Indigenous Community Radio in Mexico

By  |  18 / March / 2009

This post is also available in: Spanish

Throughout Mexican history, the rich mosaic of indigenous cultures has been the basis of resistance and survival. For many contemporary indigenous communities, geographical isolation and economic and social marginalization are eroding their languages and cultures, marking the final stage in a sequence of events that have made Mexico’s indigenous among the poorest and most excluded populations in the world.

By giving a "voice" to the "voiceless"—in their own language—community radio programs can support development and cultural revitalization efforts in indigenous communities.

Mountainous region of Ixtlan, Oaxaca. Photo: Sara McElmurry.

"Mr. Pedro Perez went to work in the orchards in Florida. Upon arriving in Florida, the first thing he did was get a job. After he got a job, he bought his first phone card, and, since there was no phone in his hometown, he called "The Voice of the Mixtec" (radio station) because he had the foresight to get our telephone number before he left. He calls us and says, ‘I’m Pedro Perez, I’m from San Juan Mixtepec, and I want to tell my wife and kids that I’ve arrived in Florida and that I have work. I also want to tell them that I’ll call them every week, so they should wait at the station.’ What we do is put the notice on the air, but it’s not just his family that hears it; almost the entire community hears it."

"Pedro Perez" is a hypothetical migrant whose story has been drawn from the real-life experience of hundreds of men in this region, where emigration is the norm rather than the exception. Pedro was created by Daniel Cardona, director of the Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca-based XETLA-AM, "La Voz de la Mixteca" (The Voice of the Mixtec), to illustrate the power and potential that radio has in indigenous communities. Radio not only shapes day-to-day life within a given Oaxacan village, but also serves to foster local, national, and international communications for members of these often-isolated communities. From a cultural perspective, radio acts as a community-building institution and has the power to maintain and revitalize indigenous traditions and languages in these communities.

I. The Challenge: Bridging Gaps

The Mexican state of Oaxaca, home to more than 15 different indigenous groups, serves as a useful model when analyzing both the potential of and the challenges facing radio in indigenous communities. What the state enjoys in cultural wealth—an estimated 50% of the state’s population speaks an indigenous dialect—it lacks in economic resources: The UN’s Human Development Index ranks Oaxaca 30th out of Mexico’s 31 states in terms of marginalization.

Isolated Communities

Oaxaca’s rugged landscape is a double-edged sword when considering the vitality of its indigenous communities. On one hand, Oaxaca’s ethnic diversity may be attributed, in part, to its mountains: The region’s various indigenous groups have developed their customs and cultures in the relative isolation of remote villages and have used the mountains as a shield of resistance to homogenizing influences from the Conquest to the more recent government assimilation programs. Here they have been able to develop and maintain their own traditions, languages, and cultures. Many Oaxacan indigenous peoples continue to live in these hard-to-reach locales, allowing their unique traditions to survive through the colonial era and to the present day.

However, the mountains also contribute to the region’s marginalization, and, in turn, exploitation. Many of Oaxaca’s indigenous communities are not only isolated from each other, but also from the rest of Mexican society. While Oaxaca’s indigenous languages—such as Mixtec, Zapotec, and Triqui—enjoy seemingly robust speaker bases, the dialect used in one town may not match the dialect spoken in another, thus splintering speech communities and hindering inter-village communication. In addition to lacking basic electric, water, and sewage removal services, many communities do not have access to reliable telephone or postal services, meaning that they are "cut off" from basic news of current events and contact with the rest of the country.

Achievements and Challenges for Community Radio

XETLA broadcasters deliver new and
information to listeners in their native
dialects. Photo: Daniel Cardona.

The mass media, particularly radio, has proven to be effective in combating geographic isolation to promote information exchange, community development, and cultural preservation. Radios are relatively inexpensive communication devices and signals can reach even the most secluded communities. Where mass media is controlled by media conglomerates closely allied to the interests of the ruling elite, community radio can broadcast alternative viewpoints and suppressed information and coordinate efforts. Independent radio stations, many of them taken over during the uprising, played a critical role in the protests in Oaxaca in late 2006.

