Translating the pandemic: Bay Area radio hosts broadcast in indigenous languages

Stay tuned to North Bay radio station KBBF 89.1 after one of its English-language coronavirus-related broadcasts and you'll also hear a version in Spanish. And Mixteco, and Triqui and Chatino.

Despite the ubiquity of COVID-19 coverage in news media, there are still many indigenous people in the U.S. from Mexico and Central America who are left in the dark about important health matters because they speak minimal English or Spanish. Even though many languages that are indigenous to Southern Mexico are now endangered, an estimated one-third of California's farm workers speak at least one.

Multilingual DJs at some California radio stations fill these neglected news niches by broadcasting in multiple languages, often providing community-specific information that mainstream outlets miss. Santa Rosa-based KBBF has broadcast in English and Spanish across Northern California for almost 50 years but aired its first regular indigenous language programs during the 2017 Kincade fires as a way to connect with at-risk Mexican immigrants who did not speak either language.

That crisis has readied the station for the coronavirus. One of its two indigenous-focused shows is Radio Autóctona Indigenista, which airs from 6 to 7 p.m. on Tuesday evenings. Gervacio Peña López, one of the show's four hosts, said there are many migrant workers in Sonoma County who can only speak in their first, native language.

"Some understand the basics of Spanish, but not enough to receive all the information when there is a health risk or a real emergency," López said. López and co-host Xulio Soriano speak Mixteco on the show; Maribel Merino and Fausto Gusman speak Triqui.

The four hosts explain where listeners can receive help with food insecurity, how rent rules are changing and how mothers can find care for their kids while they're in virtual classes. Now, as counties roll back stay-at-home restrictions, they will provide guidelines for the many indigenous Latinos working outdoor jobs.

Mixteco, Triqui and Chatino originate in the Oaxacan region of Mexico. Peña said it’s hard to know how many indigenous Mixteco or Triqui-speakers reside in the Bay Area, partly because of inaccurate Census counts — a problem community organizers are trying to fix with aggressive Census 2020 campaigning.

“We know that there are communities here in the area. We don’t know exactly how many, but if there is one family and we can serve them and protect them, it’s like saving a life,” López said.

Apart from these weekly shows, the hosts also translate some regularly-scheduled programming into Mixteco and Triqui, including the Spanish-language town halls Sonoma County has been hosting on KBBF each week, said County Communications and Engagement Coordinator Melissa Valle.

“We always make it a focus to include KBBF to close some gaps that we might be seeing,” said Valle. “People might not call 2-1-1 — they might want to call the radio station directly to get information.”

Conversely, some indigenous communities without local radio stations may struggle to get information in real time. Henry Sales is a native Maya Mam, a people with origins in the highlands of Guatemala. He has spearheaded census outreach efforts in Oakland to ensure that indigenous people are counted this year and has been a guest on Radio Autóctona Indigenista, where he spoke in Mam and Spanish.

By Sales’s estimates, there are approximately 10,000 Mam people in Oakland, many of whom do not know Spanish. While KBBF can be streamed online from anywhere, its focus is not primarily the Oakland community and it does not frequently broadcast in Mam.

Sales has seen how the dearth of accessible information has impacted people during the pandemic firsthand. Even as mainstream news outlets advised viewers who had mild coronavirus symptoms to stay away from hospitals, some Mam-speaking people were not aware of the restrictions and went anyway. Many were turned away.

“Maybe 80% of my community, they don’t get that information. If we could have something weekly, or get another local radio station,” they could stay more up to date with coronavirus PSAs and related financial information, he said.

Every Saturday at a local church while giving out food, Sales passes on information about the virus to other Mam. Along with a small team of multilingual volunteers, he has also helped people sign up for unemployment.

Three hundred fifty miles south in Ventura County, Radio Indígena 94.1 broadcasts in Mixteco, Zapoteco, Purepecha and Spanish to the county’s 20,000-plus indigenous Latino population. A major focus of the station’s programming during the pandemic has been informing listeners of their rights as “essential workers,” as well as their right to medical interpreters in hospitals.

“Our offices are closed, but people are calling our team through their cell phone numbers,” said station director Arcenio López.

The hosts of Radio Autóctona Indigenista have also given out their personal phone numbers for emergencies or questions. KBBF board president Alicia Sanchez said she hopes KBBF can be a microphone for day laborers, who are often voiceless.

“The most affected for me right now are the farmworkers,” she said.

Not all indigenous radio stations broadcast in indigenous languages, and not all broadcast to Latinos. KGUA 88.3 in Gualala and KOGI-LP 97.7 in Big Pine both transmit in English. KGUA serves the Native American communities in Mendocino County and KOGI speaks to the Big Pine Paiute Tribe on the Big Pine Reservation. KGUA also has weekly programs in Spanish. Both are part of the Native Public Media network, an organization that helps license indigenous radio stations and train broadcasters.

“Having some knowledge about the nuance of their own communities is one of the huge factors for our broadcasters,” said Loris Taylor, president of Native Public Media. “In an emergency, hyperlocalism is huge.”

Bacock and KGUA owner-manager Peggy Berryhill both said the need for hyperlocal reporting is compounded by the added health risks indigenous communities face that can make the toll of the virus more severe, including diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

There are also additional challenges to reservation-based living, as the rapid spread of the virus across the Navajo Nation has already shown. Recently, several people living on the Round Valley Reservation in Mendocino County contracted the disease after a member of the tribe visited San Francisco.

“It has been difficult within our culture having to socially distance because our culture is not about being separated, but being together,” Bacock said. “And within Native communities, our home lives are such that we have multiple generations within our homes. So it becomes more important, and yet more difficult, to protect our elders.”

Berryhill, like Sanchez, recalls the Kincade Fires as a pivotal moment for KGUA. Now more than ever, she said, people are turning to the station during crisis.

“Technically, we are first responders,” Berryhill said. “This is where people come to get information.”

Sabine Poux is a senior at Middlebury College and the editor of The Middlebury Campus. Email: spoux@middlebury.edu | Twitter: @sabinepoux

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