For farm workers who speak indigenous languages, a new radio station offers a signal

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On a Wednesday afternoon, 40-year-old Leticia Galicia sat behind a microphone and began her live broadcast on Radio Indigena. She played music, talked about mental health and gave advice to victims of domestic violence.

“The hardest part is to talk in front of the microphone and speak with confidence so that people listening believe what I’m saying,” said Galicia, who moved to Oxnard from Oaxaca, Mexico five years ago.

The show was broadcast entirely in Mixteco, an indigenous Mexican language.

Leticia Galicia in the Radio Indigena studio. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW)

Mixteco and Zapoteco are widely spoken in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. As people from the region have made their way to Ventura County to work on farms, they’ve brought the language with them. It’s estimated that 20,000 Oxnard residents speak an indigenous Mexican language. Many of them never learned Spanish, let alone English.

“Not being able to communicate limits you a lot,” said Arcenio Lopez, president of the Mixteco Indigenous Community Organizing Project (MICOP) in Oxnard. “There’s a lot of challenges you face, from having limited access to healthcare to limited access to legal services or other resources.”

His organization started the radio station this year as a way to battle social isolation and confusion. Inspired by a bilingual station in Fresno that’s been around since 1977, MICOP raised money for a transmitter and Radio Indigena hit the FM airwaves in March.

Arcenio Lopez, the president of the Mixteco Indigenous Community Organizing Project (MICOP) in Oxnard. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW)

More than half of the 35 community DJs are farm workers. They’re on the air over 50 hours a week in Spanish, Mixteco and Zapoteco.

“Most of them didn’t know how to use a computer,” said Edgar Vicente, who handles operations for the station. “Teaching them was a big challenge, but I think we’re helping to construct their self esteem and maybe helping them get a better job.”

Edgar Vicente trained the DJs, and is on call whenever there’s a technical issue. He promotes the station by going out to farm fields in the morning with coffee and talking with the workers. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW)

The topic getting the most attention on air has been immigration policy. The station plays Public Service Announcements that tell listeners what to do if Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents knock on their door. It also dispels immigration rumors.

Felix Vasquez works on a local farm, and listens in the field while picking fruit.

“This radio station helps people that only speak Mixteco, because once we start hearing information about ICE, we start feeling a little more comfortable, because we’re not the ones being targeted,” he said, referring to recent ICE arrests in the region, which primarily targeted criminals.

(Kathryn Barnes/KCRW)
Felix Vasquez speaks only Mixteco, and said the station makes him proud of his language. (Jonathan Bastian/KCRW)

Vasquez said the station has also helped boost his confidence. Mixteco speakers are often ridiculed by other Mexicans who call them derogatory names like “Indito,” meaning “little Indian.” 

“I listen to it with my friends, and we started speaking Mixteco, which is something we didn’t do before because we were embarrassed and didn’t want to be discriminated [against].” said Vasquez.  “Now, I feel proud of speaking Mixteco with my friends. I no longer feel discriminated.”

Radio Indigena reaches at least 3,000 listeners a month. Lopez and Vicente hope to offer programs in two more indigenous languages, Purépecha and Nahuatl, soon.