Friday, December 23, 2011

Radio Xobil Yol

Christmastime in the altiplano
Community radio, along with the rest of life, starts early up here in the mountains and valleys of Huehuetenango. As I scrambled up the rocky dirt paths of Todos Santos Cuchumatán at 5:30 a.m., to meet my friend Dilma, who was doing the first shift at the radio station, the pitch-black of the sky was broken by the twinkling of occasional street lamps, strings of Christmas lights fastened to roofs and terraces, a few houses where residents were already starting their day, or had outdoors lights that might have been on all night, and one large Christmas tree on a box at the bottom of a steep little hill that led down to the main road of the town.

The morning show starts at 5 or 5:30 (depending upon who is broadcasting), and consists of announcements, greetings, and marimba music (that seems to be a staple of community radio in Maya communities: the day starts with marimba). I have come this morning to observe the station in its normal routine, and keep company with Dilma, one of the two women who works at the radio station daily as an announcer. It is cold in the mountains, and so we are both bundled up against the cold -- she with scarves, a sweatshirt and a cap and me with a fleece pullover and a fleece-lined jacket. She, however, has bare legs and is wearing sandals (like many Maya women in the highlands: most do not cover their legs and while women do use closed shoes, sandals are the default footwear).

This is an agricultural community; while there are now paved roads in some parts of the town (the main street is paved and so are a few others), there are a lot of dirt and rock paths that people use to get from one place to another, and there are cornfields growing in the middle of the town. This morning as I walked from the radio station back ot the center of town for breakfast, I passed a few sheep grazing. So people get up early; hence, the radio station's hours are adapted to the locality's needs.

Xobil Yol is a radio station that was founded over 11 years ago; in June of this year it will celebrate its 12th anniversary. I had met the founder of the radio station, Rosendo Pablo, at the first community radio training session I attended back at the end of June, in San Mateo, a town near Xela, in Quetzaltenango. He was easily distinguishable in the small gathering of radio folks in his distinctive todosantero garments (Todos Santos Cuchumatán is one of the few municipalities in Guatemala where men wear "traje típico"; when I first visited Todos Santos, my first reaction was that every male looked like Rosendo).  I knew a bit about the radio station from other people in the community radio movement: it had been held up as a model of a station that is deeply rooted in and supported by its community.  I had wanted to come up here earlier: one of my original research plans was to visit 3 or 4 stations, mostly in the highlands that represented (as far as I could tell from meeting people involved with them) different trajectories. I  had visited a few of the stations, such as Estereo Maya in Momostenango, in the department of Totonicapán, which borders Quiché, and whose population is predominantly K'iche'), Doble Via in San Mateo, Quetzaltenango (which is largely run by young people), and Radio Ixchel in Sumpango, Sacatepéquez (closer to the capital but an almost entirely Maya Kaqchikel town). But I had not done systematic participant observation, although I had
The team of Radio Ixchel in Sumpango.  The three men
are the founders, but most of the current participants
are women, as this photo clearly shows
done a few short interviews with Anselmo, one of the founders of Radio Ixchel, and Julian, the founder of Estereo Maya.

Since we have temporarily closed our radio station (we have decided to move the radio to Chichicastenango, and we need to find a new space and bring the tower and the antenna, and nothing much is going to happen in Chichicastenango until after January 1), I had some time on my hands, so I decided to take two days and come up to visit the radio in Todos Santos. When my family was visiting, we came to Todos Santos to see the area and do some hiking, and I stopped in at the station a few times while we were here, but since I didn't want to sidetrack Ivan (my brother) and Aiyana (my daughter) too much in their leisure pursuits, I didn't spend a great deal of time inside the radio station.

One of the things I knew about the station was that they did nearly all of their broadcasting in Mam, the mother tongue of most people in this area. I also knew that they were largely supported by contributions from the community. So this was one of the stations I had wanted to visit, although I knew that I would not be able to understand any of what was broadcast. The only regular program that is broadcast in Spanish is a twice-weekly show on the environment presented by the Peace Corps person in this area, but someone does simultaneous translation into Mam.  It is also one of the most beautiful places I have been to -- the town is nestled in a deep bowl of a valley, surrounded by mountains covered with lush green forests.  It is easy to fall in love with particular sections of the
landscape here, or specific places, and I have found myself getting swept up often. That's not the best picture I have but it's what I could find quickly.

