[lg policy] Fresno (Calif.): Voice That Sounds Like Home Welcomes Mexico ’s Outsiders

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Tue Jun 9 16:04:13 UTC 2009

June 9, 2009
Fresno Journal
Voice That Sounds Like Home Welcomes Mexico’s Outsiders
FRESNO, Calif. — The voice trembled with anguish.

“Please,” Esmeralda Santiago pleaded, calling into a radio show here
aimed at the poorest of Mexico’s emigrants, indigenous people from the
southern state of Oaxaca. “This is for Sylvia Santiago. Please, if you
can hear us, call. Our mother is worried because we have not talked
with you in a while.” Filemón López, the host of the show, listened
and nodded. He had heard such heartache before. The woman spoke first
in Spanish and then repeated her plea — breaking down in sobs — in
Triqui, one of Oaxaca’s indigenous languages.

“When there is no communication,” Mr. López, himself a legal immigrant
who once worked the fields, said in a break, “it causes such sadness.”
On this recent Sunday, there were certainly happier moments on “La
Hora Mixteca” (The Mixtec Hour), Mr. López’s show, which is aimed
primarily at Mixtec (pronounced MEESE-teck) Indians but draws
listeners from other groups in the United States and, via satellite
link, in Oaxaca, too.

Soledad Martinez of Fresno wished her mother, sister, brother, cousin
— the list went on — a happy day down in Oaxaca. José Ramos of Clovis,
Calif., called to invite people to a ballgame in that small farming
town. Cesar Cipriano requested a particular corrido, a kind of Mexican

They all turned to Mr. López, who, through the show, serves as an
ambassador of sorts, in good times and bad, to a community that keeps
its distance from the mainstream.

The Mixtecs — there are an estimated 150,000 of them in California —
occupy the lowest rungs on the Latino immigrant pecking order, mocked
for their rural ways, their heavily accented Spanish or inability to
speak it, and their low level of education. They snare the most
back-breaking jobs here in the agriculture-rich Central Valley —
picking fruit and vegetables — and often have difficulty moving up.

They face exploitation and discrimination in housing and employment,
and are wary of strangers, a legacy, scholars say, of the relative
isolation of their villages in Mexico and history of abuse by
outsiders there.

Even in an age of cellphones and online social networks, Mr. López’s
radio show has endured since its first broadcast in 1995, picking up
its 12th station in the United States a few months ago, in Santa
Barbara County. The show is broadcast from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every
Sunday on Radio Bilingüe, the only Spanish-language public radio
network in the United States, and also streams on the Internet.

“ ‘La Hora Mixteca’ is very important,” said Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, a
Mixtec who is project director at the Center for Labor Research and
Education at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“It is like a replica of the talk shows in Oaxaca where you have a
charismatic D.J. who combines a strong personality with lectures on
culture and who we are,” Mr. Rivera-Salgado added. “This is really
old-fashioned radio that has the special effect of making people feel
they are part of this close-knit community and speaking in their

With so few shows of any kind in Mexico’s indigenous languages, Mr.
López makes his an eclectic mix of education and entertainment.

Amid the greetings on a recent show, Mr. López played music from his
20 storage cases of CDs, the fruits of a lifetime of collecting;
interviewed health care workers about the importance of good child
development; paid homage to an Indian activist killed a few years ago
in Mexico; and dished out practical advice — all while swinging
effortlessly between Spanish and Mixteco.

“Drink a lot of water — the temperature is rising fast out there,”
Juan Santiago, his engineer and de facto co-host, who is a Zapotec,
said on a recent morning as the mercury edged past 100 degrees.

“Yes, you have to be careful, men,” Mr. López added, and then, in
Mixteco, reminded his listeners about the dangers of heat stroke, a
particular concern for indigenous workers who dominate field jobs.

The Oaxacan Indians, mistrustful of doctors, rely heavily on home
remedies and refrain from seeking treatment of serious illness or

That problem has led Mr. López to spearhead a project in which Oaxacan
doctors give medical advice in Mixteco by videoconference to
immigrants at clinics in the Central Valley. The Oaxacan government is
collaborating on the project, and the Center for Reducing Health
Disparities at the University of California, Davis, Health System is
the lead organizer.

“We consider this population to have among the least access to care in
California,” said Dr. Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, the center’s director.
“People are not aware of services, where to receive services.
Transportation is an issue. When services are available, they are not
culturally or linguistically appropriate for them.”

Mr. López knows well the immigrant experience, arriving in the United
States from Oaxaca almost 30 years ago to pick oranges in Florida,
cotton in Arizona and finally grapes in California.

He eventually moved on to factory work and became a legal resident
under the amnesty provision of the 1986 immigration bill. With other
Mixtecs, he formed a grass-roots group to advocate for his
compatriots, leading to volunteer work for Radio Bilingüe, then a job
there and eventually the position as host of “La Hora Mixteca.”

While his voice and name are familiar to many Mixtecs, Mr. López goes
unrecognized around the farming hamlets near his home — until he

Stopping at a shopping center one recent morning, he met Raquel
Rosales, 28, who was selling CDs. She said she appreciated the touch
of home his show delivers.

“I speak Spanish,” Ms. Rosales said, “but I prefer to listen in
Mixteco and hear the music from back home. This is the only way I can
hear the news.”

Mr. López handed her a card. “Call if you want to send a greeting
home,” he said, as she eagerly accepted it.

“That is what I can do,” he said, getting back in his truck. “I may
not have work for them, but I can offer a bridge home.”

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