Radio complements the oral traditions of many indigenous languages and the participatory lifestyle in their communities.

Where literacy rates are low, radio can serve as an important communication and community-building tool. From a linguistic perspective, broadcasting in an indigenous dialect keeps the language dynamic since it must grow and adapt to express current events and communicate modern concepts.

Although commercial radio frequencies reach many indigenous communities, the Spanish-language programming often isn’t culturally or linguistically relevant to native listeners. Community radio stations, especially those that broadcast in indigenous languages and are run by indigenous staffers, serving as a more effective communication vehicle for indigenous communities.

Indigenous community radio stations can solve many of the communication challenges faced by indigenous communities, but the stations face serious challenges themselves. Staffing, training, licensing, funding, and geography-related obstacles head the list. Chief among these issues, however, is the fact that the term "community radio" is difficult to define.

Challenges to Community Radio

  • The concept of "community radio" is difficult to define, resulting in a lack of networking and coordination between stations.
  • Operating licenses are granted erratically by the Mexican government, and often in favor of media conglomerates ("Ley Televisa"), meaning that many community radio stations must operate clandestinely and in fear of being shut down.
  • Government-operated stations are often not viewed as entirely "credible" by listeners.
  • Many managers of government-sponsored community stations are not indigenous, fueling claims of racism and outside influence among staff.
  • The staffers at grassroots-operated stations are often very young and lack formal training, meaning they have less respect in their communities.
  • The news programs broadcast on community radio stations, particularly government-sponsored stations, is produced nationally, and often lacks relevance at a local level.
  • Stations face critical funding challenges; while some grassroots stations are able to sell advertising, they generally aren’t able to turn a profit.
  • The stations themselves are often difficult for citizens to access, given the poor conditions of roads and lack of public transportation in many indigenous communities.

Through its National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples (CDI, by its Spanish initials), the Mexican government funds more than 20 radio stations that broadcast in 31 indigenous languages. Stations such as XETLA-AM, which broadcasts in Spanish, Mixtec, and Triqui, have for many become integral parts of the indigenous communities they serve. Explains Cardona, "The mass media is completely vertical—all media are vertical—but our station is trying to lessen this ‘verticality’ through community participation."

These government-funded stations are one approach to developing indigenous community radio. The other is the growing network of "grassroots" community radio stations. These are usually run by members of the community, many indigenous, out of their homes and often without state-sanctioned permits.

Grassroots stations are protective of their independence and reserve harsh criticism for the government stations, claiming that the CDI-funded stations are merely a means for the Mexican government to communicate its agenda to indigenous communities. These CDI stations, according to grassroots proponents, are losing influence and relevance because of skepticism toward them in local communities.

"The reality is that station directors obey CDI [government] guidelines, and this means that these stations aren’t really community stations," says Eugenio Bermejillo, coordinator for Boca de Polen, a network-building organization that supports community radio stations. He claims that government-sponsored stations have lost influence and listeners as a result of their dependence on government content. "They don’t have the influence they did in the 80s and 90s," he notes.

Staffing: Although the CDI website says that 75% of staff at its stations is indigenous, Bermejillo cites concerns that station management is "castellano" (a person of Spanish descent or of mixed indigenous and Spanish descent): "Race isn’t important, but it is an indicator," he notes. Cardona acknowledges the lack of indigenous representation at management levels, but claims that it is a training issue: "If there is an available position, and an indigenous person wants to fill it, great. But that person needs to have the proper training. If you leave the radio station in the hands of an unqualified indigenous person, that would also be irresponsible on the part of the [CDI]." On the other hand, staff members at grassroots stations tend to be indigenous, but they often lack training and work in understaffed stations.

