This year promises to be an important one for Daniel Alarcón. The 35 year-old Oakland, Calif., based Peruvian-born novelist has a baby on the way and is set to release his third book, "At Night We Walk in Circles," in the fall. But it’s a different type of storytelling that had him standing before an intimate audience at New York City’s Instituto Cervantes earlier this week. Along with fellow Latino novelists Francisco Goldman and Junot Díaz, Alarcón was preparing to host his first live show for what is perhaps his most ambitious project to date: "Radio Ambulante," a Spanish-language podcast that showcases human interest stories from around Latin America and the United States.
Think of it as a sort of "This Latin American Life", as my colleague Jorge Rivas called it, making a play on the long-running English-language show hosted by Ira Glass at Chicago’s WBEZ.
At the New York City live show, Alarcón first spoke with Goldman and Díaz to set the backdrop for performances of the show’s stories. They touched on the anti-Latino sentiment in the U.S. that makes people frown on the use of Spanish in literature. Díaz, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel "The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao", noted that that he’s got at least five pieces of hate mail telling him to "go back to Mexico." He’s Dominican. Goldman joked that he goes back all the time, even though he was raised in Boston by a Jewish father and Guatemalan mother and always has his Spanish pronunciation made fun of whenever he travels to Mexico City. All three talked about what it means to experience the world in two languages, and question whether any language is capable of capturing the trauma that exists in so many Latin American countries.
"Political boundaries are real, but cultural boundaries are a lot more fluid," Alarcón told the audience, before adding that with an estimated 55 million Latinos living in the United States, "the U.S. is also a Latin American country."
In an American landcape in which, at best, Latinos are often described as a homogenous block of people with the mysterious power to sway political elections, Radio Ambulante offers something entirely different. It’s a show made by and for a diverse Spanish-speaking audience, one in which the varying experiences of millions of people are taken as obvious, not an epiphany.
Alarcón got the idea for the show after the BBC sent him on assignment to do his first radio story in Perú back in 2008. In recounting the experience at Mother Jones, he remembered it as "beautiful," a welcome change of pace to the months he’d spent touring for his award winning novel "Lost City Radio."
"We did interviews in English and in Spanish, and a lot of the Spanish tape wasn’t used in the end," Alarcón told Mother Jones. "I had the sense of, ‘Well, wait. What about those other voices?’ I think that’s when I first had the idea of creating a space for this kind of narrative nonfiction radio in Spanish, so we wouldn’t lose these voices."
From there, Alarcón put together a team. It included his wife, entrepreneur Carolina Guerrero–who serves as its co-executive director along with co-founders Martina Castro and journalist Annie Correal; assisant producer Nancy López; and award-winning reporter Mandalit del Barco. They launched in 2012, when the team launched a Kickstarter campaign and raised just over $40,000. The money helped fund the production of the show’s first few episodes, including "La fe de Amalia" ("Amalia’s Faith"), a collection of migration stories, and "Milagros" ("Miracles").
The live show’s stories are also compelling. One, "Los Polizones" ("The Stowaways") tells the heartbreaking story of two young friends who leave a life of poverty in Callao, Peru, and board a ship for New York City in 1959. Another, "Ningún Nombre" ("No Name") tells how one town on Colombia relates to its nameless dead.
So far, the response to the show has been ethusiastic, yet comparatively small. In an American context, radio has long been deemed a staple of "old media," yet as advertising revenue has declined significantly in recent years, radio as a platform of communication has remained incredibly important, particularly in communities that don’t have access to high-speed Internet. (Photo: Radio Ambulante)
That’s especially the case throughout Latin America, and once you look at Alarcón’s body of work, his transition to radio seems natural. His novel "Lost City Radio" is a fictionalized account of a Peruvian phenomenon in which families of the disappeared send messages to their missing loved ones over the airwaves. Something similar popped up around the Appalachian mountain region in the United States, where families of the incarcerated began sending messages to their loved ones through a local radio program in order to sidestep costly phone calls. That effort eventually led to the prison phone justice campaign to lower the price of phone calls from prison in the United States.
But the power of Radio Ambulante isn’t just about access, it’s also about representation.
"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," Favianna Rodriguez, an artist and co-founder of the arts activism group CultureStrike, told Tomorrow magazine.
Between 94 and 96 percent of Latino adults in the U.S. listen to the radio. For immigrant Latinos, the radio is an important way to keep in touch with current and community events in their home countries. Across the country, Spanish-language stations are growing at an astonishing rate. In Texas, for instance, there are 154 Spanish-language stations, up from just over two dozen in 2000.
While the power of radio is still strong, the power of money is even stronger. Radio Ambulante has depended almost entirely on private donations, both from its crowd-sourced Kickstarter campaign and from individual donors. The New York City live show, its third ever and first in the Big Apple, doubled as a fundraiser. The team hopes that a few foundation grants will kick in this year. So far, the project has been mostly a labor of love for everyone involved.
The night’s closing performance features a surprise guest: Alarcón’s father, Renato. Before making a career in psychiatry, the older Alarcón spent his childhood announcing neighborhood soccer games in Perú. The younger Alarcón tells the audience of a time when his father agreed to announce an imaginary soccer game, a testament of how important radio has been to following life’s events big and small. Renato meets his son on stage, trades in his suit jacket for a soccer jersey, and takes the crowd on a thrilling imaginary journey to the Peruvian national soccer team’s upset of Brazil. The crowd laughs and then breaks into a round of applause.
"We want people to question a lot of things about this country." Alarcón says later. "We want to question how stories get told, and who tells them."
* This story has been updated since publication.