Transformative Moments: Sonic Trace Talks to Latin American Immigrants in LA

:: Last January, the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR) launched a new initiative called Localore. AIR hired ten producers selected from a competitive pool of applicants interested in taking on AIR’s challenge to drive the continued transformation of public media. AIR matched the producers with public radio and television stations to collaborate on projects bringing a new ingenuity to transmedia storytelling and laying a new foundation for local stations to expand public media to more citizens.

One of the projects AIR selected is Sonic Trace. Associated with KCRW in Los Angeles, Sonic Trace focuses on telling the stories of Mexican and Central American immigrants. Co-producer Anayansi Diaz-Cortes opens us up to the experience of Latin American immigrants by exploring their roots in LA, as well as their connection with their home communities. Through her investigation, Diaz-Cortes has uncovered a plethora of deeply personal stories, giving individuals, communities, and cultures a voice. 

The following shows how Sonic Trace has used digital media as a new way to tell stories, using photographs, highlighted individual stories, and insight into Diaz-Cortes’s own personal journey. 

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A crowd gathers to celebrate the Feast of the Black Christ, or El Cristo Negro, an important religious holiday for many Central Americans. Photo by Eric Pearse Chávez

A crowd gathers to celebrate the Feast of the Black Christ, or El Cristo Negro, an important religious holiday for many Central Americans. Photo by Eric Pearse Chávez

::  Anayansi Diaz-Cortes, on her inspiration to start Sonic Trace, and why it works so well in Los Angeles:

"My focus has always been really international. I was a Latin American politics major in college and went to school in Mexico City, so it was very clear to me that I wanted my focus to be global. The whole point of Localore is to transform local public radio stations with regional content. I had never done local coverage before, but I realized that you can't cover any American city today without going beyond U.S. borders. That was what opened me up to look at storytelling from a local point of view with an international perspective. 

"This worked really well in Los Angeles because half of the population is from Mexican or Central American decent. It's the city with the second most number of Mexicans after Mexico City, and it’s not even in Mexico.... Many communities celebrate the same holidays, keep the same dates for parties—do everything they would do in their town of origin. It's like you can really be in Mexico or Central America."

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First generation LA-born children perform the traditional Oaxacan Mexican dance, Los Malinches. Photo by Eric Pearse Chávez

First generation LA-born children perform the traditional Oaxacan Mexican dance, Los Malinches. Photo by Eric Pearse Chávez

:: Diaz-Cortes: "We learned last February [that] we got the grant for Sonic Trace, and the grant period started March 1st. My husband, Eric Pearse Chávez, and I are co-producers, so we picked up our lives and moved to Los Angeles [from New York City]. It was difficult, but, at the same time, that was kind of the strength of it because we weren't desensitized by LA. Everything was exciting and everything was interesting. We’ve been able to produce so much because everything is so new and shiny."

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Setting up La Burbuja at its launch party at Guelaguetza, a famous, Oaxacan-style Mexican restaurant in LA’s Koreatown. La Burbuja lived at Guelaguetza from August through December 2012 before moving to Santa Cecilia Church in South LA. Photo by Eric Pear

Setting up La Burbuja at its launch party at Guelaguetza, a famous, Oaxacan-style Mexican restaurant in LA’s Koreatown. La Burbuja lived at Guelaguetza from August through December 2012 before moving to Santa Cecilia Church in South LA. Photo by Eric Pearse Chávez

:: Last June, Sonic Trace launched a competition to design a sound booth, which would serve as a portable recording hub for Mexican and Central American immigrants to tell their stories. The winners, Hugo Martinez and his partner Christin To, designed La Burbuja, “The Bubble.” A silvery globe with a hot pink, rosa Mexicano interior, La Burbuja has served as the site of more than 200 interviews to date.

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La Burbuja in its current home at Saint Cecilia Church in South Los Angeles. Photo by Eric Pearse Chávez

La Burbuja in its current home at Saint Cecilia Church in South Los Angeles. Photo by Eric Pearse Chávez

:: Diaz-Cortes, on La Burbuja:

"At the beginning, we thought getting people to come for interviews would be the biggest challenge. My gut told me it would work out, but I wasn’t sure until we were out in the field. What was really key for us was the recording bubble. It became this symbol and this thing that people could go to.

"There are ten stories that ended up broadcasting. From those ten stories, we have over 200 interviews that we've done in La Burbuja. The kid would bring the mother, the mother would bring the sister, and the sister would bring the aunt—it became very communal and personal."

