The sound of a trombone emerges from the foliage of the northern Veracruz mountains. It plays a single note, then another. As trumpets, cornets, tubas, and drums join in, musicians march out from the pines. They have walked miles to reach Pie de la Cuesta and participate in the celebration.
Blasting away, they take their places in the line. Another nine bands are already waiting. One group of musicians is decked out in matching blue suits. Others sport ponytails and Che Guevara T-shirts, while many wear baggy jeans and baseball caps. The drums are decorated with the names of the bands and colorful images of deer, mountains, starry skies, and roads winding their way between houses.
A young indigenous woman runs between the bands with a minidisk player, recording songs for the radio. This is Lucrecia Linares, Tepehua radio announcer for Radio Huayacocotla, a shortwave community radio station that transmits in Spanish and the three indigenous languages of the region – Otomi, Nahua, and Tepehua.
The station’s directors and announcers have come to this Otomi community for a special celebration of Cecilia, patron saint of musicians. In the last year, the station has helped finance instruments for eight new bands, two composed mostly of young people. That makes a total of twelve bands in the municipality of Texcatepec.
The procession meets two bands from the community as it winds around to the center of town. As it proceeds, a crackling radio blasts from a one-room wooden shack with a corrugated tin roof: “Radio Huayacocotla, la voz de los campesinos, XEJN, transmitting for you at 2390 Khz with 500 watts of power for the Sierra Norte of Veracruz.”
Even in Pie de la Cuesta, seven hours on foot from the town of Huayacocotla, where the station is located, people listen to the shortwave station. The programming includes rancheras and norte-as, regional music such as banda and trios huastecos, birthday greetings, community announcements, plus informative shows like one covering human rights, and another about raising cattle. The news is transmitted in Spanish twice a week, and in the indigenous languages weekly.
Building an Audience
Lucrecia Linares, who lives in nearby Tlachichilco, didn’t listen to Radio Huaya much at first. “I thought it was like all the others, but it’s not,” she explains. “This radio is for all people, rich and poor.” What she likes best are the radio novelas; those without television listen to Radio Huaya’s audio dramas every day.
For Radio Mita (in Otomi) or Radio Lacaxcajak (in Tepehua), the main audience is indigenous people of the mountains. The languages spoken, local music, and interviews in rural areas mean that this radio station “is the people,” claims coordinator and Otomi announcer Pedro Ruperto. Ten years ago, young people in Huayacocotla didn’t like the music on the community radio, he explains. Now, with banda music on the rise, people hire indigenous bands for parties.
“Young people want to learn to play an instrument now,” he tells me. Many of the older people from indigenous communities in Texcatepec tell the broadcasters that they see the bands as a way for young people to be reintegrated into the community.
Some bands have traveled to Huayacocotla to record in the studio; others are just learning. But today, everyone has been invited to play together. And that’s what they do. Although the bands take turns at the start, by afternoon they all begin to perform together. As a pink sunset descends over the mountains, it’s difficult to distinguish the tunes filling the air.
Across the ravine in Huayacocotla, the telephone rings in a bright building painted with a mural of green mountains, groups of indigenous people, and a man with a microphone. Inside, a man sits at a typewriter, surrounded by piles of old tapes and records, and answers the phone. “Hello,” says the voice at the other end. “This is Diego Alberto calling from New York. I would like to dedicate Las Mañanitas to my daughter, who is turning three today.”
Every day, Radio Huaya receives calls from indigenous and mestizo Amigos to New York. In a region with few phones and an unreliable mail service, radio has become a form of two-way communication. Migrants working in carwashes, on construction crews, or as delivery boys send messages to receive money orders and phone calls, or just to say hello. A large number of the announcements made six times a day are messages like: “Angelina Garcia, please go to the telephone booth in El Papatlar on Saturday at ten to receive a phone call from Isaac,” or “The family of Pablo Ricardo, don’t worry, he arrived safely at his destination.”
Radio Huaya also receives between 800 and 1000 hand-delivered letters a week. Announcer Ricardo González explains that many come from surrounding indigenous communities with the merchants who visit Huayacocotla for the weekly market. And the letters aren’t the only proof that the radio’s 500 watts are working. “In the indigenous communities, the people know you,” explains Ruperto. “You arrive and they ask, ‘Who are you?’ Pedro Ruperto,’ you say, or ‘Ricardo González,’ and they hug you.”
Turning the Tortilla
Radio Huayacocotla dates back to the 1965 establishment of a radio school. It closed in 1973, but two years later, Jesuits were invited to establish a community radio project, based on programs in South and Central America. One of the first changes was to convert the antenna from a “clothesline” to a tall vertical tower. The Jesuits also focused on problems such as foresting resources and kaolin (fine clay) production in the mestizo communities.
Alfredo Zepeda, one of the first Jesuits to arrive in Huaya, laughs as he remembers how they used to play protest music by Silvio Rodriguez instead of local music from the region. “In those days, I didn’t even know how to say hello or thank you in Otomi,” he says. “I knew Otomi was spoken, but you never saw them or talked with them or had any real contact.”
In the early 1990s, all this changed. In Texcatepec, directly across the ravine from Huayacocotla, land disputes led to outbreaks of violence. Every day people organizing in the valleys were kidnapped, tortured, or killed. “We turned the tortilla around and tried to see the world not just from Huaya, but from the indigenous communities,” explains Zepeda.
In 1995, soon after the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, Radio Huayacocotla was one of many community stations the government closed down. For three months, due to supposed “technical errors,” the “Voice of the Campesinos” remained off the air. Authorities told Zepeda, “You are broadcasting coded messages.” Zepeda’s answer: “That code is Otomi.”
In fact, Radio Huaya is one of only two community stations in Mexico with permission to transmit, but just on short wave. Although the signal reaches at least 1700 short wave radios in the region, people still come into the station to ask how they can make their radio receive Radio Huaya. Because it is short wave without filters, programs sometimes turn up in unwanted places; on television sets, for example, or the speakers in the Catholic Church.
Radio Huaya is currently one of 43 Mexican stations in the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) seeking permission from the Secretary of State to broadcast on an FM or AM frequency. They include indigenous radio, urban youth stations, and radio geared toward women. Most have no legal standing. One group in the northern state of Sonora was told to prove they had at least one million pesos (about US $100,000). Even then permission wasn’t guaranteed.
For the government, community radio stations are easily bunched together as “pirate, clandestine, guerrilla and subversive.” In the past, it has used the army to investigate and report on them. AMARC Mexico Director Aleida Calleja says most of the complaints come from private commercial station owners. “Mexico is number one in media monopolies,” he explains. According to AMARC, two families control 86 percent of the country’s television, and 13 groups manage 90 percent of radio.
Although the government promised not to make any moves against the stations during negotiations with AMARC, it has attempted to close down several in Oaxaca, Michoacán, and the outskirts of Mexico City in the last year.
Radio Huaya has asked for permission to broadcast on AM twice in the past. After a denial in 1978, the station received permission from the Secretary of Communications and Transportation to transmit on 1350 Khz in 1984. But the government never followed through. Even without access to an AM or FM frequency, however, the station is becoming a powerful voice for indigenous autonomy.
The community radio movement is growing in more than 100 countries. For more on efforts to build solidarity and international cooperation, go to the AMARC site at www.amarc.org/amarc/ang .
Zaidee Rose Stavely has a B.A. from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives in Mexico City.