New England Latinidades through Spanish-Language Radio: The Case of WFCR’s Tertulia Mari Castañeda / University of Massachusetts, Amherst
When people reflect upon the history of western New England, rarely do Latinos enter into the popular imaginary as a population that was central to the region’s growth in the post-World War II era. Yet in fact, there is a long history of Latinos in western Massachusetts, particularly Puerto Ricans, who labored in the tobacco and agricultural fields, factories, and service sector. People from the island began migrating to the region after Operation Bootstrap (Operación Manos a la Obra) failed to produce sustainable economic development on the island in 1950s. In many cases, families settled in the Northeast, and rarely to return to Puerto Rico on a permanent basis.
From 1950s to 1980s, the Connecticut River Valley, especially western Massachusetts, experienced a great migration of Puerto Ricans. In the region, Holyoke, MA became a central site of relocation and currently boasts the largest concentration of Puerto Ricans outside the island. Carmen Whalen notes that the vast migration of Puerto Rican farmworkers was the result of increasing agricultural labor needs particularly those in the “Tobacco Valley” of western New England, an area thirty miles wide and ninety miles long near the Connecticut River.
Over the years, the challenges and opportunities many of these Puerto Rican families faced in the dominantly non-Latino white spaces of New England as well as the need to create a far-reaching Boricua cultural space became a primary impetus for the creation of “Tertulia,” a Spanish-language radio program aired on Sunday nights on New England Public Radio, WFCR 88.5FM. It is currently the longest running Spanish-language radio program in the region’s public radio landscape, having begun in early 1980s with various iterations in the 1970s. The initial creator of the program, Luis Alfonso Meléndez, noted in an interview I conducted with him in 2004, “nobody in any of the local stations were talking about what was happening with Puertoriqueños in the region, so this program became a lifeline for many people in the community not only because Spanish-language music was being played – at the time, there weren’t many if any commercial stations oriented towards Latinos – but we also discussed real issues that affected Latinos locally, regionally, nationally and transnationally.”
The program was called Tertulia as a homage and connection to the tradition in Latin America and the Caribbean where tertulias are spaces of dialogue, debate, and expressive artistic interaction about culture and current affairs. Similarly, as noted on the website, Tertulia on WFCR “es el espacio donde el diálogo se desarrolla entre hispanos y todos aquellos que están interesados en la cultura latino americana, en la música, el arte,el lenguaje y los asuntos de actualidad para los latinos en Nueva Inglaterra” (Tertulia on WFCR is a space where dialogue develops between Latinos and all those who are interested in Latin American culture, music, art, language and current issues for Latinos in New England). WFCR’s Tertulia has a long history of operating as a very important resource for the communities of western New England, particularly for the ways it has brought the Latino voice and perspective to a wider audience through the airwaves.
Thus, the sound history of Tertulia in fact reflects, embodies, and links the cultural history of Puerto Ricans to other Latinos in Massachusetts, particularly with the ways in which Latino communities are transnational diasporic groups that are impacted by the political, economic and social changes that have affected the New England region and home countries abroad. For instance, one of the major issues that Tertulia covered between 1999-2003 was the occupation of Vieques, the tiny sister island off the main island of Puerto Rico. The U.S. military had used Vieques as a bombing site for over sixty years, and Viequense residents partnered with Puerto Rican activists, some from western Massachusetts, to mobilize against the military occupation and force the U.S. government to shut down the weaponry facilities. The six decades of constant arsenal attacks on Vieques created for the residents a slew of health problems and an abusive relationship with military personnel. Luis Alonso Meléndez’s coverage of the issue on Tertulia and active involvement in “Fuera la Marina de Vieques / Navy Leave Vieques” generated vast awareness in New England and beyond, especially because he would also visit Vieques and bring back interviews with people on the island that he would then rebroadcast. The Viequense plight reached global proportions and the military’s program on Vieques was successfully shut down in 2003 after massive protests on the island. After twenty years of programming Tertulia on WFCR 88.5FM, Luis left western Massachusetts and relocated to Puerto Rico. He has since joined forces with other activists from The Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques (CRDV), to create the first low-power radio station on the island. The LPFM station is called Vieques Community Radio FM (RCV/91.FM) and is known as providing programming that represents “La Voz del Este” (the Voice of East Puerto Rico). The transnational sound connection between western Massachusetts and eastern Puerto Rico is not simply embodied by the materiality of the radio waves, but more importantly, the lived experiences and relationships between the people laboring to create audio visibility in both regions and beyond.
As the demographics of the Connective River Valley region has changed, so has the emphasis of Tertulia, which has broadened to include discussions and dialogues regarding the multiplicity of New England Latinidades. The current radio producer of Tertulia, Raquel Obregón, has made a concerted effort to open the airwaves to local activists, scholars and community leaders that represent pan-Latino perspectives. Although Tertulia has a long history of bringing such folks to the radio station, it has become more imperative than ever to address the slew of issues impacting local Latina/o communities such as the state take-over of Latina/o-populated K-12 schools, the gentrification of urban Latino spaces, and the rising police violence against Latina/o im/migrants. In the late-2000s there was an attempt by New England Public Radio to discontinue the programming of Tertulia, but community members from across the region and as far away as Puerto Rico and Mexico mobilized to prevent the elimination of the only Spanish-language radio program on regional public radio that had become such a central outlet for discussing critical Latina/o issues. The NEPR management listened and in fact recommitted itself to supporting Tertulia.
One of the major challenges regarding the past and future of Tertulia is the ability to document and preserve its broadcast content. In many cases, non-profit, community-based Spanish-language radio programming lack of resources to ensure that future generations can refer to this sound history and its role in the making of local and regional communities. In the meantime, at least documenting in written form the ways in which sound history is also important for making visible the cultural history of Latinos is a step in the right direction towards making permanent the importance of such histories that are often ignored yet significant to U.S. culture.