By Zamná Ávila, Assistant Editor
A few months ago, I stumbled upon a radio station playing Celia Cruz’s hit song, Carnaval. I lingered on the dial hoping to catch some more cumbia, merengue or salsa. (I grew up listening to tropical rhythms.)
Yet, instead of the next rhythm to get me moving and singing in my car, the station’s program hosts came on. They began recapping the Oscars from the night before. As you may recall, Faye Dunaway announced the wrong winner for Best Picture at the end of the night, awarding the trophy to La La Land when it actually was supposed to go to Moonlight.
One of radio hosts jokingly referred to a black man in Moonlight as “carbon” (charcoal). He later said he didn’t care for Mexican award-winning actor Gael García Bernal’s speech on immigration because he’s kissed “vatos” (dudes), referring to some of the characters García Bernal has interpreted on screen.
Whether he was referring to the director Barry Jenkins or Mahershala Ali, the Best Actor Oscar winner, it doesn’t matter. The very fact that the hosts would use racialized language to denigrate the film’s actors and directors was problematic. Strike two: propagating the homophobia that is already deeply-rooted into Latino culture.
I tried speaking to someone at Entravision, which owns that station, but none of my several calls were returned. In all fairness, La Suavecita 107.1 FM is not the only station that gets laughs at the expense of others. Hell, English-language programming is not that much better.
Sadly, with about 15 Spanish-programming stations in Southern California, we don’t get much of a selection. Spanish programming varies from reggaetón to regional Mexican to Christian formats. Much of the music these stations play is followed by “entertainment” shows hosted by radio personalities. On any given day you can also encounter a psychic telling a husband his wife is cheating on him and putting the married couple on the air, reminiscent of a Jerry Springer Show. Many of these shows focus on celebrity gossip such as the custody battle of Argentine actor Julian Gil’s child, sprinkled with pre-recorded laughter to compensate for unfiltered jokes.
Of course, these shows would never be able to survive if they did not have a following. In fact, the shows are often a reflection of a community. While Latino culture offers rich hues of food, art, fashion and music, it’s not without its shortcomings. Embedded in Latino culture are remnants of colonialism that foster discrimination.
Recently, comedian George Lopez was heckled for making a joke saying that, “There are only two rules in the Latino family — don’t marry somebody black, and don’t park in front of our house.”
He never finished his joke before he was called out as a racist by an audience member, who he cursed out. Whether or not Lopez was racist is not the point. What is the point is that sadly, there is some truth to his joke. Many Latinos can be quite discriminatory toward other groups and subgroups of people.
Case in point, a few months ago I went to a soccer game between two Mexican teams and I cringed when I heard the crowd scream “puto!” in unison to the referee (which loosely translates to the word “faggot” to denote not just homosexuality, but cowardice). The term is seemingly acceptable to the general public; nobody even winces at the sound of its use. It’s acceptable language, even in some of the most liberal Latino homes.
There just seems to be lack of choice when it comes to Spanish-only entertainment programming.
Latinos are multifaceted. Some of us are born in the United States, others have gained citizenship through the naturalization process and some are, indeed, undocumented. We come in different colors, accents and preferences. We want to be entertained but we also long to be informed about nutrition, mental health, law, politics, the environment and a cornucopia of interests.
Tuning Down A Segment
Sure, the masses may be entertained by crude jokes and “edgy” music, but it’s a disservice that keeps some of us tuning the dial. Take for example my college buddy, Javier Delgado. These days he rarely listens to Spanish-language radio.
“I’m not able to identify with the characters or the callers on the radio,” Delgado said. “The people who have on the radio are there because their spouses are cheating on them or are wanting to catch someone cheating on them.”
He’s also offended by the repetitive jokes about people’s sexual orientation and non-Hispanic cultures, or the all-too-often jokes about the hated mother-in-law.
“Twenty years ago, we were more ignorant, but it’s no longer the view of most of society,” Delgado said. “When we allow people in a minority group to be picked on, eventually, it will come back to us.”
While English-language radio can also border on offensive, it seems to Delgado that the programming has come around with the times.
It’s a pity because he does enjoy music in Spanish, especially the older music from artists such as Juan Gabriel, Mexico’s recently deceased Elton John.
“It’s has to do with what we grew up with,” said Delgado, a third-generation Chicano. “The older music is about love, relationships and heartbreak. It’s like being transported back to a time when things were more innocent.”