Grassroots radio station staff members also tend to be very young. Bermejillo estimates that 90% of community radio staff is under 30 years old. This poses a specific challenge in indigenous communities where age is valued and respected. Women who work at the stations are often not taken seriously due to gender-based prejudices. When two young female Triqui radio journalists, Teresa Bautista Flores and Felicítas Martínez, affiliated with "La Voz que Rompe el Silencio" (The Voice that Breaks the Silence), were killed in Putla de Guerrero, Oaxaca in 2008, the judge declared that the case had no bearing on freedom of expression because the women weren’t really journalists, they were housewives.

Staff limitations negatively affect services since both government-sponsored and independent stations serve broad regions that are difficult to access. News reporting is particularly challenging in these circumstances. XETLA’s signal, for example, reaches across the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Puebla; however, the station’s staff of 13 is hard-pressed to gather news in all of the communities it reaches. The station offers just one hour of news programming each day.

XETLA, like other CDI-sponsored stations, relies heavily on nationally-produced news, which has little or no focus on the issues of most relevance in isolated indigenous communities. It also relies on newspapers that do little more than recycle the perspectives of non-indigenous sources. Indigenous voices are rarely reflected in radio news because of this lack of resources to produce original material and the tendency of the mainstream media to ignore or exclude news relevant to indigenous communities.

Licensing: While CDI stations are commissioned by the Mexican government, grassroots stations have a very hard time obtaining the required licenses. Bermejillo estimates that there are 150 to 200 grassroots community radio stations in Mexico and only about 10% of them operate under an official permit from the Mexican government. He attributes this to the influence that monopolies and corporations exercise over lawmakers and government officials to control the airways and media markets.

Convention 169 of the UN’s International Labor Code (adopted in 1991) and the 1996 San Andres Accords both contain provisions to guarantee indigenous access to the media and promote government-sponsored mass media in indigenous communities. Although Congress watered down the language on indigenous access to media when it passed the constitutional counter-reform on indigenous rights in 2001, that law also aims to "establish conditions for villages and indigenous communities to acquire, operate, and administer mass media." Indigenous access to the media, however, is to be granted "in accordance with existing laws," a key phrase that precludes the possibility of significant reforms in media access for indigenous communities.

The laws on airways in Mexico clearly favor corporate media entities. The 2006 modifications to Mexico’s Federal Telecommunications Law and Federal Radio and Television Law were so blatantly skewed toward the interests of mega-media conglomerates that the public dubbed it the "Televisa Law" after one of the only two major television companies in the country. The modifications essentially allow the media giants TV Azteca and Grupo Televisa to dominate much of Mexico’s television and radio spectrum, leaving community radio stations with little leverage and little hope for government licenses.

Community participation is an integral part of XETLA
radio station. Photo: Daniel Cardona.

The original version of the communications reform established that licensing should be granted based on an auction, meaning that those with the most money to bid eventually won the rights. No social or cultural considerations were given weight. According to Bermejillo, "The key to winning the fight for community radio is that licenses be awarded for social reasons instead of economic ones; [however], the Televisa Law emphasizes economic reasons."

Licensing is a complicated process even without the bias toward issuing use to commercial companies. Some argue that the existence of CDI-funded stations fulfill the Mexican government’s UN and indigenous rights-legislated responsibilities to indigenous communities. They argue that promoting and licensing community-run stations is not a priority if the government stations are filling communication needs. Community radio representatives like Bermejillo argue otherwise, stating that the preponderant role of the government in programming and content at the CDI stations means they are not really communication tools in the hands of the indigenous communities.

Leaders of independent indigenous radio projects initiated in the Zapatista-based communities of Chiapas argue that they don’t need government permits, since permission granted through their autonomous government is sufficient. At other stations, such as the Xochistlahuaca, Guerrero-based Radio Ñomndaa (Word of Water), affiliation with the government is viewed as a threat to identity and independence. After experiencing government repression when the Telecommunications Ministry attempted to seize its operating equipment in 2008, Radio Ñomndaa decided against pursuing a license. "We would lose the essence of what indigenous community radio really is," stated the station leadership.

