Editor’s note: This is a Q&A with Monica De La Torre, author of “Feminista Frequencies: Community Building Through Radio in the Yakima Valley,” published by the University of Washington Press.
SOMETIMES A RADIO STATION is more than just a radio station — especially, it seems, when it’s small, independent, lets the DJs do more or less what they want and has perhaps yanked itself from the jaws of bankruptcy more often than it would care to admit.
Those kinds of stations make a landscape richer, and give a flavor of who lives there: In the southwest United States, you can hear DJs on KTNN joking with listeners in Navajo (Diné Bizaad) and playing country music; up in the Yukon Territory, 170 miles south of the Arctic Circle, the superbly unpredictable CFYT might broadcast a block of French synth-pop followed by updates from the local chamber of commerce.
And if you find yourself driving through the Yakima Valley, you can tune the dial to 91.9 FM and hear KDNA, “la voz del campesino” (“voice of the farmworker”) — one of the first, and perhaps most extraordinary, Spanish-language community stations in the United States.
Founded by farmworkers and activists in 1979, KDNA has been a tentpole and beacon for Spanish speakers across Eastern Washington, and sometimes beyond — a cultural and information clearinghouse for a population that didn’t have its own newspapers or TV stations and often was regarded as little more than a source of labor.
As scholar Monica De La Torre describes in “Feminista Frequencies,” her new book about KDNA, women occupied major leadership roles at the station from the beginning (news director, music director, station manager) and widened the spectrum of programming. Besides music and news, KDNA aired call-in shows; women-centric programs (rare for that time and place); and Sunday-morning Mass; as well as practical information about community events, job opportunities and immigration law. It also produced award-winning radio dramas about urgent local health issues such as HIV and childhood asthma, which was sometimes triggered by agricultural pesticides.
For some, KDNA was a lifeline. For others, it was a headache.
In its early days, growers and landowners lodged complaints with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and Border Patrol agents said KDNA had a habit of warning undocumented workers about upcoming roundups by playing specific code songs — and dedicating them to towns about to be raided.
“The impact of radio programming by, for and about farmworker women extended beyond entertainment,” De La Torre writes, “and into the realm of care.”
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. And a note on terminology: Because much of her research deals with the mid-20th century, De La Torre uses terms such as “Chicana” and “Latino” instead of the more contemporary, gender-neutral “Latinx” or “Latine.”
Brendan Kiley: For people who’ve never heard of it, what’s KDNA?
Monica De La Torre: It’s a radio station in Granger, Washington, that primarily broadcasts in Spanish and has been on the air for over 40 years. When you pronounce KDNA in Spanish, it sounds like “cadena,” which translates to “chain” or “link.” Radio Cadena is one of the most important Spanish-language radio stations — not just in the Pacific Northwest but, as I hope the book shows, in the U.S.
BK: You write that by 1985, three of the five Chicano-run community stations in the United States — including KDNA — were led by women station managers. That seems impressive for 1985. What was happening?
MDLT: A lot of these stations were started by community activists, where women were quite involved, and a lot of the Chicano stations came out of rural farmworker areas — the farmworkers themselves weren’t just men, but also women and, sadly, children, because the pay required an entire family unit to go out into the fields. So, as a scholar of the Chicana movement, I know that in those groups, there were always women involved.
BK: You write about station manager Rosa Ramón, news director Bernice Zuniga, producer Celia Prieto and others who brought a huge variety of experience. Some had been farmworkers, or had radio experience, or had been activists. And you mention María Estela Rebollosa, a 46-year-old mother of six before she became a prominent DJ. How did their leadership help shape the station in ways a male-dominated team, with maybe a narrower range of experiences, might not have?
MDLT: For me, the primary thing that comes to mind is that they created a station of care. It was really about caring for people, more than just: “Hey, there isn’t a Spanish-language station in the Yakima Valley, so let’s make one.” Women went in there and taught each other how to produce, which was very intentional. It didn’t matter if you were 46, or 19, or 58. It was: “Do you want to be on the radio? Cool; come join us.”
There was the element of having women say, “You know, we don’t want to listen to music that’s gonna degrade us,” then the men saying, “That makes sense — and you’re right; our music is pretty sexist sometimes.” So music director Estella Del Villar would sit there, listen to records as they came in and filter out all the sexist music.
And they asked: “What do women want to talk about?” Anything and everything, right? We want to talk about cooking and have recipes on air, we want to have music, but we also want to be serious and acknowledge things like domestic violence and incest — I don’t think that would’ve happened in an only-male-run station, to be honest. Because those situations intimately affect women in a particular way.
I think maybe as women we’ve been conditioned and raised to care differently. That came through in the shows they picked. They cared about that community — because they were part of that community.
BK: The KDNA program “Mujer” (“Woman”) seems like a result of that ethos — and “Tres Hombres Sin Fronteras” (“Three Men Without/Beyond Borders”), which dealt with HIV through the stories of farmworkers and their families.