These days, many stations play music that reference narcotraficantes.
“I’m sure that there is music out there that doesn’t glamorize drug lords and has changed with the times,” he said.
U.S. natualized citizen, María Cortez, can’t help but listen to Spanish language radio. It is her primary language. The 75-year-old listens to La Ranchera on the 96.7 FM dial.
“Because it’s Mexican and I am Mexican,” said Cortez. “It plays music from my times, the 60s. There’s news; there is a little bit of everything.”
Nevertheless, there are times she feels compelled to change the radio station.
“I change the station when they have Humberto Luna because he says a bunch of obscenities,” said Cortez in Spanish.
She is referring to the radio personality’s salacious jokes that often objectify women.
“He and Doña Kika are very unpleasant,” she said. “They talk about the intimacies of women and men.”
These days, you hear a lot of soccer games and remedies that are often confusing to the listener, Cortez said. She would like to hear more advice on nutrition and health.
A few shows within mostly English formats offer intelligent entertainment, such as KPFK 90.7’s Canto Sin Fronteras, which means Song Without Borders. Canto Sin Fronteras offers a progressive forum dedicated to the diffusion of Latin-American folk, trova, nuevo canto, and world music with social-political themes. NPR’s Latino USA gives a critical voice to the diversity of the American experience through storytelling. The closest I’ve found in entertainment with less talk is Mega-96.3. Although it plays a variety of genres, it often stagnates on reggaeton and bachata.
Very few stations offer both 24/7 Spanish format and quality radio.
Radio Bilingüe is one radio organization that does offer intelligent programming sensitive to diverse communities that is both entertaining and informative.
“That’s why Radio Bilingüe was founded 36 years ago,” said María Eraña, director of
broadcasting operations. “A platform where the voices of the community could be heard was needed…. People have a voice. We are a platform to empower Latinos and other underserved communities.”
Radio Bilingüe is a nonprofit radio network with Latino/a control and leadership. Unfortunately, Radio Bilingüe is based in the Central Valley and its airwaves don’t travel all the way down to Southern California. Here, most stations care about one thing.
“Commercial radio is just looking at the bottom line, especially [at the expense] of people who are different or perceived to be different … [and the] FCC isn’t listening much,” Eraña explained. “They blend these types of cheap entertainment with trash talk and tickets to dances and giveaways. It’s an easy way to make money or [at least that’s what] they seem [to think].”
Radio Bilingüe has tried to break into the Los Angeles market but has been unsuccessful because the full power FMs are very expensive and the available frequencies often are taken by religious groups.
“So the status quo continues,” she said. “In LA it’s very hard to get into the market but people keep asking for [us].”
Public radio stations often don’t recognize the need for better programming because of the amount of existing Spanish-language stations. Those that do include programming in Spanish cover the communities from an outsider’s perspective, Eraña said. Many of the corporations that provide that perspective are not owned by Latinos. They have Latino producers but not executives who make decisions.
“There is room for much more,” Eraña said. “When we talk about issues, we talk about us.”
In fact, Radio Bilingüe not only offers programming in Spanish and English, they also offer programming in Mixtec, recognizing the needs of indigenous followers in an effort to contribute to their sense of pride. Their programming incorporates materials on how to access education, health services, immigration issues and civic engagement. The music varies, showcasing rock en español, Mixteco, Tejano, traditional banda and salsa. They don’t play narco-corridos, which often glorify drug traffickers. It’s not that the station bans certain music, but they discourage using music that, for example, might condone violence against women.
“Music should be creative quality,” she said. “We don’t play songs that demean people…. There is a lot of beautiful music.”
This is where media has the power to catalyze change within its audience. Mass media, in general, offers a platform for voices to engage its public and generate understanding.
In Latina/o culture, family is very important. It’s beyond me how someone would invite a guest, such as a radio show and its hosts who condone violence against various communities, into one’s home, instead of a guest who promotes intelligence and understanding, and who people benefit from the presence of his or her company. Elevating the conversation to enhance the status of its target audience is a goal for which every radio station should aim. And yet, it seems the only time that happens is with the topic of immigration.
Wake up, step away from the herd and demand quality over the airwaves. We deserve true choices.
“Send letters,” Eraña advised. “I don’t know if they will completely change their format but they might be a little more careful.”