Photo: Martha Gies

Photo: Martha Gies

Radio Huaya: Letter to Don Moore

I made my way to Huayacocotla in August, 2006, following the footsteps of short wave afficionado Carl Huffaker, who used to go up there to check on the fortunes of Radio Huaya, the brave little onda corta station high in the mountains of western Veracruz. What was not clear to me, reading and rereading on the Internet the reports of his travels, was where, precisely, Huayacocotla was located. Mr. Huffaker mentions fog, winding mountain roads, suicidal bus drivers, and washouts, but that could be almost anywhere in the Sierra Madre Oriental.

A writer from Portland, Oregon, I teach a workshop in creative writing in the port of Veracruz every summer, so August found me in the area. But as to where this little mountain town might be, no one on the Gulf side of the state had a clue. Finally, a priest friend was able to point to a map of the state and show me where his Jesuit brothers have served the indigenous communities up there for the last 17 years.

Fine, but how to get there by bus?

By Googling "Huayacocotla" with "diocese," I learned that it pertains to the Tulancingo diocese in the neighboring state of Hidalgo. Sure enough, the map showed a road running north into the mountains from there. So when my workshops were finished, I took a night bus north to Poza Rica and, early in the morning, another bus west across the mountains to Tulancingo. ADO serves both these routes with first-class air-conditioned coaches replete with videos of Hollywood action movies, seat belts and functioning bathrooms. From Tulancingo north it would be anybody’s guess.

Estrella Blanca runs the rural bus, it turned out, and there are departures every 30 minutes. All runs are de paso, however: the 2nd class bus originates in Mexico and is standing-room only by the time it gets to Tulancingo. It’s a trip of nearly three hours up the mountain through cleared settlements and some remaining woods of pine, aspen and oak. In the higher reaches there are roadside piles of kaolin (white China clay), ready for export.

Huayacocotla sits at 7,021 feet, swaddled in fog. Because it is amunicipio, it has a municipal palace that serves as seat of county government for 25 surrounding villages. In the adjacent plaza, triangulated with the parish church, is the large market area, swollen every Sunday when the indigenous peoples come in to town to sell. Being the municipal seat and, I suppose, because it’s so remote, the little town has four hotels, though – trust me on this – there’s only one you’d want to stay in. There is no bank, but there is a small library, a high school and a hostel for indigenous boarding students who attend high school in town.

The communities that pertain to this municipality appear close on the map, but may take hours, if not days to reach, due to poor roads and seasonal wash-outs. Radio Huaya, since its beginning in 1965, has been a means of linking them.

Here is a brief version of the station’s history, as explained to me by Fr. Alfredo Zepeda, SJ. It reiterates several points already documented by Mr. Huffaker.

The radio school movement really begins in 1947, when a priest in Colombia began Radio Sutatenza, broadcasting programs aimed at teaching reading, writing, arithmetic and basic health care principles to rural people, as well as promoting the Gospel idea that all people share a basic personal dignity. In 1963, with the promulgation of Inter Mirifica, that is the Vatican II document on The Media of Social Communications, Catholic radio stations were started throughout Latin America.

"Some nuns, heroically, went to Colombia and brought the whole dog-and-pony show back to Mexico," Fr. Zepeda tells me.

In 1965, Fr. Hector Samperio, the diocesan priest in Huayacocotla started the short wave station as an escuela radiofónica, broadcasting to the most marginalized zone in Mexico, the indigenous sierra.

The radio school, however, which entailed small listening groups in each separate community, each with its own trained monitor, was cumbersome to organize and costly to run. When it finally collapsed, the Bishop of Tuxpan, Veracruz, then president of the Catholic Communications Commission, put out the word that someone needed to take it over. In 1973, Fomento Cultural y Educativo (FCE), a recently formed Jesuit organization, stepped in. Fr. Zepeda arrived in 1981.

