Community Radio: Fighting for Indigenous Rights

After a 4 hour ride being jostled around in multiple chicken buses through the winding mountains of the country side, Daniel and I arrived in Xela (also known as Quetzaltenango) to explore the second largest city in Guatemala and utilize our weekend off from Semillero. We were hosted by Sanjay, a friend we met here from the University of Michigan, who is working in Xela with a community radio station that we wanted to visit.

We met Alberto "Tino" Ramirez Recinos, the founder of the community radio station and an ex-guerillero. He is a charming and well-spoken man, eager to share his story, passion, and knowledge. His community radio station, “Mujb’ ab’l yol” (which means meeting place of expression in the Mayan language of Mam) is one of the most successful in Guatemala. The radio station strives to foster political awareness, female empowerment, environmental awareness, and other progressive issues. The station gives a voice to those in the minority in the radio community—young adults, women, and the indigenous—any of whom are welcome to express their ideas and fuel a communal discourse on important issues over the air. The station broadcasts programs in Mayan languages in order to preserve, educate, and engage the indigenous community, which has significantly diminished due to 500 years of colonization, repression, and 36 years of civil war that saw the targeted deaths of 200,000 Mayans. The community radio reaches out to the marginalized community, providing accessible information and education in withering indigenous languages.

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Though Mujb’ ab’l yol has developed significantly, it has not been without difficulty because community radio in Guatemala is illegal. Only government-controlled and commercial stations (the most popular ones owned by Remigio Angel Gonzales, a Mexican who lives in Miami, FL who has been known to give free airtime for right-wing political propaganda) are recognized as legal. With their political propaganda and reggaeton music, these commercial stations lack engaging or educational content and neglect the rural indigenous majority of Guatemala.

The Peace Accords that ended the war in 1996 called for the government's support of community radio stations that provide rural communities with programs in their Mayan language. However, the government constructed a bidding process for bandwidth frequencies that made their purchase unaffordable for indigenous groups. So people who couldn’t afford legal stations set up what the government calls “pirate” stations. Their “pirate” status has subjected them to harassment, raids, and imprisonment by the local governments.

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During our visit to the station, we attended a workshop with Tino, and about 20 young radio show hosts ranging from ages 10 to 22, which was specifically arranged to prepare for the UN’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous People (August 9) to petition members of congress to legalize community radio. So next week Daniel and I are going in to Guatemala city with the radio station  to participate in the rally.

It was wonderful to discover such a progressive project and meet the empowered women, indigenous people, and young adults uniting through the community radio!

So how does this connect to Semillero? Though almost all the students at Semillero can speak Spanish, many of them also speak an indigenous language called Kaqchikel. And once in a while some students filter into Semillero that only speak their indigenous language. So it’s exciting to see both sides of it— the community radio station and the people they strive to reach. One little girl, Maria, is very proud of her ability to speak Kaqchikel. But her older sister, Petrona, is embarrassed about it, claiming that she can’t speak it when she really can. This is not surprising considering that Mayan culture is marginalized by main stream, westernized culture. But hopefully, with the perseverance of projects like Mujb' ab’l yol, Mayan language and culture will not be considered weird" or primitive, but instead something to embrace.

Though next week is my last week in Guatemala (hard to believe—it’s gone by so quickly!), I anticipate it will be packed up to the very last minute. Upcoming events on the agenda.  

  • This Saturday I will be volunteering for a children's music festival in Antigua. Daniel and I are hoping to bring some Semillero students from Santa Ana to the festival!   
  • Monday and Tuesday will be the Indigenous Rights rally with the radio station. 

So much to do but just enough time! Will write back with updates on the exciting things to come.