Income and racial inequality plagues the country, while community radio stations run by poor people have begun to break social barriers.
White people make up around five percent of the population in Mexico, but around 98 percent of main actors on Mexican television are white. This has a huge impact on how Mexican people perceive themselves. Amidst the stark racial inequality, the country is witnessing the rise of community radio run by poor, indigenous people in rural areas, making their participation in public debates extremely important.
The ongoing pandemic has added to that importance. Few people trust commercial media sources or politicians, and while phones and laptops are the most obvious communication tools in wealthier countries, for farmers in the field and people selling goods in the street, radio can make more sense.
Add technological inequality to that. In rural areas, only 47.7 percent of the population has access to the Internet, and older people tend to be less technically literate. They often struggle with programs like Zoom, leaving them excluded from all the conferences, online activities, and meetings.
“In our community people drive around with speakers on their trucks to make announcements. So audio is the way to reach people, and they can listen to the radio while they wash clothes or are in their workshops,” says Maria de Lourdes Jimenez Arrieta, a coordinator of Acajete community radio.
Popoloca and Náhua people lived in her community in Puebla state before colonisation. Now, people there plant corn, beans, and capulins (similar to cherries), and many work in the construction sector.
Jimenez’s radio station has a program for the pandemic, providing locals with advice, global, national, and municipal statistics, as well as specific information about how their community is being affected. People are reaching for radio in order to announce their new home delivery systems.
“Before, you would go to the market to buy what you needed. But the markets are crowded and closed in, so now our audience is growing, because people want to know where they can buy and sell things,” she says.
Other community radio stations have been broadcasting classes in indigenous languages and they have been receiving denunciations of domestic violence. Some have held raffles to support locals who have gone into debt, or are facing even more extreme poverty than before.
Radio has also supported their local cultures by broadcasting masses and important fairs, such as the San Miguel Tzinacapan festival and huapangueada dances.
“People trust our radio more than other sources because we are from the community. We’re known, we live there, we’re like brothers to people, and we can’t hide,” Jimenez says, referring to their ability to avoid responsibility, were they to provide false information.
While television and commercial radio base their content on who is paying, making them as corrupt as many politicians, community radio can be relevant, empathetic, and transparent.
Lorenzo Perez Arenas, a coordinator of the Community Parliament for the Rights of Nature, which brings together community radio, farmers, consumers, environmental activists, and academics in Puebla state, has just finished playing a part in organising Mexico’s National Congress of Community Radios. He tells me that the private media wants to keep people in a state of fear during the pandemic, reporting on the “consequences of the illness instead of giving us hope and opportunities.”
Community radio, on the other hand, has been focusing on solutions, suggesting healthier diets based on locally grown produce, for example. The radio, he says, doesn’t cover things “just in terms of consumerism, which is what we are used to.”
And the pandemic is only the latest in difficult situations that people have had to face. It follows ongoing battles with poverty, for water and land, with systemic violence, and even earthquakes.
Angel Miguel Oliver Ramirez’s community radio in Izucar de Matamoros, was born out of a movement following a factory explosion in his area. In 2010, three 130kg containers of dimethoate, an insecticide, exploded at the Dragon agrochemical factory. The substance is absorbed through the skin and the side effects are serious.
“The towns nearby were flooded with this bad smell,” Oliver says, and everyone tried to flee the area. He says locals have been getting sick since then. At the time, he and others organised mobilisations using loudspeakers on trucks and bells. They set up citizen guards to stop the factory reopening. The factory was closed for 15 months, but now it is operating without any restrictions.
No politicians “paid any attention to us,” he says. In the end, it was local radio stations that broadcast their concerns, and in response, officials and commercial media criminalised them, and put out propaganda saying the factory wasn’t dangerous. Oliver received multiple death threats, and arrest warrants were issued for activists.
That’s why, he argues, his community needs its own radio, so their side of things can be heard.
Most Mexicans are excluded from commercial media
Meanwhile, Mexican television is dominated by soap operas portraying white, upper class people. People with brown skin are rarely seen, and in advertising, they are almost never used to represent a desirable life. I did the maths. Based on the ten most watched Mexican shows, according to Televisa, and the five main actors in each show, 90% of actors are clearly white, or 98% of them are white or light skinned. Only one of the 42 actors across eight series and two hosted shows was brown.
While indigenous children rarely get to learn in their home language at school, 70 percent of the Mexican radio market is dominated by around 10 media conglomerates, including Grupo ACIR and Grupo Radiorama.
Access to information is a right, not a trend. When these media corporations neglect whole classes and ethnicities, it is freedom of expression, social inclusion, cultural rights, language rights, literacy, collective self esteem, and more, that are affected.
Socorro Portada Alonso is a Nahua person and a coordinator of Radio Tepetitla, which broadcasts in Nahuatl and Spanish to the community of La Resurrección in Puebla. There, she says, only a third of people have access to the Internet. The radio only broadcasts via social media though, because their transmitter is broken and they don’t have the funds to replace it. Nevertheless, she says, it too has grown over the past year.
“We invite people to come to the radio and give talks on topics that are important to them. The radio is for the people and with the people … it is focused on our community’s progress,” she says.