Latin American Storytelling in the Trump Era: An Interview with Daniel Alarcón

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Among the myriad shocks and outrages that continue to issue forth from the midterm elections this past Tuesday, it’s hard to settle on one pick for worst of the bunch. A strong contender, however, would be the president’s blatantly propagandistic chants characterizing an exodus of Latin American migrants and refugees, many of them families with small children, as a force of “invaders,” populated by “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners” and funded by George Soros, who, despite traveling on foot and held up at Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, were poised to immediately overrun U.S. border agents in Texas and unleash a wave of crime and violence on American communities should the Republican Party lose control of the Senate or House of Representatives.

Such is the sorry state of our political discourse, however, that, at this point, reminding oneself that a sitting president peddling such warrantless conspiracy theories ought to cause a national scandal almost feels cliché. A more effective coping strategy, then, might be to remind oneself of the reality the president’s racist conspiracy mongering aims to obscure. To that end, we have a fine reminder on hand in the form of Radio Ambulante.

A podcast in the vein of This American Life, Radio Ambulante delves deep into real-life characters and stories drawn from throughout Latin America and Latino communities in the US. Distributed by NPR and aired in Spanish (with English transcripts available on the NPR website), it is a life-affirming exercise in humanism that serves as a powerful corrective to the falsehoods about Latin America that our political establishment has given license to circulate in the last few years.

Episodes from the most recent season season of Radio Ambulante include genuinely uplifting stories like “The Foreigner,” which narrates the arrival of an influx of Haitian immigrants to a small rural town in Chile and the warm embrace the community provided to its newest members. Others, like “Scars,” the story of a Colombian girl’s years of abuse at the hands of a religious fanatic aunt and her family’s efforts to come to terms with the harm she suffered, are tragic and heart-wrenching. The virtue they all share is an offer to feel something warmer than cold dread.

Radio Ambulante’s Executive Producer Daniel Alarcón is a Peru-born, US-raised journalist and novelist. Aside from his work with Radio Ambulante and his fiction — including the novel Lost City Radio and, most recently, the story collection The King is Always Above the People — he is also professor of journalism at Columbia and a member of the Executive Board at the University of Michigan’s Wallace House. Alarcón was recently in Ann Arbor for a speaking engagement at Wallace House. The following is taken from an interview completed over the phone.

One of the most disturbing aspects of this most recent election cycle was Donald Trump and other politicians’ constant use of an increasingly hateful rhetoric about Latin American migrants and refugees. Has that trend impacted the way you and your colleagues are thinking about your work at Radio Ambulante?

Since we’re not a newsy show, we haven’t really had a chance to respond yet. Or it hasn’t come up in any of our editorial conversations because we have such a long horizon for the pieces that we produce. Obviously, I think it affects me personally more than professionally at this point. I mean, I would agree with that characterization, and I would agree that the rhetoric itself I find quite reprehensible. I also think it’s quite clearly politically advantageous, and if it weren’t they wouldn’t be using it. It clearly has a political impact that they appreciate, which in itself is something I find quite disturbing.

In terms of our show, we’re not an explicitly political show. I do think there’s something implicitly political about the existence of our show as a Spanish-language podcast distributed by NPR, and I think in some ways that’s enough, you know? There are certain constraints under which we operate, whether they’re financial or just not having the bandwidth to do every story we’d like to do. And then the fact that we aren’t a newsy show means that we can’t turn around and respond to the news from last week or the comment that was just said except in really extraordinary circumstances. And it’s also not the identity of the show — that’s not the kind of story we tell. But, of course we’re part of the political environment we live in, not just as journalists but also as storytellers and human beings.

Are you and your colleagues planning material in upcoming stories that more explicitly addresses that shifting rhetoric?

You know, I’m not sure. I just finished meeting with a colleague here in Michigan who is a [Wallace-Knight] Fellow now, and we were talking about different iterations of the podcast, things we could cover or do. 

There are a lot of challenges that Radio Ambulante has with any project. We spend a lot of time finding our feet, finding our voice, and a lot of times I think you get good at one thing, or a couple of things, but in order to keep it exciting and interesting you need to push yourself out of your comfort zone consistently. Just when you become comfortable is the moment you become complacent, which you have to try not to do.

So, I don’t know, there are a lot of things that could happen with Radio Ambulante. I don’t ever foresee — you know, we did an episode about Trump and the Trump effect on a Latino immigrant in Maine, and what it felt like to live in Maine as the 2016 presidential campaign began to shape and shift the narrative about immigrants and immigration around the country. I think that was a very successful story, and one that Radio Ambulante is very proud of. But it’s always about finding the right characters. We build stories from characters, not from themes, and we sort of put the characters on stage and let the themes find us.

Certainly, one of the things I love about Radio Ambulante is the way in which it provides a corrective to the political rhetoric we hear these days. That rhetoric aggressively dehumanizes Latin Americans and flattens Latin America into this collective backwards failed state, stricken by drug trafficking, crime, and violence. If you spend any time at all studying Latin America or traveling there, however, you immediately realize just how wrong that narrative is about life in these countries.

I spent some time living and studying in Santiago, Chile, a couple of years ago, and I was perhaps most surprised by the similarities between life and politics there and what I know back in the U.S. Many of the same issues we’re confronting in the U.S. are playing out there. I think two stories in particular from the most recent season of Radio Ambulante really bring that dynamic into relief — one covering a sudden influx of Haitian immigrants to Coihueco, a rural agricultural town in southern Chile, and another covering a young biologist’s battles with digital copyright law in Colombia. Could you talk a bit about some of the lessons or observations you’ve had when covering these stories in Latin America while seeing the way similar issues are playing out in the US?

