The new Spanish-language radio program “Radio Ambulante” gathers voices from around Latin America and the United States to showcase the untold human stories behind issues such as immigration and kidnappings. Using a network of journalists from around the Americas, the monthly program fills a gaping hole in the radio landscape for Spanish speakers. We’re joined by Radio Ambulante executive producer Daniel Alarcón, the acclaimed author of the novel “Lost City Radio,” and by Annie Correal, a Radio Ambulante producer who tells her family’s story of using radio to convey messages to her kidnapped father in Colombia.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: While immigration reform is shaping up to be a top issue of President Obama’s second term, little attention has often been paid to the individuals at the center of that story: the millions of immigrants, many from Latin America, who come to the United States. Their stories often go untold. A new radio program is attempting to change that. It’s called Radio Ambulante. The new podcast gathers compelling stories told in Spanish from around Latin America and the United States, using a network of journalists from around the hemisphere. The monthly program fills a gaping hole in the radio landscape for Spanish speakers. The novelist Daniel Alarcón is the show’s executive producer.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: In 2007, I published a novel about radio, and the BBC asked me to do a documentary about Andean migration to Lima, the city where I was born. I was really excited to do this, and I got to travel all over the country and hear these amazing stories. When we did the final edit, a lot of the voices were translated into English, and I thought something was lost. Years later, my wife and I decided to do something about it.
AMY GOODMAN: We’ll be joined in a few minutes by Radio Ambulante‘s founder and executive producer, Daniel Alarcón, and by producer Annie Correal. But first I want to turn to one of the stories from their show. It was read live during a recent public performance. It takes place in Tijuana, the world’s busiest border crossing. Producer Ruxandra Guidi tells the story, which begins with her search for a U.S. border guard named Angelica DeCima.
RUXANDRA GUIDI: When I find her, she’s straight-faced and a little nervous, wearing the official Navy blue of Customs and Border Protection. I’ve come to learn about what she does, what this border looks like to her. She must be baking beneath this unforgiving sun.
All right, so we’ll just head out. We’re going to follow you guys, probably be about 10 feet away from you as you do your job, just not going to interview you, anything like that.
Technically speaking, we’re still in Mexico, but there’s no question who’s in charge of this part of the border. Angelica and I are facing the U.S. Behind us, the endless rows of idling cars extend deep into Tijuana; to our right, the long orderly line of pedestrians heading the same direction. We walk a few steps behind another officer and his guard dog, zigzagging our way through the cars heading into San Diego. The smoke and the heat radiating from the engines is making me nauseous.
OK, let’s go.
BORDER AGENT: Go ahead.
RUXANDRA GUIDI: Go ahead, you guys. Run. We’ll just follow you.
BORDER AGENT: Nine-fifteen.
RUXANDRA GUIDI: Then I hear one of the agents calling out the number 915. And this, it turns out, is at least part of the reason for the traffic jam. Nine-fifteen, that’s code for human smuggling. A couple of other guards rush past us, the guard dog leading the way. Angelica and I race after them. And we come to an old Honda Accord being driven past a booth by a U.S. guard. The middle-aged man who was at the wheel is staring down at his feet while another guard leads him away from the car in handcuffs. My interview with Angelica had barely begun, and now this.
ANGELICA DECIMA: You see this every day, people trying to come into the country hidden in the trunks, and then even deeper concealment methods, like a special—specially built compartment. A lot of times we call them “coffin compartments.” People cannot get out of them. And it is dangerous.
RUXANDRA GUIDI: To say that it’s dangerous is an understatement. It’s a rectangular box made up of pinewood planks and metal sheets, held by wires and rigged to the undercarriage of this old car. It’s so low to the ground, it must have been banged up so many times along the ride.
BORDER GUARD: They’ve been in there for a while.
RUXANDRA GUIDI: I’m with Angelica and about a dozen other guards, and we’re all gathered around the old cream-colored Honda. Everyone’s eyes are on that trunk. And one of the guards, a young Latino guy with a heavy build and jet black, intense eyes, reaches into it, and deeper still, into the makeshift compartment underneath it. I stop breathing for a moment and look around. We’re all staring, shamelessly, as if trying to predict who or what will come out.
