By Joey Peters, Sahan Journal
This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing authentic news reporting about Minnesota's new immigrants and refugees. MPR News is a partner with Sahan Journal and will be sharing stories between SahanJournal.com and MPRNews.org.
When studios of La Raza radio, one of two Spanish-language broadcasters in the Twin Cities, went up in flames in violent protests over the death of George Floyd, Latinos lost an important source of information about the demonstrations, the COVID pandemic and other important issues.
Broadcasters kept their social media channels churning, however, and despite the destruction of most of their equipment they were back on the air only one week later.
For the time being, La Raza will be using a studio in Minneapolis-based community radio station KFAI until it reestablishes its own space in the near future, according to station owner Maya Santamaria. Santamaria credited her staff and, particularly, General Manager Armando Quintero for the rapid turnaround.
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“We lost our music, we lost our programming, we lost our simian [broadcasting software],” Santamaria said. “So to pull this off is truly a feat.”
La Raza, which was established in 2005, can be heard at 95.7 FM, 1400 AM and 1470 AM frequencies throughout the metro area. It operated in the century-old International Order of Odd Fellows building on Lake Street and 27th Avenue South. Its programming includes a mix of news, entertainment, Latin music and culture, with the majority of it being local.
The building, which also housed El Nuevo Rodeo restaurant and club, was lost to arson on the same night protesters burned down the Minneapolis 3rd Police Precinct Station following the police killing of George Floyd.
As Minneapolis’ only radio station broadcast completely in Spanish, La Raza in many ways serves as a lifeline to the city’s Latino community. Across the Twin Cities metro, Latinos makeup 180,000 of the population. One other Twin Cities’ Spanish-speaking radio station, Radio Rey, is based in West St. Paul.
La Raza’s impact came up during a community meeting last week with other Latino-owned Lake Street businesses that were lost or damaged during the protests, Santamaria said.
“The community told me they felt it was a disability that they didn’t have the station right now when they needed it,” she said.
People rely on the station for up-to-date local information and resources about COVID-19, for example. After the station burned down, La Raza continued its social media to provide updates about city-imposed curfews and other news regarding the protests and rebuilding of the Lake Street corridor. This included starting the dialogue on how vandalized or damaged businesses can recoup insurance money.
Antonia Alvarez, an advocate with the pro-immigrant rights group Pueblos de Lucha y Esperanza, goes on the program “Every Morning” with host Mike Castillo every Friday morning to talk about issues affecting the local Latino community.
“We speak, for example, about Census 2020 or Latinos registering to vote,” Alvarez said.
Most recently, amid COVID-19, Alvarez said she’s talked on the program about food drives that her church, Church of the Incarnation in south Minneapolis, has been hosting for people who are suffering economically because of the pandemic. Missing the radio station means one less resource for Spanish-speaking Latino immigrants when they need it most, Alvarez said.
But losing the physical station last week didn’t stop La Raza’s hosts and employees from reporting on the ground during the protests. Jessica Acevedo, who hosts an afternoon variety show that includes music, news and entertainment, was in the station’s building with two others Wednesday night as the police precinct started to burn.
As they reported from the roof surveying the situation at around 10 p.m., Acevedo says they heard a noise resembling a bomb-like explosion on the first floor.
“I don’t know where it came from,” said Acevedo, who hosts her show under the moniker “La Trompudita.”
She and the two others took the fire exit stairs from the radio station’s fourth floor headquarters and saw smoke coming from the restaurant.
“We didn’t check it out,” she said of the smoke. “We ran outside.”
Acevedo got to her car and got a call from her husband telling her to come home. The building housing La Raza burnt down around 2:30 Thursday morning. Santamaria said she doesn’t know who is responsible for starting the fire.
As violent protests continued into Friday and Gov. Tim Walz called in the National Guard, Spanish-speaking radio stations in Chicago, Los Angeles as well as international stations in Mexico and Argentina started fielding Acevedo for interviews about the situation in Minneapolis. All the while, employees at La Raza kept up the station’s social media presence, taking shifts to update their audience on the protests, curfews and cleanup and volunteer activity around Lake Street.
Using KFAI as a temporary location arose as a possibility during the weekend. Dan Zimmerman, La Raza’s engineer, had previously done similar work for KFAI. The suggestion came after Rose Lindsay, who works in communication for the City of Minneapolis, reached out to Jacque Pokorney, a member of KFAI’s board of directors, about La Raza’s problem. By the weekend, Zimmerman was already modifying one of KFAI’s five studios for La Raza’s use, according to KFAI Content and underwriting manager Mason Butler. Butler said that La Raza and KFAI share a goal.
“It was very important to them, the same as it is to us, to be able to communicate information and then have community conversations in a timely fashion,” Butler said.
While La Raza operates out of KFAI, its signal and reach will be the same as it was before the fire. Its towers, which transmit a signal that reaches 30 miles, are located in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood. They remain unharmed.