Rising over the cornfields and cutting through the morning fog, a young woman's voice breaks the eerie stillness of this verdant mountain town. "Welcome to Radio Huayacocotla," she says in Spanish, "the voice of the campesinos."
Sitting behind a sound-mixing board in a cramped broadcast booth off a narrow cobbled street, Lucrecia Linares Mina, 23, repeats her salutation in her native Tepehua, an ancient tongue akin to Mayan. Then, shuffling through a stack of handwritten paper slips, she launches into a 10-minute recitation of birthday and anniversary greetings, pleas to return lost pets, and other considerably more urgent communiques linking this remote town of 5,000, plus scores of neighboring villages and hamlets, with New York, San Francisco and other cities across the U.S. border thousands of miles away. Although it's still early Saturday morning, and the station's signal tends to get raspy and faint as it skips across the ridges and ravines of the Sierra Madre Oriental, someone, somewhere, is sure to be listening closely.
For roughly three decades, Radio Huayacocotla (pronounced hway-ah-koh-KOHT-lah), a 500-watt shortwave community radio station deep in the heart of rural Veracruz state in east-central Mexico, has served as an audio lifeline for some of this country's poorest and most overlooked people. Broadcasting eight hours a day, six days a week, in a region where illiteracy is high and technology low, the station is many people's main news outlet. And as the only licensed radio station operated primarily by and for indigenous Mexicans, it's a unique source of two other commodities that some deem crucial to this community's long-term survival: regular contact with distant loved ones, and the freewheeling, improvisational music called son huasteco.
A rugged, high-altitude expanse that embraces parts of six states, the Huastec region was set apart by geography in pre-Columbian times from the great Mayan and Aztec civilizations to the southeast and west, creating a distinct regional culture. Today, that independent streak asserts itself in a resolutely agrarian lifestyle, centered in scores of scattered, spartan villages where a few dozen families raise corn and sheep and inhabit log cabins or cinderblock houses perched on steep, fog-swept hillsides.
Son huasteco, an all-occasions music that merges sacred and profane purposes, is the soundtrack for this lifestyle and is performed at public fiestas, weddings, private parties and anywhere else that musicians come together for an impromptu jam session. In fact, in huasteco culture there is no essential distinction between music for praying and music for partying, says Alfredo Zepeda, 62, an outspoken and energetic Jesuit priest who has worked in the area for 23 years and serves as the radio station's adviser and behind-the-scenes muse. "All the traditional music is religious music," he says. "In this sense, the religion is part of the culture."
But during the past 30 years, this rural highlands, like many parts of Mexico, has suffered a dramatic erosion of its population as rural peasants, mostly men, have fled their work-starved villages and migrated to the United States. Many leave home as young as 14. In the local pueblito of Benito Juarez, 25 of the village's 48 adult males are working in the United States, Alfredo says. Heavy deforestation by timber companies and stiff agricultural competition from heavily subsidized U.S. farmers have reshaped the local economy. Like the lifestyle it celebrates, huasteco music also had slipped into decline.
Today, many here credit the radio station with sparking a renewed sense of cultural identity among local indigenous people as well as a revival among the young in putting together son huasteco bands and performing in public. Some musicians say they learned to play by listening to the station, which has helped local groups purchase instruments.
Besides deepening this musical connection to the past, Radio Huayacocotla, with only a handful of regular employees, also broadcasts regional news in Spanish and in the indigenous languages of Otomi, Tepehua and Nahuatl. Perhaps most important, five times a day it transmits 10-minute segments of avisos y saludos, notices and greetings that come rolling in from a 50-mile radius as well as from pay-phone callers and letter writers in California, New York and other states.
Most of the callers and letter writers are husbands, boyfriends or brothers working in the United States, wanting to let their families know that they made it safely across the border or that they'll be wiring money home soon. (Because of Mexico's monopolistic phone system, it can cost 10 or 20 times less to call the United States from rural Mexico than vice versa.) The station receives hundreds of such calls and letters every week.