The young guard grabs onto a hand, ever so carefully, and then pulls out the whole arm, then the shaking and sweaty body of a kid, probably 15 or 16. He has indigenous features and a skinny, long body. He looks terrified. And my heart sinks as we make quick eye contact. He’s not saying a word, but then again, what could he say?
The Honda’s engine is still running, spewing smoke right into our faces. Then the guard reaches in again, and again, and yet again. Three more people come out of this tiny space, an absolutely impossible number emerging from under this car—four people in all—a second young man and two girls probably in their teens. They have no shoes, no IDs or bags of any kind, just bodies, scarcely alive, from the looks of them. Who knows how long they’ve been stuck in traffic inside this wooden box? Angelica seems desensitized by the whole thing.
ANGELICA DECIMA: The first time I found somebody in the trunk, I think I was more nervous than the driver. I mean, you’re looking for it, but it’s shocking, the first time you actually find people in the trunk.
RUXANDRA GUIDI: I can imagine. This is my first time seeing someone in a trunk, and I feel nothing else but helplessness, shame and sadness. I mean, I know this happens every day at the border, for many years, but it’s different when you see it.
ANGELICA DECIMA: Oftentimes when people have been in the trunks of a vehicle, especially on a hot day in the summertime, especially, oftentimes they can be in that vehicle for hours at a time. And they come in kind of looking like these folks.
RUXANDRA GUIDI: These folks are looking tired, hot, sweaty, dehydrated. Sometimes, Angelica tells me, they’re pulled out unconscious. Though I try, of course, I’m not allowed to talk to the girls and boys who have just been taken from the coffin compartment. They’re lined up on the curb, still shoeless, and they won’t meet my gaze. Moments later, they’re taken away.
I’ve worked on the border, on and off, for years, long enough to know that as soon as they’re sent right back, they’ll pool all their energy and whatever little money they can get into crossing again. And because I’ve talked to so many people on this side, men and women who have made the same crossing, I know this, too: If they keep trying, they’re likely to make it.
AMY GOODMAN: That was producer Ruxandra Guidi of the new podcast, Radio Ambulante. While the show’s podcasts are in Spanish, they occasionally produce stories in English.
For more, we’re joined by its co-founder and executive producer, Daniel Alarcón, also an acclaimed author. His most recent novel is Lost City Radio. His next novel, due out this fall, At Night We Walk in Circles. He is a fellow in the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley School of Journalism.
We welcome you to Democracy Now!
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. It is hard to put down Lost City Radio. And your—I attended your event here in New York as you unveiled Radio Ambulante. Explain, first, why “Ambulante.”
DANIEL ALARCÓN: An ambulante is a kind of a street vendor. It’s one who pushes a cart, someone who’s out on the streets selling. There’s a lot of things about the ambulante that we feel is symbolic and representative of the Latino experience. One, you see them in every Latin American city and in every American city that has a sizable Latino population. For us, el ambulante is dynamic, is a go-getter, you know, is on the streets, hears the stories of his neighborhood and of his people. And so, when we were trying to think of a name, we went through maybe 300 names. That was one the really difficult parts of the process, just trying to—what you’re going to name your baby.
AMY GOODMAN: Which you’re about to have.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Which I’m about to have.
AMY GOODMAN: Your first baby.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Yeah, so my first baby would be Radio Ambulante, my second baby. And we—it was a terrible process. But when we hit on ambulante and the idea of this, you know, dynamic figure in the community who doesn’t take no for an answer—you know, you don’t find work, you make work—we really liked that. And we tried to translate it to like “Radio on the Move” also, you know, because he’s always out there.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the—and the idea of just being able to tell the stories by radio, especially the—that particular medium, why you think it’s so important to get the stories out that way?
