This week, Pulitzer-Prize-winner Junot Diaz, renowned journalist and novelist Francisco Goldman, and their friend and fellow writer Daniel Alarcón will host a very special event at Instituto Cervantes New York: A Latin American “life multimedia storytelling show.”
The event is a fundraiser for Radio Ambulante, an online radio program that showcases compelling human stories from all over Latin America, and the brainchild of Alarcón and his wife, Carolina Guerrero. “Radio Ambulante is a Latin American project for Latin Americans,” says Alarcón from his home in San Francisco, California. “We consider the U.S. as a Latin American country too.”
Radio Ambulante is part of a larger phenomenon: the current Latin American boom of non-fiction. Many of the program’s contributors (Cristian Alarcón, Daniel Titinger, Diego Osorno, Gabriela Wiener, Daniel Alarcón himself) are editors or writers for some of the main outlets of that movement, such as the magazines Etiqueta Negra, Gatopardo, and Anfibia.
“There is a growing interest of Latin Americans in our own reality,” concludes Alarcón. “Radio Ambulante is a reflection of that interest.”
A clear example of the Latino-gringo identity created by the immigration waves of the past decades, Daniel Alarcón is an ideal candidate to lead this project.
Born in Lima, Perú, in 1977, he grew up in the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama. Two older sisters were born in Baltimore while their father, a Peruvian psychiatrist, was doing his training at Johns Hopkins. By the time of Daniel’s birth the family was back in the home country, but they returned to the U.S. when the father was offered a teaching position at the University of Alabama. “I grew up in a tiny Latino community of the New South, but I always remained in touch with Perú,” says Alarcón in perfect Spanish.
The displacement did have one crucial cultural consequence though: like Dominicans Díaz or Julia Alvarez, Colombian Jaime Manrique or Puerto Rican Esmeralda Santiago, among others, Alarcón is a writer from a Spanish-language country whose literary language is English.
His career has been meteoric. Alarcón’s first book, the collection of short stories “War by Candlelight,” was a finalist for the 2006 PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award. In 2007, he was named one of the “Best Young American Novelists” by Granta magazine and also one of the “Bogotá 39,” a group of promising Latin American writers. Considered as one of the best representatives of his generation in both the English and the Spanish-language literary worlds is a privilege Alarcón shares with only a few of other colleagues. In 2010, the New Yorker named him one of 20 promising writers under 40.
In 2007 he published his first novel, “Lost City Radio,” which in a way anticipated his present endeavor. The novel, winner of the 2009 International Literature Prize and the 2008 PEN USA Novel Award, takes place at a nameless South American country that is emerging from a terrible civil war. Its centerpiece is a radio host who every week reads lists of missing people who are anxiously expected by an audience still hopeful of reuniting with their loved ones.
In 2008, the BBC invited Alarcón to co-produce a one-hour radio documentary in Perú. The proposal attracted him immediately. “I come from a radio family,” he says. “In his youth, my father was a soccer commentator, my uncle was a DJ and my aunt—who served as a model to my novel’s character—worked for ‘radios campesinas’ in Peru.” In their own childhood, Daniel and his sisters also used to tape audio cassettes with accounts of their lives in Alabama that they would later send to their relatives in Lima and Arequipa. Those spoken letters are Radio Ambulante’s most personal, intimate seed.
Eventually, many of the interviews conducted by Alarcón for the BBC show were left out of it by its editors. This was a bit disappointing for him, but it also made him wonder what it would be like to produce a whole program in Spanish. Daniel and Carolina chew over the idea for a while and finally decided to give it a try.
They had a lot of learning to do, from the technicalities of podcasting to how to write a script, “which is different from writing short stories or novels,” says Alarcón. “I still have a lot to learn,” he adds with modesty and determination. “I want to be a good radio journalist.”
Through a Kickstarter campaign, the Alarcóns collected $40,000. That money paid for the first season of the show, three one-hour episodes that were aired on May, July, and November of 2012. Each episode is made up of several stories produced in podcast format by a team of contributors from Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Spain, United States, and Venezuela. The podcasts are now available on-line and on iTunes; the idea is to broadcast them too, through a number of AM and FM radio stations in Latin America and the U.S.
Claudio Iván Remeseira is a New York-based award-winning journalist, writer, and critic. Translator of the Spanish-language on-line section of The Nation and editor of Hispanic New York, an online portal and blog on current events and culture. Editor of Hispanic New York: A Sourcebook (Columbia University Press, 2010), an anthology of essays on the city’s Latino, Latin American & Iberian cultural heritage, and winner of the Latino International Book Award in the category of Best Reference Book in English (2011).