Radio Ambulante Offers Live Bilingual Storytelling

A photo of Daniel Alarcón, the executive producer of Radio Ambulante. Here he sits next to a blue wall, looking pensive.

Daniel Alarcón, executive producer of Radio Ambulante.

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A couple’s dream of sharing stories from their Latin American homeland is on the program at this year’s Lit Quake. “Radio Ambulante,” or “Traveling Radio,” will host an evening of live bilingual storytelling at the Mission Cultural Center on Oct. 9.

The project was created by Peruvian author Daniel Alarcón and his wife, Carolina Guerrero. The couple used to ask one another why the Spanish-speaking world is so rich in stories but so poor in radio storytelling.

“I’m from Colombia,” says Guerrero, “and if you have Colombian friends, you know how it is. You just go to somebody’s house and you can just stay there forever, listening to stories and sharing stories.”

Guerrero and Alarcón feel that when Latin American stories are translated into English, something very important is lost. Perhaps for that reason, they say, Latino identity is often reduced to one of two categories: victim or villain.

“We were just sad that the only stories you hear about Latinos in the U.S. are about immigration and poverty,” said Guerrero, “I mean, the human story is never there.”

Inspired by North American radio programs like “This American Life” and “Snap Judgment,” Alarcón and Guerrero set out to tell multilayered radio stories with sophisticated audio production. When they launched their project’s first call for pitches, they were overwhelmed with responses. They started a campaign on Kickstarter and raised $46,032 — $6,000 above their stated goal.

Now “Radio Ambulante” has a small staff and a group of freelance radio producers who contribute stories from all over the Spanish-speaking world, including the United States.
One of Guerrero’s favorite pieces is called “NN,” the Spanish abbreviation for John Doe. The story was produced by Canadian producer Nadja Drost, who is based in Bogotá.

“NN” is about a strange phenomenon: In the town of Puerto Berrío, Colombia, is a river where unidentified bodies frequently wash up. They are the bodies of the disappeared, people who have lost their lives to the tremendous violence that has plagued the region since the 1960s.

People in Puerto Berrío “rescue” the bodies and bury them. In essence, they adopt the bodies, perhaps because many in the town have lost their own children and other family members. Townspeople visit the grave sites and bring flowers. Guerrero notes that the story is interesting because of the “bizarre relationship with the dead.” But, she adds: “I’m very attached to the story because I’m Colombian, so this violence is a very personal thing for me.”

The Puerto Berrío story is peripherally about villains — the unheard-from killers of the unidentified bodies — and victims, but more important, it’s about the people who care for the bodies, and their desire to find meaning in their own lives.

On Tuesday evening, four of the producers of “Radio Ambulante,” including Alarcón, will share their work at the Mission Cultural Center. The event will also feature conversations about storytelling in Spanish and about radio production.

Tickets for “Radio Ambulante” are $12 in advance, $15 at the door.

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