Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Community radio update and reflections on media

Traditional leader
Okay, so the ostensible purpose of this visit was to do work with the community radio movement and most specifically, to see if I could be useful in helping Radio Ixmukané get back on the air.  And of course all the other things were part of the package.  My first mini-project upon arrival was to attend the public meeting with the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Navi Pillay, who was making a 4-day visit to Guatemala and one of those days, last Tuesday, March 13, had been set aside for a large public gathering with leaders of indigenous communities. The community radio movement was going to have a representative -- among the dozen or so people who had been invited to make brief public statements on specific themes concerning indigenous communities -- and also some of the stations were going to do a live broadcast.

So I called my friends at the radio station in San Mateo, Doble Via, a radio station run by young people in the community (and with the support and guidance of Alberto Recinos, better known as Tino, who became a radio broadcaster while he was in the guerrilla forces during the armed struggle; he spent 9 years broadcasting for La Voz del Pueblo, a radio station that was set up on the slopes of the Tajumulco volcano), and arranged to meet up with them. So after waking up in Guatemala City on Monday morning of last week (my flight arrived Sunday night, and because of the delays I didn't arrive in Guatemala City until nearly 11 p.m.), I set off for Xela (San Mateo is just outside of Xela on the highway leading to San Marcos) and got there in the early afternoon.
Rosendo Pablo speaking on
behalf of community radio

It's always an inspiration to visit the community radio stations that are part of the community radio movement, and Doble Via is especially inspiring because of the energy of the young people who comprise the station's collective. While I was there, I had the chance to witness an 11-year old boy, Luis, who was taking his turn at the controls, and observe his poise and articulateness as he skillfully selected songs and took the microphone during his program, inviting listeners to call in and make requests.  Alex, the young man who was one of the station's founders and who has played a leading role in its evolution over the past two years, and I lunched together and talked, and then I returned to the station and just hung out for a while, talking to various of the volunteers who were there.

I ran into Tino, and told him that I would be happy to help transport people and equipment the next day, as the public meeting was to be held in Totonicapán, about half an hour from Xela. He happily accepted my offer, and then there was some discussion about who would go and what time we would have to meet. We agreed upon 5:45 a.m. (with a 6 a.m. departure) so we could get to Toto before transit became too difficult.  As I was about to head to my friends Humberto and Ana's home to eat and sleep, the young folks told me that there was a birthday party for one of the compañeras, and so I went off with them to eat some paches (filled tamales, except made with potatoes instead of cornmeal paste) made by the birthday girl's mother.
Up early the next morning, I was the first to arrive at the radio station (even though I was coming from farthest away).  Soon the others arrive, we loaded up the trucks (one of the adults who participates in the radio station, Santos, also brought his pickup, so we had room for everyone and everything). We needed to have something to identify ourselves, as they had received a message the previous night that only cars with some identification would be allowed through, so we got a banner for Mujbab Lyol (the association of community radio stations that was founded 14 years ago and to which Doble Via belongs) and stopped on the roadside outside of Toto to fasten it to the front of Santos' pick-up so that we could enter beyond the check point. The checkpoint was staffed not by police but by representatives of the indigenous mayoralty - Totonicapán's 48 communities all have indigenous mayoralties, and then those 48 mayoralties have a council that has elected a president; it is because of the level of organization of this municipality, some friends opined, that Toto was selected as the site for this visit -- bearing staffs.

They were blocking the main entrance road to Toto and diverting traffic, but we were allowed through and were able to get our trucks very close to the entrance to the stadium and unload and get ourselves inside early and set up for broadcasting and also to videotape and photograph the event. I went up closer to the platform, together with the young women who were going to do the videotaping. They had two cameras and we found positions for both, one on either side of the platform, so that they could have multiple angles for shooting.

We didn't really have much contact with the folks who were doing the transmission as they were about a hundred yards behind us, although I ran back and forth a few times when we needed to communicate something.

Compañeras from Doble Via
The area gradually filled with people, although according to friends who have participated in previous events with other UN officials who have visited Guatemala, the participation was not as large as the organizers had predicted. I don't know enough about the ins and outs of who was coordinating and planning and who did the inviting. It seemed that the largest contingents were from Totonicapán, and every community had its traditional leaders present. There were some people from Quiché, although not many whom I knew, and some from Petén and the Verapaces.

About seven or eight community radio stations were present. A few of them had brought placards which they carried, and others were simply present. It was a pleasure to reconnect with some friends from the radio stations in Santa Eulalia (Snuq Jolom Konob), Momostenango (Estereo Maya) and Todos Santos Cuchumatán (Xobil Yol), and once again, exciting to feel part of an energetic and vital social movement.

Throughout the day (and I am not sure I will have the time or energy anytime soon to do justice to the actual event -- the presentations and issues raised) the master and mistress of ceremonies made reference to the community radio stations that were transmitting the event live, and it was gratifying (and even more so for the compañeros and compañeras who are engaged in this struggle daily) to have our presence acknowledged.

