Hispanic media storms North Carolina as immigration debate erupts

by Amy Kingsley

The Minuteman caravan turns into a parking lot on High Point Road, a line of rattletrap RVs scrawled in red paint and sedans filled with road trip trash, the rear pulled up by a patriotically themed muscle car. Scores of reporters and some of the locals who came out in support of the caravan dodge traffic to reach the group, which had to abandon plans to rally in the parking lot across the street.

‘“We’ve just stopped to buy a few things on our way out of town,’” announces Philip Ernst.

While caravan members stock up on supplies for the last leg of their trip up to Washington, DC, Minutemen co-founder Jim Gilchrist will speak to members of the press, Ernst says. Photographers, word journalists and representatives from the local NPR affiliate line up outside the trailer’s door, waiting for Gilchrist to summon them.

The backdrop, a strip mall that houses among other retailers a laundromat labeled lavanderia, provides significantly less symbolic cache than the stars-and-stripes adorning the American Furniture where they’d originally planned to rally. In the far corner of the asphalt expanse, a clutch of men in shorts and sleeveless shirts who should have been at the center of the debate watch instead from the periphery.

After several minutes the men cross traffic to the other side where black-clad protesters wave banners ordering the Minutemen to go home. There, under the red, white and blue billboard, they tell their story.

‘“We work twelve hours a day picking tobacco,’” Adolfo Briceño translates. ‘“It is hard work, no American wants to take it. They want to drive us out, but they shouldn’t just expel us like that. What would we do in Mexico? This country is blessed with enough jobs and food for everyone. Even with all the immigrants, there’s enough for everybody.’”

Briceño speaks clearly into a microphone held by WFDD reporter Jessica Davis. He has stashed his own notebook and audio recorder, the twin implements he uses for double duty as a Que Pasa radio and print reporter. The Minutemen did not grant an interview with Gilchrist to the reporter.

Although he was unable to access the Minutemen’s side of the story, Briceño stays and helps other news outlets, none of which have brought along a bilingual reporter. This man, who has covered the Triad’s Latino community for a scant five months, is an unexpected bridge for mainstream media professionals hot on the day’s story.

Piedmont Triad news reporters used to jockeying with each other for material have seen new faces at the starting gate in the past month. As the debate over illegal immigration makes headline news, local Spanish-language media professionals have joined the fray. Or, maybe mainstream journalists have suddenly stumbled upon the beat they staked out a decade ago.

Either way, reporters who have up until now chased stories in parallel universes have witnessed them intersect in the last month’s immigration debate. Whether those paths stay intertwined, and for how long, might be as much at stake in this legislative rumble as the lives of 11 million illegal immigrants.

It is impossible to talk about Spanish-language media in North Carolina without discussing Que Pasa, the company started by Jose Isasi, a Cuban refugee and successful businessman. The Winston-Salem based company that started with a single newspaper in 1995 has now grown to include three regional editions and eight radio stations across the state. A recent merger with Capital Broadcasting Company has set the stage for a foray into television.

Despite his company’s current dominance, Isasi was no pioneer in North Carolina Spanish-language broadcasting. La Movidita, the sole independent Spanish-language station, emerged several years before the first Que Pasa station, and the two companies have skirmished over the invisible turf of radio waves for several years.

Marco Saucedo, also known as Tio Sam, left a lucrative career in contracting to follow his passion for radio. It all started with tapes he would send home to his mother in Monterrey, Mexico, recordings of her infant grandchildren interspersed with talking and music. Saucedo started making the tapes about 20 years ago when he lived in Houston. Soon he got the idea to make tapes for his work crews that were stationed across the country, each one bearing call signs for fake radio stations. At company picnics, he noticed his employees trading the tapes.

‘“It was like they were hungry for something,’” he says. ‘“There weren’t any (Spanish) radio stations back then.’”

Several years passed that way, and Saucedo branched out into producing commercials for his friends’ businesses. Then in 1991, an Atlanta radio station allowed Saucedo to buy weekly airtime for his show. He left the station nine months later for a job in Dalton, Ga., where he promptly started emceeing dances and working as a DJ at another station that allowed him to purchase airtime.

His emerging promotion company took him up to Charlotte for a dance, and the local Latino population begged him to move his radio show there, Saucedo says. He tried but was thwarted by owners of a local Mexican restaurant who bought the time at twice his offered price for their own program. The Charlotte station manager threw up his hands, unable to turn down the deal. But he had an offer for Saucedo.

‘“He couldn’t give me nothing else in Charlotte,’” Saucedo says. ‘“But he said, ‘I have a radio station in Winston-Salem available for five hours a day.””

Although he had reservations about moving to small-town North Carolina, he took the offer. In 1996, he moved to Winston-Salem.

‘“One Sunday I started driving and I saw big trees and a peaceful atmosphere and I thought, ‘I am going to make Winston-Salem my home,”” he says.

