Sonic Trace: How to cover the Mexican election for a US audience

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Luis interviewing a subject for his story

Luis interviewing Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, UCLA Labor Center for his story

One of the goals of Sonic Trace is to find stories that are local to both Los Angeles and Mexico. The recent Mexican presidential election was one such story. As producers, we wanted to explore the election in a way that was timely, relevant and not boring for KCRW’s LA audience. We wanted to explain Mexican democracy, and the importance of being invested in it on this side of the border. But how to do that?

We reached out to Animo South LA High School and found Mr. Heuisler’s history class where the student body has a cultural identity that includes the Mexican states of Durango, Nayarit and Zacatecas, as much as Los Angeles. The legal status of the kids is mixed – some arrived as babies, others as teens – and the LA-born feel no different than a typical teen living in Durango or Zacatecas today. The root reason that these kids are growing up in Los Angeles and not Mexico is the lack of economic opportunities in the country.  They are full-blown Angelenos, but their daily lives, legal statuses and identities will always be inextricably linked to their places of origin.

Mr. Heusler put together a group of five teenagers that were interested in the mission of our project. Luis was the youngest of the five. And in many ways, the most Americanized. When the project began he had little interest in Mexico’s politics and felt no connection to his town of origin.  At the same time, he is one of the more vulnerable. Luis is undocumented. He can’t get a driver’s license or a formal job in the US. And unlike some of his documented classmates – who travel frequently between the US and Mexico – Luis has only been back once. So would Mexico’s election affect him?

We worked with Luis for three weeks interviewing political scientists, lawyers, campaign organizers and academics – people who know policy, but rarely talk policy to people like Luis. In a sense, we felt that we needed to break down the Mexican election for an American audience. But we also knew that if experts, political scientists and policy makers didn’t  start to redefine their audience, teens like Luis would continue to fall through the cracks on both sides of the border.

Luis’ story also became a public radio experiment. What would happen if we brought a documentary format to talk radio? The producers of To The Point  were able to use Luis’ story as a launch point for an analytical discussion on the show. Luis’ reporting gave real-life context to complicated political issues that are hard to convey in short interviews on a radio show. This shift in format brought a local point of view to a national audience.

Our fear was that people would tune away, feeling confused by what was coming out of their radio. Instead, I hope they listened more closely and grew invested in the impact of policy on both sides of the border. This is the goal of Sonic Trace and KCRW – to find those spaces where first-person narrative and journalism meet to make compelling stories.

We recently went back to Luis to explore how reporting the story affected him. Luis’ Lessons Learned is a re-cap of his reflections about the people he interviewed and his journey into the Mexican Presidential Election and was produced as a Which Way LA? blog exclusive. Tell us what you think and learn more on the Sonic Trace Facebook page.

Here’s the story that was originally produced for To The Point with Warren Olney:

You can also listen to Luis’ story on PRI’s The World.

Stay tuned for more Sonic Trace stories from the teens at Animo High School through the Fall.

Sonic Trace is produced by Anayansi Diaz-Cortes and Eric Pearse Chavez. It is part of Localore, an initiative of the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It’s home is KCRW’s Independent Producer Project. The project is co-produced by Zeega, a non-profit inventing new forms of interactive storytelling.