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Well, Latinos listen to so much radio. You know, radio is a part of Latin American life. It’s part of—you know, in every household, the radio is on all the time. And also, the new technologies have made radio—kind of given radio a new life. You know, used to be, if you didn’t hear it live, it was gone. And now radio is archivable and searchable. We can, you know, draw sounds from all over the world and then push them back out. So we’ve been listened to in 120 countries. You know, I can look on the analytics of my website and see that we’ve got downloads from all over the world. And that’s very exciting. And, you know, being a writer, coming from the world of literature, radio is what most closely approximates the experience of reading, the experience of having an author and a voice whispering in your year. So, the intimacy of radio is something that’s pretty unparalleled.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about your novel, Lost City Radio, how that fits in.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Well, I see now that it fits in, you know? I think—you know, my family is a radio family. My father was a radio announcer in his youth, before he, you know, went on to do other things. I have uncles and cousins who have worked in radios all over Peru. And for me, you know, I sort of became obsessed with one program called Busca Personas, People Finders, in Peru, that was basically a way—it was like a public bulletin board, radio bulletin board, every Sunday night for people to find their missing loved ones. And it struck me as kind of a symptom of these growing Latin American cities—economic dislocation, political violence, you know, all these forces that are moving people into these giant urban centers where they might not be able to connect with their families and loved ones. And I just took that show and created a universe around it.
AMY GOODMAN: This woman who becomes the voice of a nation, and particularly around the disappeared.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Particularly around the disappeared, yes, in one particular story. The novel opens when a boy named Victor, who’s around 11 years old, shows up at the radio station, and he has a list of all the people who have gone missing from his village. And there’s one particular name on that list that shocks her. And so, the story is really how did that name wind up on that list. And in the present tense, it’s maybe a day and a half, two days with the woman and the boy. But to tell the story of how the name wound up on that list, we have to go back and tell the history of the war itself.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to ask you, in terms of the—your decision to get involved in this project and the emphasis on the—on the border itself, because—
AMY GOODMAN: But before we do that, if we could take a break, and then we will introduce our next guest, and perhaps we’ll do it through her story, through her story on radio. We’ll let you know her name when we come back. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we continue our look at Radio Ambulante. Let’s turn to a radio report by our next guest, Annie Correal, who will be joining Daniel Alarcón. In this piece, she talks about how her father was kidnapped in Colombia by members of the FARC in 1999. He was held in the jungle for nine months, later rescued in a military raid. There’s a radio show there called Voices of Kidnapping that broadcasts to people who go missing. Annie’s family used to go on the show every week to speak to their father. Ten years later, she and her father returned to Colombia to produce this piece about his story. This clip picks up the story at the point when they arrive at the spot on the road where he was kidnapped.
JAIME CORREAL: Right where I’m standing, the guy came from behind that post, and he came with a gun up, was screaming, “Police! Police!” I tried to get into the traffic, and I couldn’t get in because it was bumper to bumper. And that’s when they hit the window, and they pulled me out, and they threw me in the back seat with two guys with a weapon.
ANNIE CORREAL: Back then, Colombia was the kidnapping capital of the world. At the peak of the kidnapping craze, there were around 3,000 people kidnapped a year. That’s like eight people a day. Carjackings happen in Bogota all the time and in plain view, like my dad’s.
JAIME CORREAL: There it is. You know, I had in my mind that it was not so close to the road, but it’s right there.
ANNIE CORREAL: Is that the first time you’ve been back to that spot?
JAIME CORREAL: Uh-huh, yeah.
ANNIE CORREAL: As we sat at the spot where it happened, he said if he had taken a left, it would have taken him 20 minutes to get home.
JAIME CORREAL: Instead, it took me eight-and-a-half months, 265 days.
ANNIE CORREAL: While my dad was kidnapped, I was in the States, but my stepmom, Sammy, used to call into the radio show, Voices of Kidnapping, and try to get word out from our family. And some of our messages actually got through. When my dad was rescued eight-and-a-half months later, he told us he had had a radio and had listened for us obsessively.