He dubbed the station La Movidita, which means the movement. The name would turn out to be more prescient than Saucedo could ever have imagined.

While we talk, the music from the adjacent studio bleeds through the walls. Discarded CDs are lodged in each corner of the ceiling, a grid of acoustical tiles. Music dominates La Movidita’s programming, but news and public service have long had their place.

In early 1999 Saucedo struggled to make ends meet, occasionally living out of rest stops and hotel rooms. One night, in a desperate bid to woo an advertiser, Saucedo spent all night playing cards and selling his station to a club owner.

In the morning, on the way to his 12 p.m. radio shift, he received a phone call. A friend on the other line told him the news. Forsyth County Sheriff’s Deputy Brian Barker had been shot by what he described as two Hispanic men.

Saucedo opened his microphone and told his Latino listeners to pray for the officer and cooperate with police who set up roadblocks and combed their neighborhoods. To objections that police were illegally raiding homes, Saucedo urged calm and told the listeners he would help address legal complaints when the search had ended. The night after the shooting, Saucedo and members of the city’s Hispanic community visited the hospital, proffering a get-well bouquet.

Two days later, after ballistics tests conducted by Winston-Salem police traced the bullets back to the officer’s own gun, Barker admitted to shooting himself and concocting the story.

‘“Thank you, God,’” Saucedo said at the time. ‘“You heard my people.’”

Saucedo accepted an apology issued by a representative of the sheriff’s office over the airwaves at his studio.

‘“We forgive you,’” he said, ‘“and we are never going to think all of you are the same as this coward who shot himself and blamed others.’”

After that, Saucedo and La Movidita’s fortunes improved. A weight, he says, lifted off his broad shoulders.

Que Pasa, the newspaper he said had ignored him for years, even came around to doing an article. They interviewed him and took many pictures of his console and equipment. He never saw the article but soon received word from Truth Broadcasting, which owned the station from which he rented airtime, that Que Pasa bought the morning show for news.

Soon after, Truth Broadcasting evicted him from his 1040 AM frequency altogether. Saucedo, a bear of a man whose ringed and bloodshot eyes give away the age belied by a shock of black hair, unlocks his desk drawer and pulls out an envelope. He opens it and dumps three tapes on the surface, the last ones he recorded before shutting down.

Que Pasa media’s main office in Winston-Salem tends toward the functional end of modern. Black trims gray walls trapped between ivory linoleum and white ceiling. The receptionist buzzes me in, and while I wait for my meeting with Director of Radio Operations Roger Martinez, workers breeze through the mirrored ‘“Employees Only’” door.

Behind the door is a long hallway of offices. Through a window two men operate a radio console. Martinez, nattily dressed in tweed and canary yellow, leads the way back to his office.

He started in radio at the tender age of 15, studied broadcast engineering and moved to Mexico for experience. In the United States, he worked in the San Francisco Bay area, then in Atlanta and Charlotte launching new Spanish language formats.

His job for Que Pasa, which started four months ago, is to revamp their radio programming. Already he’s changed about half of the company’s stations from the regional Mexican format to something called ‘“Spanish contemporary.’” Their Spanish contemporary stations are at 1590 AM in High Point and 1220 AM in Greensboro, and the regional Mexican formats are 1380 AM in Winston-Salem and 1470 AM in Greensboro.

‘“[Our audience] is a pretty diverse group,’” Martinez says. ‘“Most of them are from Mexico but we have people from Central and South America. With the two different formats we are trying to give them what they like to listen to.’”

Like Saucedo and La Movidita, a significant part of their programming is social service, detailing their rights and responsibilities in America.

‘“We are more emphasizing talk shows about how to get along with the culture,’” Martinez says. ‘“We have a newspaper, a weekly publication, and they provide us with the local news of what’s going on in the area. We are very attached to each other for help.’”

One of the programs Que Pasa features is hosted by activists for Accion Hispana, a Winston-Salem based advocacy group.

‘“Most of the people who come here have a fifth-grade education and they cannot read very well,’” says Pauline Sale, the executive director of Accion Hispana. ‘“So listening to the radio is much easier than looking at a newspaper.’”

‘“Workers can listen to the radio at the workplace, whether it’s a construction site or a kitchen,’” Sale says. Many new immigrants don’t understand American laws regarding domestic violence, statutory rape and drunk driving, which differ from some Latino customs.

On May 1, Que Pasa radio stations broadcast new reports from around the state. The stations played minimal music programming, Martinez says.

‘“That’s our main topic right now, the new immigration laws,’” Martinez says. ‘“That, to us, is what the community needs to know about.’”

Because the Hispanic population in this area has grown so much in the last decade, Que Pasa radio has had little difficulty lining up advertisers wanting to sell to their key demographic.

