Indigenous Mayan community broadcast overcomes language barrier critical to addressing COVID-19 pandemic.

By Martin do Nascimento

COVID-19, Food Security, Technology, Video
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Click the “play” button on the image above to watch a short film Radio B’alam.

When Henry Sales decided to move to the United States from Guatemala, he couldn’t speak English or Spanish fluently. 

“I was nervous,” he says, “but I was like, ‘Yeah, I have this capacity. I can do it. I’m young. I speak Mam. I think I can help my community one day.’”

Henry’s community — Mam-speaking indigenous Guatemalans fleeing discrimination, violence, and economic hardship in Central America — are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in Oakland. 

During the pandemic, the Mam community in Oakland has experienced dramatically higher rates of infection than other Latino residents of the city (who themselves are already considered more likely to become infected compared to the general population).

While some point to the community’s large household sizes and its members’ greater need to continue working outside of the house in spite of the pandemic as the culprits for its elevated infection rates among Oakland’s Mam, Sales sees an even more fundamental issue at play: the language barrier.

“Information is not available in indigenous languages,” he says. “So that’s an issue right there.”

When the pandemic struck, Sales was already known throughout the Mam community in Oakland through a traditional dance group he started in 2018. As lockdowns went into effect and the economy began shedding jobs, Sales quickly became a primary resource for the city’s Mam speakers often fielding 10 to 20 calls a day on his cell phone.

Sales poses for a picture with the members of his traditional dance group after a performance at Urban Promise Academy prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“People were confused. They didn’t know where to go next. Some callers were like, ‘How can I get some food?’” Sales recalls. “People were asking, ‘I want to apply for unemployment, but where do I go?’ Some of them were asking, ‘Where can I get a test for COVID-19?’”

At one point, the calls became too much for Sales, who divides his time working as an interpreter, supporting Mam families for Oakland Unified School District, and teaching Mam at Laney College.

“I remember I was getting a lot of phone calls. I was like, I’m not going to be able to answer all of these,” he says.

That’s when the idea of starting a radio station struck. 

Partnering with Oakland nonprofit Homies Empowerment, Sales and his friend Cresencio Ramirez, known locally as DJ Rx, launched Radio B’alam, or “Jaguar Radio,” from a tiny soundproof room in the Homies’ offices on MacArthur Blvd.

Beginning in December, every weekday from four to seven in the afternoon, the station broadcasts local news and up-to-date pandemic-related information via Facebook to its 5,000-plus followers throughout the Bay Area and beyond all in Mam.

Sales interviews Madeleine Bair, founder of the SMS-based Spanish-language news outlet El Tímpano, during the first broadcast of Radio B’alam.

Alongside the news, and equally important, the station features bright Marimba music native to Guatemala between speaking segments.

“It’s an instrument that brings the community together to dance, and [it] also makes you move, even if you don’t know how to dance,” says Sales. “Sometimes it heals people, because whenever they hear [it], they’d be like, ‘Oh, that reminds me home, reminds me of who I am, where I come from.’”

This story was produced in partnership with Oaklandside.

Top photo: Henry Sales, co-founder of Radio B’alam greets the Mam community in Oakland during the station’s first broadcast.