BOB GARFIELD: On the subject of cross-cultural sharing of Spanish-language programming, we’ve been making the case for an hour that the Spanish-speaking market is not a monolith, that different cultures and dialects and sensibilities can be difficult to navigate but not impossible, it turns out. Case in point, “Radio Ambulante,” which has been called "’This American Life’ in Spanish.” It’s a public radio podcast produced out of San Francisco’s KALW. Its host and executive producer Daniel Alarcón says that not only are there commonalities to exploit, but also a desire among listeners to share differences.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: You know, one of the first things that we heard was you’re not gonna get Mexicans to hear stories that aren’t about Mexico, and you’re not gonna get Puerto Ricans to hear stories that aren’t about Puerto Rico. And I intuitively felt that that wasn't true. And I think part of what I see when I look at the analytics of where the clicks are coming from, I find that that’s just not the case. We have a lot of listeners in San Francisco and LA, in New York and Miami, and a lot of listeners in Bogotá and Mexico City and Buenos Aires and Lima. I find that people are hungry for stories that are telling a regional narrative, a narrative that crosses national borders.
BOB GARFIELD: We talk about the Hispanic market and we talk [LAUGHS] about Latin America, and I'm wondering whether those who comprise the Hispanic market and those who inhabit Latin America think of themselves as Latin Americans or Hispanics.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: I, I can speak to my own personal experience. You know, growing up in the United States I identified as both American and Peruvian. The older I get and the more I've lived in different places and, in fact, the more I work on “Radio Ambulante,” well, you know, on any given week I'm dealing with reporters from six or seven different countries and, and hearing their stories, I guess the less Peruvian I feel and the more Latin American I feel. Obviously, not everyone is in my position, but I do feel there’s a consciousness that has to do with the shift in technology, with how close you are to your country of origin or the country where your parents are from. The ease of travel, the increase in trade, I think that that is changing a little bit the sense of who we are as a region.
BOB GARFIELD: Does that phenomenon you’ve just described exist only in the Diasphora, or do you think that Peruvians in Peru think of themselves increasingly as Latin Americans?
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Well, let me put it this way: There’s been in the last maybe 10 years a celebrated boom in the Latin American chrónica, in the Latin American longform nonfiction reporting piece. And those magazines, for example, “Etiqueta Negra,” “The Clinic” in Chile, “Piauí” in Brazil, “Amphibia” in Argentina, these magazines are read across borders, in all of the capitals all over Latin America, so at least, within the conversation among journalists, yes. For us, political borders may be real but cultural borders are completely fluid.
If there’s 55 million Spanish speakers in the United States, then the United States is part of Latin America, period.
BOB GARFIELD: At the core of a lot of what you do is the question of identity, and perhaps no piece more explicitly - than the story of two writers who shared the same name.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Yeah, they, they both shared the name Eduardo Bechara, and they shared more than that. They shared a face. I mean, they look astonishingly similar. One lived in Argentina, the other one lived in Colombia. The one in Colombia had a blog and the sister of the Argentine Eduardo found it by accident and thought it was her brother, because they look so much alike and ‘cause their lives were so similar. And then they become best friends. They find out that their lives were interconnected even before they met. It’s a really funny story. It’s a really kind of sad story, as well. And it has a lot to do with immigration to Latin America because both of them had assumed they had kind of Lebanese Arab background, and they actually end up doing a DNA test to find out that they do have a shared ancestor.
BOB GARFIELD: One Colombian, one Argentine. And, again, to this question about Pan Americanism, back in the ‘50s and the early ‘60s in Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser tried to create, with mixed success, Pan Arabism. Because of your podcast and other technology-driven ways to bring cultures together, is the future a more cohesive Pan Latino community?
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Man, I have a lot to say on this. One, from José Martí to Hugo Chávez, this idea has been around. It’s not new. I think you could argue on the Arab side that maybe Al Jazeera has had more success creating Pan Arabism than, than Nasser did. And I do think that that kind of points the way that media does play this role. There are things that are Pan Latin American already – old Mexican movies, Colombian soap operas, soccer. I mean, we already have it. It’s not something that “Radio Ambulante” invented.
I think “Radio Ambulante” exists at this particular technological moment for a number of reasons. We have the opportunity and the ability to produce great radio and to distribute it in a way that we couldn’t have before. And also, because our audience in the United States is so connected to the countries they hail from in a way that they weren’t before, that makes our stories much more relevant than they used to be.
BOB GARFIELD: I got one more thing for you. I was listening to you on your show and I couldn’t help but notice something, and I’m going to play you this.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Soy Daniel Alarcón.
IRA GLASS: I'm Ira Glass.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Hoy, en Radio Ambulante.
IRA GLASS: Today, on our show.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Todos tenemos un omonimo, alguien que se llama igual a nosotros.
IRA GLASS: We have two stories of supposed doppelgängers.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: That’s mean, man. That’s mean.
BOB GARFIELD: And speaking of doppelgängers –
DANIEL ALARCÓN: I’m a novelist. I write stories, I work on scripts. The hardest part and, I got to say, the most unpleasant part of the show for me is hosting. And I think if I sound like a bad Latin version of Ira Glass, it’s not because I’m trying to emulate him. It’s because I feel very uncomfortable in front of the microphone, so I’m working on that. And my apologies to Mr. Glass for, for all of that. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Daniel, thank you so much.
DANIEL ALARCÓN: Thank you, Bob. It was a pleasure.
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BOB GARFIELD: Daniel Alarcón is executive producer of “Radio Ambulante.” He is also a novelist and his latest book is At Night We Walk in Circles.