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NPR producer Alarcón honors voices across Latin America

October 4, 2019

Ann Basu
HOW TO LISTEN Award-winning journalist and novelist Daniel Alarcón lectures in Kresge Auditorium. His talk focused on broadcasting authentic Latin American voices, complete with nuance and complexity.

On Monday night, Kresge Auditorium was filled with voices from across the globe. Carla from Cuba. Jesse from Mexico. Hernando from Colombia. Audience members quickly realized that Daniel Alarcón’s talk, titled “How to Listen: Telling Latin American Stories in Sound and Print,” was actually a multimedia performance, a series of performed podcasts. Alarcón narrated stories in English, mixing in audio and video clips of Latinos sharing their stories in Spanish with English subtitles on the screen.

“I love doing these kinds of performances because it allows me to break the language barrier,” Alarcón said in an interview with the Orient. “I want people to hear the complexities of stories from Latin America and celebrate those stories.”

Alarcón is the executive producer of Radio Ambulante, a Spanish-language podcast distributed by National Public Radio. He also teaches at the Columbia University School of Journalism and has published multiple novels, including “At Night We Walk in Circles,” which was a finalist for the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award. He views his journalistic work as an opportunity to share stories internationally.

“One of the powerful things about Radio Ambulante is the ability for us to tell a story about Bolivians to Dominicans, and tell a story about Dominicans to Colombians, and tell a story about Colombians to Argentines, and on and on,” Alarcón explained during the event. “And of course, we also tell all those stories to our friends who are not Latino and who are learning Spanish.”

Alarcón said that a third of Radio Ambulante listeners are Latinos in the United States, a third are Latinos in Latin America and a third are non-Latino Spanish speakers and learners. His team is about to release a language learning app geared towards the last group.

Through his storytelling, Alarcón hopes that non-Latinos “see the diversity of Latin America and the diversity of the Latino experience, and they don’t believe all the bullshit about how we’re all rapists and drug dealers.”

Although he is driven by a mission to dispel myths about Latinos, Alarcón is careful to not label himself as an activist.

“I don’t want to become an activist because I wouldn’t know where to begin. There’s so much to be angry about—from racism to the denial of climate science to the deliberate centering of cruelty as part of national policy dealing with children and children of immigrants,” he said in an interview. “I think that people have gotten to a point where they tune out activists, and I don’t want to be tuned out.”

Students who tuned in on Monday night found Alarcón’s talk inspiring.

“Hearing him perform a podcast was really motivational,” said Maria Perez Mendoza ’21. “You don’t see a Latino man speak at an event at Bowdoin every day. And [Alarcón] talked about how Latinidad shouldn’t be exclusive and how these voices need to be celebrated.”

As Alarcón played audio clips of Latino voices, he discussed his writing process both for radio and for print.

“There’s a lot more to speech than just words,” Alarcón said during his talk. “You can hear a lot behind that voice, behind the spoken words—the history in that voice, the accent, the tone, the humor. It’s information that we carry with us in how we speak that isn’t entirely clear when it’s on the page. When I realized this, I started to think in an entirely different way about writing.”

Even audience members who could not understand the Spanish-speaking voices in the performance chuckled at the stories those voices told, understanding the humor through changes in accent and intonation. Through the subtleties in others’ voices, Alarcón taught the audience the importance of telling nuanced stories.

“When we started Radio Ambulante, we felt like there [were] two kinds of stories about Latinos: there was the dangerous other and there was the helpless victim,” he said. “But we want to tell stories that are more interesting, more subtle, more complicated, more nuanced and therefore more true.”

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