Thursday, October 16, 2008

Radio Campesina: Politicizing the airwaves

Although most would agree that information about welfare and housing grants should be available to Spanish-speakers, other types of information can quickly become controversial. When Radio Campesina went on air in 1983, the Associated Press carried an article headlined, “Growers fear farmworker radio station’s newscast may become ‘propaganda tool.’” General manager Victor Aleman said, “Our purpose is to inform, not to agitate or manipulate. Farmworkers are the most exploited and abused people and, at times, the most misinformed.” It was pointed out in another article that growers often made use of the media. Their ability to speak English and reporters’ inability to speak Spanish has long guaranteed that they have disproportionately influenced press coverage of owner/worker conflict. Newspapers sold largely to middle-class whites have not felt the need to cover issues of importance to farmworkers, except as they affect white grower interests. The growers have also been able control farmworkers by limiting their access to information and blackmailing them with threat of deportation.

One of the reasons that growers were upset in 1983 was because Radio Campesina undermined their monopoly on information flow and threatened the status quo. UFW secretary-treasurer Pete Velasco said at the station’s dedication, “The good Lord has given us blessings so that today we are not slaves. But we must continue struggling. One of the best, best dreams that we had is this radio station Campesina. Now with this radio station we can communicate from south to north, from east to west: No longer can farmworkers be denied their rights. If our rights are denied, Radio Campesina will tell all of you. [burst of applause] If Radio Campesina says boycott and huelga (strike), we boycott and huelga.” The station planned to broadcast news programs produced at union headquarters on topics that were ignored or slanted by mainstream media, also covering some of the history of the farmworker movement.

The realization of the station was long coming; two decades before, farmworkers had voted to organize a radio station “that would focus on their lives and interests.” Radio had been one way the United Farmworkers spread their message during the initial farmworker organizing in Delano in 1965, both to people working in the U.S. and telling people in Mexico not to come up and work as scabs. KGST covered the developments over the late 1960s as news, not making a statement in favor or against the strikers. “We didn’t get into political things at all. We would carry it as a news item. [The farmworker organizing] was very controversial. Why should we [get involved]? Just because we were a Spanish-language station? To us, that wasn’t enough. We were using the public airwaves of this country. We had to watch our step,” said Ben Gutierrez.

His fears were not unfounded. Pedro Gonzalez, a popular Los Angeles radio broker during the 1920s and 1930s, who hobnobbed with top city and police department officials, ended up on the wrong side of the District Attorney when he started using his radio program to criticize police department treatment of Mexicans. The D.A. Buron Fitts believed only English should be heard on the air and tried unsuccessfully to get the federal authorities to rescind Gonzalez’s license. In 1934, Fitts framed him for rape and Gonzalez was sentenced to 50 years at San Quentin prison. He was released six years later and deported to Mexico after huge protests and the appeals of two Mexican presidents. Since the Depression, American attitudes toward Mexican immigrants have generally improved, although that legacy remains and anti-foreigner sentiment generally swells again in times of crisis.

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