woman spoke first in Spanish and then repeated her plea — breaking down in sobs — in Triqui, one of Oaxaca’s indigenous languages.

“When there is no communication,” Mr. López, himself a legal immigrant who once worked the fields, said in a break, “it causes such sadness.”

On this recent Sunday, there were certainly happier moments on “La Hora Mixteca” (The Mixtec Hour), Mr. López’s show, which is aimed primarily at Mixtec (pronounced MEESE-teck) Indians but draws listeners from other groups in the United States and, via satellite link, in Oaxaca, too.

Soledad Martinez of Fresno wished her mother, sister, brother, cousin — the list went on — a happy day down in Oaxaca. José Ramos of Clovis, Calif., called to invite people to a ballgame in that small farming town. Cesar Cipriano requested a particular corrido, a kind of Mexican ballad.

They all turned to Mr. López, who, through the show, serves as an ambassador of sorts, in good times and bad, to a community that keeps its distance from the mainstream.

The Mixtecs — there are an estimated 150,000 of them in California — occupy the lowest rungs on the Latino immigrant pecking order, mocked for their rural ways, their heavily accented Spanish or inability to speak it, and their low level of education. They snare the most back-breaking jobs here in the agriculture-rich Central Valley — picking fruit and vegetables — and often have difficulty moving up.

They face exploitation and discrimination in housing and employment, and are wary of strangers, a legacy, scholars say, of the relative isolation of their villages in Mexico and history of abuse by outsiders there.

Even in an age of cellphones and online social networks, Mr. López’s radio show has endured since its first broadcast in 1995, picking up its 12th station in the United States a few months ago, in Santa Barbara County. The show is broadcast from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Sunday on Radio Bilingüe, the only Spanish-language public radio network in the United States, and also streams on the Internet.

“ ‘La Hora Mixteca’ is very important,” said Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, a Mixtec who is project director at the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“It is like a replica of the talk shows in Oaxaca where you have a charismatic D.J. who combines a strong personality with lectures on culture and who we are,” Mr. Rivera-Salgado added. “This is really old-fashioned radio that has the special effect of making people feel they are part of this close-knit community and speaking in their language.”

With so few shows of any kind in Mexico’s indigenous languages, Mr. López makes his an eclectic mix of education and entertainment.

Amid the greetings on a recent show, Mr. López played music from his 20 storage cases of CDs, the fruits of a lifetime of collecting; interviewed health care workers about the importance of good child development; paid homage to an Indian activist killed a few years ago in Mexico; and dished out practical advice — all while swinging effortlessly between Spanish and Mixteco.

“Drink a lot of water — the temperature is rising fast out there,” Juan Santiago, his engineer and de facto co-host, who is a Zapotec, said on a recent morning as the mercury edged past 100 degrees.

“Yes, you have to be careful, men,” Mr. López added, and then, in Mixteco, reminded his listeners about the dangers of heat stroke, a particular concern for indigenous workers who dominate field jobs.

The Oaxacan Indians, mistrustful of doctors, rely heavily on home remedies and refrain from seeking treatment of serious illness or injury.

That problem has led Mr. López to spearhead a project in which Oaxacan doctors give medical advice in Mixteco by videoconference to immigrants at clinics in the Central Valley. The Oaxacan government is collaborating on the project, and the Center for Reducing Health Disparities at the University of California, Davis, Health System is the lead organizer.

“We consider this population to have among the least access to care in California,” said Dr. Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, the center’s director. “People are not aware of services, where to receive services. Transportation is an issue. When services are available, they are not culturally or linguistically appropriate for them.”

Mr. López knows well the immigrant experience, arriving in the United States from Oaxaca almost 30 years ago to pick oranges in Florida, cotton in Arizona and finally grapes in California.

He eventually moved on to factory work and became a legal resident under the amnesty provision of the 1986 immigration bill. With other Mixtecs, he formed a grass-roots group to advocate for his compatriots, leading to volunteer work for Radio Bilingüe, then a job there and eventually the position as host of “La Hora Mixteca.”

While his voice and name are familiar to many Mixtecs, Mr. López goes unrecognized around the farming hamlets near his home — until he speaks.

Stopping at a shopping center one recent morning, he met Raquel Rosales, 28, who was selling CDs. She said she appreciated the touch of home his show delivers.

“I speak Spanish,” Ms. Rosales said, “but I prefer to listen in Mixteco and hear the music from back home. This is the only way I can hear the news.”

Mr. López handed her a card. “Call if you want to send a greeting home,” he said, as she eagerly accepted it.

“That is what I can do,” he said, getting back in his truck. “I may not have work for them, but I can offer a bridge home.”

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