My original plan was to come up here for the feast of Todos Los Santos since that is the fiesta patronal of the town, but in retrospect it is probably good that I didn't come as the town gets kind of overrun by alcohol-induced frenzy. According to Lonely Planet the town is dry the rest of the year (but we saw cases of Gallo being delivered and sold at a store when we were here in August, and I just passed a store that was advertising Venado, a local brand of aguardiente). Someone told me that the women in the town put their collective feet down some years back because of the heavy drinking and got an ordinance passed regarding liquor sales, but perhaps that has been relaxed a bit.
Recording spots

My reason for postponing the trip was simply that I had too many trips in too short a space of time. I went to New York for Occupy Wall Street on the 24th and 25th of October, and I was going to be traveling against for a conference in San Diego November 3-7, so squeezing in a drive to Todos Santos (3-1/2 hours each way from Chinique) just felt like too much strain on the organism that had already been battered by a lot of travel and not enough sleep. So I called a few days before I was supposed to go up there and told Rosendo I would come at a later date. I just wasn't sure when that would be.

Looking south as the road climbs from Chiantla
So when it seemed that I had a bit of an unplanned space in my schedule, I decided to plan a visit to Todos Santos to really spend a bit of time with the folks at the radio, to see how the station functions and do a couple of interviews. I arrived here in the late morning, driving through some of the most spectacular scenery imaginable, the majestic Cuchumatan mountains.

I didn't get as early a start as I had wanted (too tuckered out from the fiesta in Chichicastenango and posada in my town) and so didn't want to stop too often along the way to take photographs. Also, for much of the highway there really isn't anywhere safe to stop and pull over.  There was a lot of bustle in Aguacatán because it was market day, so it wasn't until 11 that I arrived here.  The town is not that large and I easily remembered the turn off for the radio. The radio goes off the air between 11 and 3 in the afternoon (they broadcast from 5 to 11 and from 3 to 9), but Nicolasa was still on the air. After she finished, she and Dilma worked on recording some spots. I interviewed Dilma while Nicolasa was working and then we went to lunch and I talked to Nicolasa.
Nicolasa and her son protesting in front of Congress

Nicolasa had impressed me from the first time I met her, although we didn't really talk at that time. Both women were at the Encuentro de Radios Comunitarios in Guatemala in August, and I had taken a pretty striking photograph of Nicolasa with a black band tied across her mouth and a baby strapped onto her back, during the protest in front of the Congress building.

Over lunch, she told me about being the first woman to go on the air here, after the station had already been in existence for about 10 years. She had first recorded some spots and had  had the jarring experience of hearing her voice on the air before she came to be an announcer. Her father is on the executive committee, which is how she was invited to be part of a training session. After getting over her initial fears, she really likes it, although both she and Dilma feel a little bit outnumbered.
Dilma (l) and Nicolasa (r) at lunch
 She told me a very moving story about one of her first broadcasts when she talked about domestic violence and the rights of women; a woman from a rural community who had been beaten by her husband walked down to the station to tell Nicolasa that she had heard the program and that her husband had not gotten any dinner that night. That she had come down to tell Nicolasa how much the program meant to her without her husband's permission (sadly, in many rural communities, women have little freedom and must bend to the wishes of their parents, husbands, in-laws and adult male children).

Cruz control (he's the president of the exec bd of the radio)
They have not had a lot of luck getting other women to join them as volunteers (they are both paid a modest stipend).  The rest of the people who broadcast at the station are men; this includes a few members of the executive committee and a few other volunteers who come in to do programs. We finished off our lunch and then I went to find a room and check in and then went back to the station. After we came back in the afternoon, Nicolasa was a little late arriving and so Dilma just put on some music, and then Nicolasa went on the air for a while and then Dilma, and then they left for their English class and then men took over for the rest of the day.  A man named Fortunato, who is a licenciado (meaning that he completed college), did an hour of broadcasting and then left before I had a chance to talk with him; he had another commitment in town.
Cruz, whom I had also met at the Encuentro in August, and is the president of the executive board, came in, and two teenaged boys (his sons, it turns out), one of whom left on an errand of some sort. A few other men came in, including a former president of the executive board. This was supposed to be the space of the boy who had left, so the other men (Cruz and another son, older than the one who left) filled in the space.

I left a little before the station went off the air at 9 since I was not entirely sure I would find a restaurant open at that hour. There are about 4-5 places in town, but I didn't want to take my chance as the first time we came here in August, we got here late and there were only two places open at 8:30 when we went out. I went to the same place we had eaten at the first night, on the main street, and had some very yummy lamb stew (the same dish, also). There were only a few people there -- two non-Maya truck drivers.

The man who lost his DPI
Community radio here does serve the community: just as Dilma was about about to finish her program this morning, someone came up to the entrance and called out, and we went outside to see what he wanted. It was a man who was selling some large ceramic pots. He had dropped his DPI (personal identification document) and wanted the radio to announce it so it might be returned. And, sure enough, later in the day, someone brought it into the radio station and another announcement was made so that the man would know to come back and pick it up.

I will add some more thoughts about the radio and about Todos Santos later... now time for some rest.

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