It’s a really interesting question. You mentioned Santiago, Chile — I’ve been visiting Santiago for almost fifteen years, and when I started going there fifteen years ago, there was not a community of Haitians living in Chile. There wasn’t the huge Venezuelan population that lives there now either. Peruvians were the big migrant population, and Chile was learning how to be a country that hosted migrants or immigrants, because in Latin American we don’t know much about that. I would say it’s been really interesting to see the Venezuelan crisis as it plays out. It’s the Latin American version of the crisis of Syrian refugees — a massive population shift affecting every country in the region, bringing with it political destabilization, economic destabilization, all kinds of problem with xenophobia, border tightening, hateful rhetoric and nationalism in its path. It’s a fascinating and often disheartening experience to watch how it’s playing out, not dissimilar, I think, to watching the rhetoric at play around immigrants here in the United States. I find all of that very fascinating, troubling.

That said, I think there are differences, and I think I would quibble a bit with your formulation of the idea that it’s just the same, but in Spanish. I know I’m flattening what you said a bit, but you know what I mean. It’s not the same — Chile isn’t the same as Peru, and Peru isn’t the same as Ecuador, and Ecuador isn’t the same as the Dominican Republic, et cetera. One thing that I like about Radio Ambulante is how broad the experiences are, how different they are, and how we can narrate life in these different places, and satisfy our curiosity about the differences between these places. The specificity of the stories we tell I find to be one of the most rewarding parts of the project. We try to make them universal in the sense that you can understand this story if we give you the context and explain the history, but a story taking place in Mexico, you can’t mistake it for a story taking place in Cuba. I find that to be very important.

At the same time, there are obviously stories that cut across national lines. We’re seeing that it is in fact all connected. Latin America, as a region, is of course hugely impacted by what happens in the United States and, as you know, that’s not always a good thing.

Radio Ambulante was recently picked up for distribution by NPR, and I assume that has had a pretty significant impact on your audience, whether in terms of numbers or demographics. It’s interesting to see, just from reading reviews on the podcast app on my phone, you see many written in Spanish talking about how much they love the stories and production, and then there are others saying, “I’m learning Spanish right now, and this is amazing for helping me learn about different accents and vocabulary!” I’m wondering how you and your colleagues think about the podcast’s growing audience, and whether you’ve been tailoring the tone or choice of stories to account for a changing listeners?

It’s interesting, you know, similar to the way in which I would write a novel or book of short stories: You put it out there, and you wrote it because you liked it, because it was fun to write, you were trying to get at an idea, and then people read it for whatever reason they read it. They bring their own sensibility and their own tastes and ideas to whatever it was you were producing, and it’s out of your hands how your piece is going to be interpreted. You can’t really control it.

It was an interesting discovery for us to learn that our stories were being used as a language-learning tool. In hindsight, it’s absolutely a no-brainer, but it’s not our mission. What we think is that there are things that we can do to help people that are using our content to learn Spanish, and it’s important for us to do those things to the extent that we maintain an editorial firewall between that project — which can be a money-maker, quite frankly — and the editorial sensibility of the project itself.

What I mean by that is, I have no problem with people using Radio Ambulante to learn Spanish, and I think if people are already doing that, we should find ways to help them use it better, and also find ways to use that to help finance our journalism in the project. Giving them something that’s valuable, that makes Radio Ambulante a more effective language-learning tool, as long as our core mission is still to tell Latin American stories in Spanish and cover US Latino communities and the region more broadly in creative and compelling ways. Our mission is not to help people learn Spanish. We would never tell a story just because it would be useful for language-learning. The editorial decision should revolve around how good of a story it is, whether it sounds like a Radio Ambulante story, includes the sort of voices we’d like to feature, has the kinds of surprises we like to have in our stories. That’s the most important thing.

Beyond producing and hosting Radio Ambulante and, of course, writing fiction, you’re a professor of journalism at Columbia and also a member of the Executive Board at Wallace House in Ann Arbor. Wallace House awards the Knight-Wallace Fellowship, which provides journalists with funding for a year spent studying and researching ways to address challenges in the journalism industry. With that in mind, could you talk a bit about the role you see foundations and fellowships playing these days, and perhaps more specifically about what experience Radio Ambulante has had navigating the media landscape such as it is.

I think fellowships are increasingly important due to the crisis in journalism, particularly journalism funding. I mean, there’s no crisis in audiences for journalism, and that’s, I think, the nut that no one seems to be able to crack, the riddle that nobody can solve. If we have more readers than ever, how come we have less funding than ever? How come the sustainability is harder than ever? That’s a real dispiriting conundrum that a lot of newsrooms are facing.

I obviously don’t know the answer to that, though I can tell you that with Radio Ambulante we’ve had to be very creative. We have a couple of unique advantages, one being that we have language-learners listening to our program — there are ways to monetize those audiences that are, of course, not predatory, but rather offer them value as a language-learning tool while helping us fund the work that we do. That’s something we’re working on — to create a language-learning app that doesn’t affect the journalistic mission, but complements our program to make it better for language-learning. But more broadly, we’re constantly trying to drive funding for our program, hopefully, based on our growing audience, based on our live shows, based on foundation support, based on donations from listeners, based on selling T-shirts and tote bags. You know, you can’t leave any stone unturned when it comes to finding money for the project. You have to think strategically and commercially about what’s going to help the project grow and be sustainable.

Find out more at, or follow Daniel Alarcón on Twitter @DanielGAlarcon.

Image via Adrian Kinloch/Riverhead Books.