Meanwhile in 1979 Carl Huffaker had first ventured into the mountains to get some background on XEJN-OC, the little onda corta station transmitting at 2390 Khz with 500 watts of power. The license and equipment, he learned, were actually owned by the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. He returned to Huayacocotla in 1988, reporting that Radio Huaya had purchased 400 inexpensive radios sets and were modifying them to receive short wave. (Fr. Zepeda identifies this as the purchase of wholesale radios from China). On his third visit, Mr. Huffaker found the radio off air: the federal power company had blown out the transmitter.

Mr. Huffaker also noted that the station kept applying for their AM license. In 1978, they were denied. In 1984, actually received the license – on paper, at any rate, but it never materialized.
In the nineties, conflict erupted between indigenous and mestizo peoples in the Veracruz mountains, generally over issues of land ownership. The 1994 Zapatista movement in Chiapas gave indigenous peoples throughout Mexico a new pride in their cultural identity and hope for their legal rights. But at the same time, the Mexican government began exercising a greater vigilance of radios and indigenous both: at one point, 300 soldiers showed up in one of the Otomí villages in Veracruz. In April of 1995, the government closed Radio Huaya under the pretext of technical irregularities.

Raymundo Gomez, who had worked as a radio volunteer since the station’s beginnings, felt the pressure from landowner friends in the early nineties, as conflict polarized the municipality of Huayacocotla. Mr. Gomez, who is mestizo, finally resigned from Radio Huaya after 27 years, though he still supports the station in spirit. He listens to broadcasts daily, even those he cannot understand – in Nahuatl, Tepehua and Otomí – and is proud that the radio broadcasts in four languages. As a gift to his chickens, he has placed a speaker in their yard.

Under the guidance of three Jesuits, the management of the radio turned participatory, with a multi-ethnic team providing direction. Running the radio station gives the community a sense of the empowerment which, in turn, energizes their efforts for social change, be it land rights, education, better roads, health care, or civil protections.

Now that the violence of the nineties has subsided, new problems have beset the indigenous communities flung across the sierra, principally stemming from out-migration. Fr. Zepeda counts, "...more than 1,000 Otomís in New York, immigrants from here, all having left in the last two years." The radio has been an important means of keeping separated families together, and it is not uncommon to hear, during one of the six daily broadcasts of Avisos (Announcements). "Don’t be worried about your family member, Eusebio: he arrived safely in NY,"or "Be ready for a phone call on Sunday." To receive these phone calls, families may travel for hours on rural back roads to reach the phone station in Huayacocotla.

Fr. Zepeda and Jesuit brothers Ricardo and Pancho regularly visit the outlying villages in the high sierra, saying Mass and listening to the concerns of the people. In an effort to maintain the sense of community, Fr. Zepeda also makes annual visits to the local men and boys who have gone off to work in Queens, which he humorously calls Manhatitlán (Spanish speakers can read his article online).

Also, in an attempt to create even deeper bonds to home, FCE has started a project of furnishing musical instruments in the villages. Thus far, 25 indigenous villages have formed their own bandas de viento – concert bands – each with a dozen or so instruments. Fr. Zepeda marvels at how quickly villagers learn these instruments. Once a band is formed, they can earn money playing at baptisms and quinceañeras and weddings.

Most recently, Radio Huaya got their long-awaited license. After 40 years of struggle, the little onda corta station began broadcasting at 105.5 FM on Valentine’s Day, 2005.

Will Radio Huaya ever be back on short wave? Fr. Zepeda is vague. Universidad Iberoamericana is still the license holder, so it would be their decision whether they want to undergo the upkeep. But he did describe the day the short wave antenna came down, a solemn and bittersweet day in Huayacocotla. As a symbol, the people still miss it.

Yet everything else remains the same. The station is on the air daily from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm (Sunday programming pre-recorded). The news is given in Spanish and the three local indigenous languages, on a rotating basis. And the frequent Avisos – "Come and pick up two bicycles." "Time to enroll for school, August 17-18." "Please bring my car home. The keys are in the ignition." keep dozens of mountain communities humming along.

If you get to Huayacocotla, you can visit the radio station at Gutierrez Najera # 7. It’s beautifully painted with political murals inside and out. You’ll get a warm welcome and the coffee is always hot.

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