JAIME CORREAL: It was a black machine. I don’t know. It was—it wasn’t a brand name that everybody knows. It was something like Cauliflower, OK? I mean, it was as valuable as my cigarettes, OK? It’s something I would wrap really well with my clothes, so it wouldn’t get hurt, it wouldn’t get damaged.
ANNIE CORREAL: Although it was the military that ultimately got my dad out of the jungle, I think it was that radio that actually saved his life. A guard gave it to him at the first camp, and he held onto it for most of his kidnapping. Radios aren’t officially allowed, but they’re passed around as contraband, and guards usually turn a blind eye. For the first six months he was held captive by the FARC, my dad was held alone. The radio was his only companion.
JAIME CORREAL: It’s really an exercise of patience to be awake for 12 hours, 13 hours and not being able to do anything.
ANNIE CORREAL: So, when he first heard my stepmom, Sammy, talking to him over the radio, it was like a miracle.
JAIME CORREAL: You know, it was like 6:20 in the morning. I was laying in bed with my radio. It said, “This is a message for Jaime Correal.” I mean, my heart stopped. I said,
Wow!” She said, “Your kids are fine. Hold up. Pray.” You know, all the encouraging words they can give you. So, from then on, that was my lifeline.
ANNIE CORREAL: My dad would stay up all night listening to the show. But it wasn’t easy.
JAIME CORREAL: A lot of times you lose the station because actually you’re always deep in the jungle and there’s a lot of clouds, and then you just go very softly trying to locate it again. And then you don’t want to move the radio, so you end up in these awkward positions and just listening. You know, when they call your name, when they mention your name, you just—your heart always pounds.
ANNIE CORREAL: This is a radio message from my family recorded 10 years ago when my dad was held captive. My stepmom made this tape to send to the radio station, hoping he would hear it, wherever he was. She calls him by his nickname, “Lumpy.”
She chose one of her favorite love songs to mix with the radio message. She says every time she hears it, she thinks of him intensely. She asks if he can imagine how much they’re going to enjoy making up for lost time.
Then she introduces my little sister. My little sister says she hopes he comes back soon safe and sound and that he’ll be very, very, very hungry, because they’ll have his favorite, eggs and sausage, waiting for him.
Then my brother comes on. He says he’s the goalie on the school soccer team, and he’s blocked a lot of shots. Then he says he loves him and misses him.
My stepmom says that she’s waiting for him, that she’ll always wait for him and he’s the love of her life, and she can’t wait to pick up where they left off in November.
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from “Kidnap Radio,” produced for Transom Radio and also featured on This American Life. It’s by our guest, Annie Correal. Her father was released after nine months, but thousands were never reunited with their families. In this piece, she goes on to talk more about their struggles. We are also joined by Daniel Alarcón, who is the founder and executive producer of Radio Ambulante. Welcome, both. Juan?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Annie, in that piece, obviously, most Americans are not aware of the enormous impact of the continuing wars in Colombia, not only the civil war, but the drug wars of the ’80s and ’90s, and the impact on Colombian life, that so many Colombians who have come here to the United States were, in essence, fleeing what was going on in their own country.
ANNIE CORREAL: That’s right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about the—your hope to get these stories out here in the United States?
