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Voices from the Valley

Several years ago, the INS began cracking down on undocumented farm workers in south central Washington state, staging raids in local communities during the busy harvest season. After each raid, a new group of workers would be recruited from other towns to fill jobs left vacant by the detentions. More raids would follow.

The staff of a local Spanish-language radio station, concerned for the workers and their families, devised a subtle but effective form of resistance. Whenever it got word that a raid had begun in a given town, it would air a song about la migra (the Immigration and Naturalization Service), dedicating it to nearby Toppenish, Grandview, or whatever town was being raided. “People understood our unspoken message,” said the station's general manager Gabriel Martinez.

KDNA, called Radio Cadena (Radio Network)–nicknamed La Voz del Campesino (the Voice of the Farm Worker)–began operations in the small town of Granger in 1979 to serve a growing Spanish-speaking population. Since becoming a lush farming region in the 1950s, the crescent-shaped valley between Yakima and Richland has become home to the fourth-largest migrant farm worker population in the US. Some 60,000 Spanish speakers make up 30 percent of the population during harvest season—the majority employed as farm workers. Language barriers, poverty, and fear of la migra have kept farm workers virtually powerless—and voiceless.

Ricardo Garcia (now KDNA's executive director) and other Chicano activists in the mid 1970s realized that farm workers and others in the Spanish-speaking community would need to be in communication if they were to create change in their community's living and working conditions.

“Many farm workers do not read,” Garcia said. “We decided that radio was a natural means of communication.” At that time, there was only one Spanish-language radio station, according to Garcia, and it aired on weekends and broadcast only music and advertising.

“Farm workers needed information about housing, health, pesticide exposure, education for children and parents,” said Garcia.

Now, more than 20 years since its founding, KDNA has become a hub for the Latino community. Call-in talk shows are a staple of KDNA's programming addressing health education, immigrants' rights, women's and children's issues, unemployment, labor conditions, and more. Cesar Chavez appeared several times as a guest in the ‘80s, speaking about the movement to organize farm workers. State and local government officials have addressed current issues on KDNA as well. And the farm workers themselves frequently host shows.

KDNA hasn't shied away from controversy, although Martinez recalls they sometimes worried about the community's reaction. Before launching an AIDS-education radio drama in 1989, programmers worried about whether older listeners would accept the frank discussions about sexuality and AIDS. Audience responses were positive, however, and Spanish-language stations across the US are rebroadcasting the program.

Martinez says that KDNA's boldness has strengthened its reputation, increased listener loyalty, and provided a sense of community and safety. The programs have made a point of responding to community needs. Ninfa Gutierrez' Entre Amigas (Between Girlfriends), began broadcasting in response to requests for more women's voices on the air.

“Entra Amigas is for women who have no resources at all,” says Gutierrez, “It's for women who speak only Spanish, and in many cases are homebound or trapped in abusive relationships.” The program has since inspired regular in-person Entra Amigas conversation groups in two towns.

“People arrive here, particularly from Mexico,” Gutierrez says. “They land in this valley, can't find employment, can't speak the language, have no family. KDNA lets them know that they're not alone.”

More on KDNA can be found at www.radiokdna.org.


Jonathan Lawson is a Seattle-based writer and editor and co-founder of the Cascadia Media Alliance, which advocates for media democracy in the Pacific Northwest.

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