English speakers should welcome Latino FM

This op-ed by senior research fellow Christopher Chávez was originally published in The Register-Guard of Eugene, Oregon. To view the original article, click here.

When I first arrived in Eugene from St. Louis three years ago, I was taken aback by the kindness of my neighbors, who reached out to me and my family. By welcoming us into the community in such a generous way, they made a difficult transition —well, a little easier.

In the same spirit, I’d like to welcome our newest neighbor, radio station KEQB-FM (La Que Buena, 97.7), Lane County’s first Spanish language station on the local dial.

It isn’t “Latino USA” or “Alt.Latino,” programs designed for those diverse-minded, effete progressives who allegedly listen to public radio. No, this is commercial radio that unabashedly plays such Mexican regional musical genres as norteñas, banda and rancheras.

For McKenzie River Broadcasting, which owns the station, this seems like a good, business-minded opportunity to tap into the buying power of an invisible but growing demographic.

According to the U.S. Census, Latinos account for more than 8 percent of the county’s population, but this number is expected to grow significantly over the course of the next few years.

But for the 30,000 Latinos who live in Lane County, this radio station means so much more. Largely in response to Latino exclusion from mainstream media, Spanish language radio traditionally has served as a space where Latinos can hear music that reflects their tastes or tells their stories, in a language they feel most comfortable speaking.

As scholar Dolores Inés Casillas tells it, Spanish-language radio has been a space traditionally where working class Latinos are not scorned for speaking Spanish.

Now, there may be some members of our community who may not feel so welcoming of our new neighbors. The presence of Spanish in public spaces often can be unsettling for many English monolinguals.

“This is America, and here we speak English” might as well be their mantra.

But that perspective is not necessarily meant to communicate, “I want the right to speak my language,” but rather “I don’t want to hear you speak yours.”

It is what Kathryn Woolard and Bambi Schieffelin refer to as a “language ideology,” and like all ideologies, it reflects a totalizing vision. Its goal is not to protect the English language from elimination, for this is certainly not the case, but rather to eliminate all competing languages altogether.

The irony here is that the English language is actually in pretty good shape.

According to British linguist David Crystal, English has become the first truly global language, spoken across the world either as a first language or as a privileged second language.

Here in the United States, English has become the de facto language of education, business and popular culture, while Spanish has been confined to informal, oral communication, relegated to the niche.

If Spanish is taught formally in schools, it is largely a nominal gesture with no real opportunity to meaningfully practice it outside the classroom.

If you want to understand the power of English here in the United States, ask any parent who is attempting to raise their children bilingually. It is an uphill battle.

In the face of such powerful, homogenizing forces, the need for a Spanish-language station in our community is more important than ever. At its best, Latino media can serve a function of civic engagement with the promise to frame issues of importance to a developing electorate, one that traditionally has been disenfranchised by general market media.

The trend is particularly true as we consider the failure of English-­language media to provide any nuanced discussion on Latino immigration. During this election cycle alone, presidential candidates have gone out of their way to marginalize Latinos.

Whether KEQB fulfills its role as protector of the Spanish language and whether it will promote thoughtful and restrained dialogue in the face of truly toxic political rhetoric remains to be seen. In all fairness, that’s a heavy burden to place on a single radio station.

However, its mere existence is significant because it provides a unique voice in a relatively uniform spectrum. By simply being, KEQB delivers on the FCC’s diversity mandate, which is not some gesture of goodwill, or an exercise in political correctness.

The mandate is grounded in the presumption that society benefits when you have competing radio stations that each provide a unique point of view. It is based in the presumption that an increase in minority-­oriented stations might create programming not just for minority audiences but for all listeners by exposing them to alternative perspectives.

Christopher Chávez, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon, is author of the book, “Reinventing the Latino Television Viewer: Language, Ideology, and Practice.”

The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Oregon-UNESCO Crossings Institute.

Jonathan Bach

Jonathan Bach is a Crossings Institute research fellow focusing on the post-Soviet world.

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