ANNIE CORREAL: Well, what we just listened to was my first radio story. And it did have a much greater ripple effect than anything that I had done before. It was actually through that radio piece that I was connected with Daniel and his partner, Carolina, and they said, you know, “Let’s make a radio program that can reach this enormous population.” But I think we also felt that it wasn’t just something that we wanted to make for the Spanish-speaking population, but also something that would represent these really fascinating, rich stories of, like you said, so many immigrants who have come here that often go untold, the reasons for why they are here, for why they’ve left their home countries, that it’s not always pull, sometimes it’s push, whether natural disaster or political violence. So, I think that there’s just no lack of stories to be told.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about discovering Annie and how that so remarkably resonated with Lost City Radio and your project, Daniel.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Yeah, it’s uncanny. It’s uncanny. I was listening to the piece, and I was just—the echoes between my novel and Annie’s piece are really tremendous. And what happened was that so many people heard her story on This American Life, when it was featured there, and sent the link to me. And I think after they heard your piece, many people sent her my novel. And my wife, Carolina, who’s the executive producer of Ambulante, she heard Annie’s piece and had been in touch with Annie, because she’s Colombian, as well. And it was based on that. When Carolina and I finally said, “OK, we really want to make this happen,” we—one of the first people we contacted was Annie.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s play a part of a piece from Radio Ambulante called “The Ballad of Daniel D. Portado.” It visits—it revisits the political debate in California in 1994 over Prop. 187, which would have blocked undocumented immigrants from access to healthcare or education. A cartoonist named Lalo Alcaraz decided to make up a name and a character to join the debate over his name. His name, again, Daniel D. Portado. Alcaraz told his story to Nancy López. This is a clip from her report.
LALO ALCARAZ: I remember the day. In the summer, I was driving my friend Esteban Zul to the airport, because he lived in the Bay Area. I could feel in the pit of my stomach, I was—we were talking about Prop. 187 and how awful it was and all the hate that it generated and legitimized to some people and—
NANCY LÓPEZ: He thought, it’s as if the writers of the proposition wanted to make California so unwelcoming for immigrants that they would leave the U.S. on their own. Lalo and his friend Esteban decided to roll with this idea. First they came up with a fake group called Hispanics for Wilson. The group was so militant, its members were willing to deport themselves.
LALO ALCARAZ: And that’s where self-deportation, the concept, was born.
NANCY LÓPEZ: That’s also how the fake leader of this organization was born.
LALO ALCARAZ: We had to come up with a name for the leader of this group. And I don’t know how it came to me, but this guy was—had to be so staunchly anti-himself, you know, a self-hating, right-wing Republican, you know, like Herman Cain or someone like that, that his very name had to say—state the obvious, that he was deported, Daniel D. Portado.
NANCY LÓPEZ: They wrote a fake press release calling for the most outrageous things they could think of—the creation of self-deportation centers, so that all Hispanics return to their country of origin; they denounced Mexican food as biological weapons.
LALO ALCARAZ: We had the 10K Border Fun Run into Mexico, where we’d give you a free pair of tennis shoes, but as long as you don’t come back.
NANCY LÓPEZ: The press release went on to pledge that the group, Hispanics for Wilson, would retrain white-collar workers in agricultural, restaurant and hotel maintenance arts, once all illegal immigrants were successfully removed from the country. They listed Dr. Daniel D. Portado, or Daniel D. Portado, as a contact person. And they sent this fake press release out to real news agencies all across the state. It was dated September 16, 1994, coincidentally or not, the anniversary of Mexico’s Independence Day.
AMY GOODMAN: Part of a Radio Ambulante podcast, the piece called “The Ballad of Daniel D. Portado,” featuring the cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And that, of course, is where Mitt Romney got his idea about self-deportation.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Absolutely, absolutely. And that’s the whole joke, like you start with an outrageous idea to make fun of some, you know, crazy, right-wing extremists, and then they make it part of their platform.
AMY GOODMAN: So, where are you headed with this, Daniel? You’re a great novelist. You’re now doing this radio podcast and radio show, hoping to do it monthly.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Mm-hmm, yeah. We produced our first season, ended in December. We’ve done two live shows on the West Coast. We just did one in New York. We’ve trained journalists in six countries. And we’re starting our new season in March, going to do a story a month. We’ve got stories on human trafficking through Argentina. We’ve got stories on a community afflicted with blindness in Peru. We’ve got stories about a murder case in the Central Valley. We’ve got stories from New York, stories from Florida, from Mexico, from Central America.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I have to cut you off here, but I’m happy that this is going to go on, and we’ll be reporting on what you’re doing. Thanks so much.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Daniel Alarcón, executive producer of Radio Ambulante, and Annie Correal, a producer and consulting editor with the program.