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Radio show delivers indigenous languages to Sonoma County airwaves

Mayra Lopez
Written by Mayra Lopez

It began with music, sounds from indigenous lands that served as a connection to home.

“The language is almost like poetry to those who don’t understand it,” says Maribel Merino, one of three volunteers who hosts Radio Autóctona Indigenista, a Santa Rosa radio show produced entirely in indigenous languages.

“Sometimes people’s minds are tired and we try to put good music, indigenous and traditional sounds so that they can meditate a little,” Merino added.

She, along with co-hosts Gervacio Peña López and Xulio Soriano launched the show in August broadcasting out of KBBF radio station. The show not only focuses on Mexican indigenous languages but Central and Southern American languages as well.

The journey into creating a show began when Soriano and Merino attended a training on producing radio. As members of indigenous communities, they saw a need for representation in media and asked Peña Lopez to collaborate. “I’ve always dreamed of having our own show in our language, created by us,” said Peña López. “It’s very different when someone interprets your ideas.”

Radio Autóctona Indigenista joins a small group of radio shows in the United States who speak in Indigenous languages, such as “Radio Indígena”, based in Oxnard, launched in 2014. Merino and Peña López manage the show in their first languages, Triqui and Mixteco, and also translate information from Spanish.

Although there are Mexican and Central American indigenous communities in Sonoma County, it is not known exactly how many there are. According to the hosts, this is because of several factors, including a sense of shame. “For every indigenous person, there are maybe 10-20 behind them. We are people who are willing to be out there, but many aren’t ready to be out,” Soriano said.

They estimate they know of four Mixteco families in Santa Rosa, around six Triqui families in Healdsburg, and have heard about Mayan and Chatino community members. Even Merino, a member of the Triqui community, has had difficulty connecting to others. “I’ve encountered some Triqui people at Camacho Market (in Santa Rosa). They were talking in our language, and when I went to talk to them, they switched and began speaking in Spanish,” she recalled.

“One of our hopes is that young people rescue our culture and traditions because right now a lot of young people are ashamed about being indigenous. They will say that they are Latino, not indigenous,” she said.

Another issue is isolation. “When our people arrive, there is no trust in connecting with others, even with the Latino or Hispanic community. This happened to me when I arrived,” shared Peña López.

Because indigenous languages cannot be studied in school and are kept alive through lineage, there’s an incredible value in knowing them, Soriano said.

Radio Autóctona Indigenista volunteers broadcast in their native Mexican language through 89.1 FM in Santa Rosa. Ricardo Ibarra / La Prensa Sonoma

Peña López added that “they hear our language and they say it is a dialect. The reality is that it is an original language, from the past.”

Throughout the 2017 Tubbs fires and the recent Kincade fires, the Radio Autóctona Indigenista hosts relayed vital evacuation information in both Spanish and indigenous languages, extending the hours of the show to be able to give information in real-time. They also visited numerous evacuation sites to provide translation and resources to community members. “Our comrade wore her huipil because that was the only way they recognized her as part of the community,” said Peña López.

The recent fires brought to light the need for resources and representation of indigenous communities all the time, not just in a state of emergency. “We have the right to see indigenous languages everywhere on local television, Univision and Telemundo. Not just for 5 seconds on Día de Los Muertos,” Soriano elaborated.

Through the show, they have become advocates in the community. They often collaborate with local community organizations to provide their translation services. “We don’t wait for people to come to us, we got out and identify the need too,” said Peña López.

From left: Maribel Merino, Fausto Guzmán, Gervacio Peña, Ricarda Martínez and Yolanda Ramírez broadcast Radio Autóctona Indigenista through KBBF. Ricardo Ibarra / La Prensa Sonoma

They’re using their show to encourage indigenous people to participate in the 2020 Census. They launched a campaign called “Indigenous Census 2020”, which informs listeners about the upcoming census and its importance. “It’s a big problem because we don’t know how many of us there are,” said Soriano.

They feel like they are supporting people emotionally too through their radio show. “Speaking an indigenous language means a lot for some people. It is not just about translating information. We are also healing the person who may have been humiliated at school,” said Soriano. “We have had people who many years ago didn’t want their kids to learn their languages and who now regret that sentiment and are teaching it.”

Merino, Peña López and Soriano have stepped in to create a support system and safe space for a unique population. “I have dreamed of a show like this and now it is a reality,” said Peña López.

Radio Autóctona Indigenista airs every Tuesday, 6-7 pm on KBBF 89.1 FM. You can find more information about the show on Facebook.

[Versión en español]

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Reach La Prensa Sonoma’s Editor Ricardo Ibarra at 707-526-8501 or email ricardo.ibarra@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ricardibarra.

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