‘“That’s one of the reasons we decided to have a radio station in this area,’” he says. ‘“American companies are very interested in advertising.’”

Although the Hispanic population in North Carolina wields considerable consumer clout, $12 million a year according to Que Pasa’s research, their political force is weak. The lack of political power is due in part to the fact that so many are first-generation immigrants who do not have citizenship. Winston-Salem’s 8 percent Hispanic population (it is between 4 and 5 percent in Greensboro and High Point) is still lower than the 12 percent national average.

The rise of Spanish-language radio is not without historical precedent. Yiddish-speaking Jews who immigrated to America in the 1930s started low-power stations catering to their community.

‘“Back then the pull of popular American dominant culture was far more powerful than it is now,’” wrote Henry ‘“Hank’” Sapoznik, the director of the Yiddish Radio Project. ‘“So small power ethnic stations had to find a way to both harness the relentless presence of American acculturation through shows which mediated both cultures (‘Yiddish Melodies in Swing’) and programs like ‘Rabbi Rubin’s Court of the Air’ which were a bulwark against that same encroaching assimilation.’”

In the age of the iPod, radio listening, and thus the medium’s hegemonizing power, has diminished, he wrote. The need for informational programming for immigrants was not as great.

‘“There were many shows and PSAs on radio back then (unlike now) and much of the navigational skills (where to vote, celebration of American holidays) was clearly underscored through them,’” Sapoznik wrote.

The population of Yiddish speakers declined by the 1950s, a trend that appears unlikely to repeat itself given the growing population of Spanish speakers. Indeed, their numbers in the area have increased enough for Clear Channel to switch a Triad radio station over to its La Preciosa format. And the people are there in numbers large enough to support even the rebirth of independent La Movidita on the 1040 AM frequency.

La Movidita’s office building on the north side of Winston-Salem is a brick two story. The bottom floor is vacant; La Movidita’s office’s are on the second floor. Posters of Ranchera stars in soft focus cover the walls on both levels.

After Que Pasa moved in, Saucedo took a job translating at the Department of Motor Vechicles and went back to buying airtime on Saturdays and Sundays on WTOB. Eventually he rented two low-power stations, 1380 and 1470, so he could broadcast simultaneously. One of the stations cracked Arbitron’s top ten, but Saucedo was worried, he said.

Sure enough, a visit to Truth Broadcasting in February 2003 confirmed his fear of being evicted again. With nine days to get out, Saucedo worried about starting all over again. Then a representative from Que Pasa offered to get him his old frequency back again.

‘“The only one who can destroy this station is its manager,’” said Saucedo, who claims the title president. ‘“And that’s God.’”

On May 1 of this year, Saucedo put a single song on repeat, a folk song about the immigrant experience played over chants of ‘“Si, se pueda!’” On that day, he encouraged listeners to boycott, but not to protest.

‘“What’s a day without immigrants when everybody’s in the street?’”

Saucedo said the Minutemen have just as much right to protest as his own people, and he would encourage his listeners to ignore them.

His equanimity is a bit puzzling given his family background. Nearer to the turn of the twentieth century, his grandmother was banished from her native Texas by federales in the run up to the Spanish-American War. Saucedo came to this country legally, but by all rights should have already been a citizen.

He boasts about how his advertising brings results and how his is the most popular station in town. But his office, even three years after the move, still has a half unpacked feel to it, as though he can feel the hatchet just waiting to fall.

Although many of the reporters present at the Minutemen protest expressed surprise at the high emotions on both sides of the street, Adolfo Briceño shrugs. In the five years he covered public affairs in Mexico he saw riots, police brutality and got tear gassed.

‘“I think the protest was disenfranchised,’” he says. ‘“I think the Minutemen, people relate them to violence and people here shy away from that.’”

Briceño moved to North Carolina from Mexico in January to work at Que Pasa. The work has been much less stressful, he says, more focused on personality profiles than breaking the big story.

Briceño says he can maintain neutrality, but that his sources often presume he is an advocate for Latinos.

‘“You try to keep away from involving your own emotions,’” he says. ‘“But people expect you to get involved. Still, you try to deal with the issue at hand without bias.’”

Although he didn’t interview any of the Minutemen, he says they were friendly and can understand their position.

‘“If eleven million or twelve million Americans crossed the border into Mexico it would be an outrage,’” he says.

Although his ability to speak Spanish helps him connect to sources, he faces some of the same challenges as mainstream journalists, with illegal immigrants who refuse to go on the record.

And the reason he helps other journalists? A sort of reportorial solidarity, he says. In an event where all the information is out in the open, he sees no problem helping to translate for a journalist competing in the same radio market.

‘“This story is fair game,’” Briceño says. ‘“If they want to cover Hispanic issues, they will.

‘“For the other journalists, this story is like dinner,’” he continues. ‘“Tomorrow they will not even remember what they had.’”

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