Community radio stations without official government permission must operate discreetly, in constant fear of being shut down, meaning that their signal is often weak and erratic. In January 2009, the Mexican government forcefully closed two Michoacán-based stations, Radio Eiámpti and Radio Uékakua. Not only did these station closings cut off communication for scores of listeners, but they also illustrate the government’s selective practices in cracking down on unlicensed stations. Usually there is a political reason behind it, involving the motivation to suppress community organizing in a certain area. Bermejillo commented on the Michoacan closures, "The police cars passed right by the zone with the commercial radio stations that were operating without permission, the real ‘pirate’ radio stations … The message that sends us is ‘we’ll respect unlicensed commercial radio, but we’ll go after the unlicensed community ones.’" Citizens in the Perépecha community of San Lorenzo, Michoacán now fear that their local station, Kuskua, will suffer the same fate as Eiámpti and Uékakua.

Funding: While CDI-supported stations receive funding from the government (albeit modest funding, according to Cardona), other community radio stations face critical funding challenges. The Internet is crowded with individual stations’ requests for equipment donations from international sympathizers. Some stations sell advertising, but with strict limitations. They generally earn only enough to cover basic operating expenses, so are still considered "non-profit" organizations. Internationally, community radio stations have various options for funding. Bermejillo cites an example of a third-party organization in Colombia that sells advertising on behalf of grassroots community radio stations; however, such an intermediary does not currently exist in Mexico. Many rely on solidarity and foundation funding.

Location: The remote location of villages, coupled with a lack of public transportation and poor condition of public roads, can make it difficult for citizens to visit the stations that are supposedly serving their communities. This is particularly important when considering the importance of sending and receiving the aforementioned notices and identifying more closely with the activities of the stations.

Despite numerous challenges, community radio is alive and well in Mexico’s indigenous communities. Station numbers are difficult to track, because without official government licensing, they are forced to operate sporadically and at low frequencies. However, according to Bermejillo, "Of all of the [stations] I know, I know of more in rural environments, in indigenous environments, than in urban environments, and of those operating in rural environments, the indigenous-language stations are the most important." Bermejillo estimates that there are at least 40 grassroots radio stations operating in Oaxaca, at least eight of which serve the mostly-indigenous communities of Oaxaca’s Mixtec region.

II. The Alternative Agenda: Community Radio Profiles

Profiles of two community radio stations—CDI-sponsored "La Voz de la Mixteca," broadcasting out of a station in Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca, and the grassroots, non-government affiliated "La Voz de las Nubes" ("The Voice of the Clouds"), broadcasting out of a private home in San Juan Mixtepec, Oaxaca—serve to illustrate the successes and challenges of citizen groups taking action via community radio.

"La Voz de la Mixteca"

Founded in 1982 as the second of the 20 radio stations currently supported by the Mexican government’s CDI, XETLA-AM, "La Voz de la Mixteca" broadcasts in Spanish, Mixtec, and Triqui from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week. While the station is managed by Cardona, a "castellano" from Mexico City, XETLA’s staff of 13 includes four Mixtec and three Triqui personnel.

Community Radio Successes

  • Facilitates communication in the absence of phone and mail services in indigenous communities.
  • Promotes culture by broadcasting in indigenous language and promoting regional music.
  • Provides a platform for "open" journalism and government critique.
  • Engages youth in promoting their indigenous culture and language.
  • Provides health, financial, and environmental information and education to communities.

XETLA’s mission to "revitalize the cultural identity of indigenous communities" is built around a four-pronged mission to provide communication, information, entertainment, and education to its listeners. Cardona says the former is the most important: "Our principal service is communication." To this end, the station provides three hours of daily notices, or messages sent between family members, friends, and neighbors to report anything from births to community celebrations to financial transactions. Noticesare aired in Spanish, Mixtec, and Triqui.

In the past year, XETLA has also started to broadcast online, making it possible for migrant workers in the United States and Canada to communicate with family in Oaxaca, as illustrated with the example of "Pedro Perez." In this way, XETLA compensates for the telephone and mail services that are often missing in its listener communities. "If Pedro Perez’s wife didn’t have the chance to listen to the radio, her neighbors, relatives, or friends would tell her that her husband was trying to call her at the station," Cardona explains.

