Radio B’alam is a streaming audio program reaching thousands of Mayan Guatemalans in the Bay Area who speak a language called Mam. The name of the show translates to Radio Jaguar, a historical reference to the Mam king who led his people up a mountain to escape Spanish invaders.
The program’s 27-year-old founder Henry Sales says his show’s name and the historical reference are appropriate.
“Hopefully, that’s what we’re going to do — we’re going to save some of our people and guide them to the right direction,” he says.
According to Sales, over the past 40 years, an estimated 18,000 Mayan Mam-speakers fleeing poverty and violence in Guatemala have found a home in the great San Francisco Bay Area. Many live in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood. The United Nations has described some of the violence there as acts of genocide against indigenous people at the hands of U.S.-backed governments.
Now, Sales says members of his community, also called Mam like the language they speak, face yet another threat: the pandemic.
“When COVID came many of my friends lost their jobs. Many of them were going out, looking for a job,” he says.
Sales says those friends, some undocumented, couldn’t afford to shelter in place. “I remember there were many of them telling me ‘I don’t care about COVID because I will end up on the street.’ You gotta work. There’s no benefits, like if you work in construction. So, that’s why many of them got sick.”
A University of California San Francisco testing event in Oakland last fall showed that more than a quarter of the Mam tested already had the novel coronavirus. That was the largest proportion of any ethnic group by far during that specific testing event.
Many Mam people don’t speak English or Spanish, and a significant number don’t read — any language, which has made it harder to access public health information. So, Sales came up with the idea of speaking to them directly through audio streaming and Facebook live. By mid-December Sales had a radio booth in the middle of an active food pantry run by a local nonprofit called Homies Empowerment.
For a decade, the nonprofit has brought young people together to curb gang violence. Since the pandemic, the group has been operating a free grocery store every Tuesday for neighbors in need. Homies decided to offer Radio B’alam the space after noticing that most people who came were Mam and faced a communication barrier.
“So the moment that we realized how diverse our community was, we wanted to find a way for representation,” says Juan Dominguez, who runs the food distribution site.
Just before the winter holidays, Radio B’alam went live, offering segments on COVID-19 vaccines and testing, virtual schooling, unemployment, and where to get free groceries.
County public health officials acknowledge that a successful COVID-19 response hinges on familiar voices, like those at Radio B’alam. And they say they’ll have more money to help support that outreach soon.
Meanwhile, earlier this month, the show helped sign up fans for the first in a series of local vaccination events geared toward Mam. Food service worker Yenderson Aguilar is a listener who signed up for a shot.
“I work in a restaurant and so I’m very happy to get the vaccine because that way I feel more protected,” Aguilar says.
And word from the show’s broadcasts is getting around. Crecensio Ramirez is a co-founder of Radio B’alam.
“Even Guatemala,” Ramirez says, “There’s like television channels going on and they call us like, ‘Hey, we’re so exciting, you guys hosting this. Can you make it bigger?’ ”
Bigger as in speaking to Mam outside the Bay Area, as well. But for now, Radio B’alam is focused on serving its local audience.