There were probably two or three thousand people present. The entrance to the area was flanked by traditional authorities from Totonicapán and the seating area was filled with people bearing the dark wooden staffs that are the symbol of the indigenous mayoralties. Throughout the day (the event started sometime after 9 a.m. and ended a bit after 1 p.m.), the MCs and other speakers asked for a show of the presence of traditional authorities ("ancestral authorities" is the direct translation of the Spanish term that is most often used: autoridades ancestrales), and it was thrilling to see, under the bright blue sky of a March morning in the highlands, so many staffs being proudly held aloft.

Also, the event was heavily mediatized. Digital media technologies are pretty widely available in Guatemala. Most people, or most households, have at least one cell phone, and many people now have phones that take photos, shoot video, and a fair number of my acquaintances, especially the younger ones and those with some professional training or who work for NGOs or "institutions", have some variant of a smartphone, so there was a veritable sea of people stationed close to the platform filming and photographing the event.

It's been a long time since we ethnographers and privileged foreigners were the only ones with cameras, which is probably a good thing as people in the communities where we work are no longer dependent upon us for the images and sounds. There was a lot of good natured camaraderie among those of us who were photographing the event: and here I would distinguish those who took a few photos, and those of us who were trying to document it more or less in its entirety (which included "professional" people with press tags, such as the young woman above, or the journalists from the mainstream media, and people like myself who came with one of the delegations).

I figured photographing it with a good camera was a useful undertaking, and I was able to share photographs with several people -- some of those who attended but didn't have cameras, or didn't have good cameras, and one or two people who weren't able to attend. Someone who was sitting in one of the first rows of seats (I moved around but stayed fairly close to the girls from Doble Via who were videotaping, and they were just in front of the first row of seats) introduced himself as a representative of a community organization from Petén and asked if I could send him photos; he scribbled his name, phone and email on a scrap of paper and I was able to send him a selection of about 60 images (I shot close to 600).  I write this is not to toot my horn or show how wonderful I am, but to explore "out loud" how I negotiate or understand my commitments to the people with whom I work.

Taking photographs is part of what I do (always with the consent of those photographed) and sharing the photographs is equally if not perhaps more important. I take some pride in making nice images, in framing and focusing and selecting an aperture and exposure... but in part I am learning to give up ownership of the images. That is, when I give someone copies of photographs on a flash drive or via email, I don't set any conditions about how they are used, or whether I get acknowledged. I suppose if someone wanted to "publish" any photographs in a newsletter or book or article, I'd appreciate it if they put my name... but this is a new media landscape here.

Well, this wasn't where I intended to go with this blog entry, but here I am.  So let me get back to the event, in brief.  The authorities lined up and made a kind of gauntlet, and the official delegation including Navi Pillay entered and mounted the platform. 

Then three Maya priests (two men and a woman) did an invocation and prayer to start the formal event.  I think two were K'iche' and the third was Mam, but I'm not certain.  After that, several representatives of the ancestral authorities spoke (I don't remember now how many) and then a series of people were called to make brief presentations on several key issues such as mining and the natural environment, and culture.

I recorded much of the proceeding as well, although I couldn't monitor the audio recording very well while I was moving around taking photographs.

It's hard to summarize, and perhaps even more difficult to draw some conclusions about the event and its significance. Much of what was said were things that those of us who have been paying attention to the plight of Maya and other indigenous communities in Guatemala are very familiar.

There was a person from the Valle de Polochic, where residents have been forcibly and violently displaced, and someone from San Miguel Ixtahuacán in San Marcos, where Canadian transnational Goldcorp runs the infamous Marlin Mine.  Others spoke about hydroelectric projects, and the ravages caused by large scale biofuel initiatives (in Spanish, "agrocombustibles"). In many of these cases, the companies have forcibly displaced peasant farmers, activists have been killed, and the state has either done nothing or helped with the displacements and/or been responsible for some of the violence.

For those who attended, I think it was important to feel that someone from the international community was there listening to their concerns, and hopefully taking note, and perhaps would even DO something.

Afterwards, I did an interview with one of the radio stations, Snuq Jolom Konob from Santa Eulalia in Huehuetenango -- Lorenzo, one of the key figures in this radio station, became my friend at the very first workshop I attended back in late June of last year. We ended up being put in the same small group to write a script for a radio spot, and he started to tell me about his time in the U.S. (he always looks for an opportunity to practice his English with me) and we have been friends ever since, and so I agreed to let him interview me.  And then I spent a little time talking and taking pictures with the friends who had come from some of the radio stations across the country.

Then off to lunch with some of the folks from Doble Via, from Cultural Survival, from Radio Ixchel in Sumpango and Xobil Yol in Todos Santos. And then back to San Mateo to copy photographs, talk, regroup... and then set off the next morning for the community consultation on mining about which I've already written.

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