The shortcomings of XETLA’s news services have already been discussed, but Cardona explains that the limited staff attempts to report news from the communities in its broadcast area. News gathered by paid staff is supplemented by segments produced by students, volunteers, and social service organizations. Cardona says that listener involvement makes for a "participatory news service." He explains that people can either call or visit the station "to share their news, or even to complain about a government official" in their own languages.

XETLA promotes local culture by broadcasting regional music, either from groups that come to play live in the station, or groups that XELTA staff have recorded when visiting local communities. Over the past six years, XETLA has also produced CDs for 12 local musical groups, providing each band with 1,000 CDs to distribute in their communities, and broadcasting the music on-air." It makes them proud to say, ‘My record played on the radio,’" Cardona explains.

Educational programs are produced in indigenous languages for the station by social service organizations on topics such as health, environmental preservation, and small business development. For example, one XETLA volunteer, Mixtec lawyer Tomás Lopez Sarabia, airs a weekly segment on indigenous and human rights.

According to its staff, XETLA’s varied programming grows out of its commitment to the communities it serves. "The people have made it their own … we are always looking for new ways [to promote] community participation on the radio." All station services, from community notices to regional music production, are free to the public, made possible through government funding. The station does not accept political or religious propaganda: "We have always been respectful of the political and religious will of our listeners." Such policies, Cardona explains, are indicative of the station’s ongoing attempt to remain accountable to both the government and the communities it serves.

Critics cite limitations of the XETLA broadcasting. Residents of San Juan Mixtepec, a small village in XETLA’s broadcast area, complain that the CDI station often broadcasts in Triqui, which is of little use to the Mixtec-speaking residents of their community. What’s more, the dialect of Mixtec broadcast on XETLA doesn’t match the Mixtec spoken in San Juan Mixtepec.

"La Voz de las Nubes"

XETLA’s "competition" in the Mixteca region includes three commercial stations and numerous "grassroots" stations. Cardona chooses his words carefully when referring to the unlicensed community radios in the area. "I don’t want to call them ‘illegal,’ I don’t want to call them ‘pirate.’ I prefer to say that they are ‘irregular’ because of the communication circumstances in our country."

"La Voz de las Nubes" is a grassroots station founded in 2008 in San Juan Mixtepec. It sees its mission as being different from XETLA. Station staff—a group of 18-year-old students who work at the station as part of a communications course at a local high school—explain that the station seeks to "rescue the traditions and customs of the community."

Community radio in Oaxaca provides a
much needed service in rural areas.
Photo: Daniel Cardona.

"La Voz de las Nubes" staff consists of 18 students who receive support and training from a variety of social service organizations. The station broadcasts daily in Mixtec from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. from a local home. Programming includes regional music and information on natural healing. Because the radio’s location is somewhat removed from the rest of the town, listeners rarely use the station’s free notice service. The station solicits advertising from local business, and revenue generated goes to pay the electric bill, which is the station’s only overhead cost.

The biggest obstacle facing "La Voz de las Nubes," according to staff, is that since it’s just starting out staffers are still working out the details of programs and plans. The young staffers also cite bouts of stage fright as a challenge. According to one staffer, "it’s embarrassing" going live on-air for the first time.

The station operates on an FM frequency, but without a formal license from the government. Station staff maintains that they have the right to operate under the aforementioned Convention 169 of the UN’s International Labor Code: "Everyone has a right to communicate," says Ivan Garcia, a staffer with Cactus, a Huajuapan de León, Oaxaca-based NGO that supports "La Voz de las Nubes." The radio staff explains they’ve encountered no problem with the government because the station is strictly cultural in focus.

However, according to Bermejillo, "La Voz de las Nubes" has just been lucky. As illustrated in the cases of Radio Eiámpti and Radio Uékakua, many grassroots stations do face government persecution: "The government doesn’t respect the radio. For them, it’s a threat," Bermejillo asserts.