MDLT: Yes. “Tres Hombres” was just so cutting-edge and ahead of its time. It got aired nationally, on both commercial and noncommercial stations, even aired in prisons, and won the 1989 Silver Award for Community Service from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. But some stations were just furious, and listeners were upset because they were very explicit in talking about sex — sex with women and men — and talking about condom use. There was just no skirting around those words. A lot of Latino listeners were conservative and religious — but, you know, HIV and AIDS was becoming rampant among farmworkers. It’s like, well, you might feel a little uncomfortable, but people are dying. So just get over it.
BK: The station faced other pushback too, right?
MDLT: Yeah. They pissed off a lot of growers who called the FCC, saying, “There’s a station telling farmworkers to unionize” — for basically just telling them their rights. And there was some machismo: A group of older Latino men in the community tried to get Rosa fired.
BK: But overall, it sounds as if KDNA was very attuned to its community.
MDLT: Just seeing how they laid out their programming schedule was reflective of what a farmworker wants to listen to. In the early, early mornings, when they’re out, they might want music to pump them up, so let’s play rancheras and corridos! And on their downtime, or at the end of the harvest season, they might need another job, so let’s make a program like “Oportunidades de Trabajo” (“Job Opportunities”). And, oh, our grandfather lived through the Mexican Revolution, so let’s interview him and put that on the air.
They also had Mass on Sundays; they had a priest — having that religious programming probably gave them the ability to air the AIDS programming, and some of those religious listeners might otherwise have never, ever listened to anything like “Tres Hombres.”
All these might seem like inconsequential choices, but they really did have an impact — they were embracing the full extent of human life. And they were providing vital, everyday resources to a community that was largely ignored. They also had a kind of radio-Craigslist program. They’d just open up the lines and say, “We have Pancha from Sunnyside who has a pickup truck for sale” or, “Juan from Yakima needs a washing machine” or even help people find a hog or goat that had escaped. One woman shared with me that she got a carseat that helped her [and her children] leave her husband, who was physically abusing her. These might seem like small, mundane examples, but it was about sharing resources, and it did sometimes change people’s lives.
BK: What else allowed KDNA, “la voz del campesino,” to flourish in the particular way it did?
MDLT: This was something I didn’t really flesh out in the book, about having the station in a rural setting in the Pacific Northwest — but they were distant enough, maybe, from the competition to give them more free rein and have a small-town, community-embedded atmosphere, really built by and for farmworkers. I don’t know what this would’ve looked like in L.A. or San Francisco. I think the location, just kind of being in the middle of nowhere, helped create this environment of: “We gotta support each other, and we can’t be petty about not wanting a women’s show, or not wanting to talk about HIV.” It was more like: “Well, this is what’s happening in our community.”
The folks who started it had roots in farmworker activism, had been involved with Cesar Chavez — he came to the station, was inspired and asked, “How do we do this in California?” [In 1983, four years after his first visit to Radio Cadena, Chavez helped found Radio Campesina, which grew into a network that now runs eight stations in three states.]
And they embraced the fullness of the human experience, the different aspects that make us who we are, which I think is revolutionary. What I see pushing their work was: “They don’t want us on the air, so we have to do it ourselves. Let’s get out there and create the programming we want.”
You want news and information, but also fun tunes to listen to on a Saturday night. You want to kick back and party with your family. You want to be thought of as more than a worker, more than just a body that labors in a field and then is asked to “go home.” Home? This is home!
BK: The answer to this question might seem stupidly obvious to you, but — why is that significant? Why was sending that signal of “We are here” so important?
MDLT: I mean, that’s the question, right? That’s everything! As somebody who grew up with really hardworking, working-class parents, there’s so much in this country that constantly reminds you that you’re not wanted. That who you are is not something we’re proud of. It’s something we want you to forget, something we want you to erase. Hurry up and assimilate. Learn English. Stop listening to that ruckus. You know, Mexican music gets made fun of a lot: hardcore ranchera, the music you hear at barbecues. That’s not considered U.S. culture, not part of our Americana.
But it is! Even in the Pacific Northwest — that’s why I felt compelled to focus on this station. When people think of Washington, they might not think Latinos are there — at least, I didn’t. When I got accepted to grad school at the University of Washington, I thought: “OK; I’m really going to grunge land with all the white boys.” But no! There’s so much rich Latino history here, in this part of the country that doesn’t really showcase it. Migrant farmworkers came to the region, settled and said, “I’m going to make this my home.” This book is only one little, tiny story about a Spanish-language FM station, but I hope it will make people curious about their neighbors and their communities — and maybe debunk some of this myth about the whiteness of the Northwest.
I also hope people will realize there have been moments when we had the opportunity to make whatever we wanted, and how empowering that is. I think public media is not funded the way it should be. Little by little, we’ve been privatizing and commercializing — for the benefit of who? Yeah; maybe I can turn on the radio in L.A. and hear the same friggin’ song I heard in Seattle. Maybe people find some comfort in that familiarity, but I don’t think we realize how much we’ve lost in giving that away — across the country, across the board, for all communities. I’m not even talking about just for Latinos. I mean all of us.