Jotted down and read on-air by the station's announcers, these missives come wafting out of hundreds of shortwave receivers across the slopes and valleys. Not long ago, one man called in from New York instructing his wife to come into town from Puebla Nueva, a three-hour bus ride away, to receive his phone call later in the week; he knew his mother would be listening to the station, as usual, and would tell his wife.
Pedro Ruperto Albino, 28, an Otomi Indian who started working at Radio Huayacocotla as an intern and now has the title of station coordinator, says that when he was a schoolboy, he and his friends used to listen to heavy metal and rock. Because of the station, they've discovered their community's true roots. "In recent years, the young people have returned to appreciate the music and to identify with it," he says.
On a gray, soggy summer afternoon, the atmosphere inside Radio Huayacocotla is both festive and businesslike. Griselda Marin Merida, 18, is fielding a steady stream of calls and writing down avisos to be read on the air. Rough wooden shelves surround her small desk, stuffed with vinyl albums, 45s, cassettes, reel-to-reel tapes of every imaginable kind of traditional Mexican music -- ranchera, nortena, tropicales, sinaloense, children's music -- mixed in with errant copies of Mozart's symphonies 40 and 41 and Cat Stevens's "Catch Bull at Four."
A few feet away, a middle-age townswoman named Sofia Roque stands by with her sister-in-law Maria Luis Guzman, 15, and her daughter Maria Josalyn, 3, waiting to dedicate a song in the station's small recording studio. "I've listened to it since I was a girl," Roque says. "We feel that it's our radio station."
Inside the broadcast booth, Ricardo Gonzalez, a painter who works at the station as a disc jockey and announcer, stares at a computer interface as he mixes songs and rattles off announcements. Just outside the booth, his sprawling mural of peasants, framed by the political mantra "Tierra y Libertad" (Land and Liberty), greets visitors entering the two-story radio station.
First conceived by a local Roman Catholic official during the reformist, post-Vatican II era of the mid-1960s, the station grew out of a program to establish radio-training schools throughout rural Mexico. In the mid-1970s, the Jesuits sought to establish an independent community radio station -- a rarity in a country where the Institutional Revolutionary Party has kept a tight rein on independent media. The station is one element in a broader Jesuit-backed initiative to help indigenous people secure better health care, protect their human rights and defend their title to ancestral lands constantly threatened with seizure by powerful private interests, the priest Alfredo says.
Over the years these activities have brought threats, and in 1995 Mexican authorities, spooked by the Zapatista guerrilla peasant uprisings in the southern state of Chiapas, briefly closed the station, accusing it of broadcasting inflammatory messages in code. The next five years were tense, Alfredo says. "The government saw the entire people as potential guerrillas."
In a region so depleted by poverty and outward migration, the station provides both a social and spiritual anchor. Symbolically, its transmission tower looms as high as the town's tallest church. The priests say that getting the locals to trust them and support the station was difficult at first. "They look at us with suspicion and see us as part of the church hierarchy," Alfredo says. What's more, many people were simply beyond reach of the shortwave signal or couldn't afford to keep a radio in their homes.
Gradually, as the station grew, the priests began raising money to buy radios and distribute them to outlying regions. They also helped people customize their radio antennas for better reception. "We began to move slowly into the indigenous communities," Alfredo says, "and the radio walked with us."
Not unlike Appalachian bluegrass, son huasteco is a plaintive, homespun music performed by string trios of violin, the ukulele-like jarana and the large, double-string huapanguera. Many songs revolve around unrequited love, melancholy landscapes and the hardships of daily life.
Just as the music's spiritual and secular qualities have blurred, so has the role of the musicians with that of the listeners. "In indigenous communities, the concept of a spectacle doesn't exist," Alfredo says. "They're not spectators, they're participants."
All day people drop by the station: musicians who stop to chat about upcoming festivals over endless cups of coffee and animal crackers; the town drunk, hoping for a handout; and listeners from the countryside bringing gifts of fresh fruit and vegetables. "For the people," Alfredo says, "the door is always open."