III. Local-Global Linkages

Community radio generally enjoys success within the communities it serves. On any given day, the reception area at "La Voz de la Mixteca" is full of people from local villages wishing to place notices on the air. Communities jump at the opportunity to host the station’s yearly anniversary celebration. At "La Voz de las Nubes," teenage staffers work daily to broadcast in their Mixtec dialect, keeping their language and culture relevant for young generations. Local bands share their music with the station and with the community, through the station.

Community Radio Needs

  • Global Civil Society’s solidarity is needed to vocalize support for community radio efforts, particularly in the face of persecution from the Mexican government.
  • Trained journalists and radio technicians from ‘developed’ countries are needed to offer support and training to community radio programs.
  • Financial support is needed for equipment, operating costs, staff training, and regional music production.
  • Local and international networking with other community radio programs and sympathizers.
  • Technical training programs in indigenous communities to allow members to move up the ranks to manage government-funded radio stations.

However, staffing and funding limitations, the difficulty of obtaining a license, and the threat of government repression stymie many stations’ efforts to fully develop their programming. External network-building efforts can help enhance the effectiveness of individual stations. Working together, community radio stations would potentially have more leverage to change licensing rules and create more public awareness of the role of community radio.

The need for unity among community radio stations is especially critical this year: Organizers hope that the "Televisa Law" which was challenged in the courts as a potential violation of anti-monopoly laws, will come before Congress again in late 2009, after Mexico’s mid-term elections.

Original presentation of the law led to public protests against the media oligopoly in the country and raised awareness of access issues. The second round of legislative debate could offer an opportunity to defend and define community radio.

But efforts to unify community radio stations have been slow and resources scarce. Programs such as Boca de Polen have taken the first step in linking community radio stations in Mexico, building a network, and offering financial and training support where needed. However, to date Boca de Polen provides support for just six of the estimated 150 to 200 community radio stations throughout Mexico. Boca-supported stations include Radio Chanual Pom, Radio Tsotsil, and Radio Tsúmbal Xitalhá in Chiapas.

Mexico’s community radio stations have found some support and lessons from international networks. The World Association of Community Radio (AMARC, by its Spanish initials) links community radio programs in Latin America, the Carribbean, Africa, Europe, and Asia, and has become an important advocate for local and indigenous communications rights. However, AMARC leadership has been the subject of controversy in Mexico since the organization’s current vice president formerly worked with the INI (Instituto Nacional Indigenista, currently known as CDI). During her tenure with INI, she had unsuccessfully petitioned AMARC for government-funded stations to be considered among "community" radio stations within the organization. Other international networks, such as Latin American Association of Radio Education, (ALER, Asociación Latinoamericana de Educación Radiofónica) that groups 120 radio stations in 30 Latin American countries, have just recently started building a presence in Mexico.

Despite the obstacles, it is critical that these international networks continue to grow. Linking with countries such as Columbia, Venezuela, and Bolivia, where community radio programs are almost fully licensed by each country’s respective government, might be useful in finding solutions to licensing issues in Mexico. Bermejillo also cites possibilities for collaboration with community radio in the Basque and Catalan regions of Spain, where linguistic issues are similar to those faced by indigenous groups in the Americas.

Partnerships with other forms of mass media, especially television and newspaper outlets that follow "open journalism" practices, might be helpful for journalistic training and sharing news-gathering resources. Radio technicians working in "developed" countries might assist with training and equipment for Mexican community radio stations.

Perhaps most importantly, active, vocal support is needed from global civil society to ensure that community radio stations—and their staff—are respected outside of their communities, on a national and international level. They are not "housewives" pushing buttons on a mixing board. Instead, they should be recognized for the critical role they play in their communities and protected from the kind of silencing violence that took the lives of radio journalists Teresa Bautista Flores and Felicítas Martínez. Community radio workers are the "voice of the voiceless," offering a vital link from their villages to the rest of the world.