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Sonic Trace interviews Pedro, an immigrant originally from Villa de Etla, Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo by Eric Pearse Chávez

Sonic Trace interviews Pedro, an immigrant originally from Villa de Etla, Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo by Eric Pearse Chávez

:: Diaz-Cortes, on the importance of these personal stories:

"There’s definitely a super personal angle about Sonic Trace that I love. You might go into an interview thinking it’s about, say, immigration, and when the story ends, you’ve just got to know someone. We hear all these different statistics on the news. You know, there are personal stories behind this, but there is rarely a place where you can marry the two. The statistics can become numbing when you hear them over and over. It's really the personal stories that humanize those statistics.

"As you talk to more and more people, you get to know the culture. It becomes about the events, the religious holidays, the town party. The larger culture comes from all these individual stories. The bigger picture has come from getting to know the people in the community."

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Julian Gonzalez in Santa Maria Tavehua, Oaxaca, playing his tuba. Photo by Camen Vidal

Julian Gonzalez in Santa Maria Tavehua, Oaxaca, playing his tuba. Photo by Camen Vidal

:: One of these personal stories that emerged was from Julian Gonzalez, a 19-year-old tuba player living in Koreatown, Los Angeles. Julian was born in LA, but his family is from the small village of Santa Maria Tavehua in Oaxaca, Mexico. Located in Southwestern Mexico, Oaxaca is home to the Zapotecs, the largest indigenous group in the state. Since the 1970s, LA has been a hub for this native culture. Sonic Trace produced a five-part series exploring the connection between Santa Maria Tavehua and LA’s Koreatown, where nearly half of the village now lives. From this series came Julian’s story of his life in Los Angeles, and his quest to find his mother.

Diaz-Cortes: "We approached Julian because he's charismatic and he is from Koreatown, which has a strong link to Santa Maria Tavehua. What emerged from his story is that Julian and his family were abandoned by his mother. They had no idea where she was. So, we basically went on a hunt to help him find his mom. We actually went back to Santa Maria Tavehua in Oaxaca, Mexico. We found some stuff about the mom, but never actually found her. It was really unexpected that such a personal, engaging story would come out of that."

You can hear more about Julian’s story on Sonic Trace’s website here.

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Free from El Susto, Julieta overlooks Tavehua, smiling big and ready to start her new life. Photo by Eric Pearse Chávez

Free from El Susto, Julieta overlooks Tavehua, smiling big and ready to start her new life. Photo by Eric Pearse Chávez

:: Another story from the five-part series is about Julieta Mendez, also born in Los Angeles with family from Santa Maria Tuevha. A close friend of the co-producer's, her story held a personal significance for Diaz-Cortes.

Diaz-Cortes: "Julieta is actually a friend of mine. She helped me initially develop Sonic Trace, and was like a personal consultant on the project. Her family is from Oaxaca, and she was my neighbor when I lived in New York. She came to Oaxaca with me on the first trip, and basically was a cultural buffer for me. The surprising thing was that she ended up becoming the story.

"Julieta Mendez felt called back to Santa Maria Tavehua. She had just emerged from a difficult time in her life, and strongly felt that she needed a blessing from Tavehua to start her new life. Zapotecs believe in something called El Susto, or 'fright sickness.' The belief is that when you suffer a trauma, it stays in your blood, weighing you down and perpetuating bad thoughts and feelings. One must go through traditional rituals to cleanse your blood, and liberate your body of these negative memories. While in Tuevha, Julieta was cleansed by her family, returning home ready to begin a new life, free from the burden of her past."

You can hear more about Julieta’s journey here.

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Welcoming dead loved ones to dine and celebrate. Photo by Lourdes Almeida

Welcoming dead loved ones to dine and celebrate. Photo by Lourdes Almeida

:: Often times, an individual narrative can lead to a larger cultural story. And sometimes, the storyteller may even become the story themselves.

Dia de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, is an important national Mexican holiday where people honor their lost loved ones by throwing them a party. Celebrated on November 2nd, Dia de Los Muertos is a sort of dinner party for your dead loved ones, prepared with all of their favorite food, drinks, and delicacies. On November 1st, an altar is set up for the honored guests. The belief is that at 12 AM on November 2nd, your dead ones will arrive to dine and celebrate with you. 

This year, Dia de Los Muertos was especially meaningful for Diaz-Cortes. In late October 2012, she traveled to Mexico City to visit her dying grandmother. Since she was in Mexico close to such a significant holiday, Diaz-Cortes figured she’d do some investigating. “Because my grandmother died during the Day of the Dead season, I felt that I needed to make it very personal. The story became about me. I became very involved in it," said Diaz-Cortes.

Diaz-Cortes's story serves as a sort of tribute to her grandmother, reflection on her death, and a documentation of Dia de Los Muertos. You can hear more about her story here.

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Preparing equipment to document a new story. Photo by Eric Pearse Chávez

Preparing equipment to document a new story. Photo by Eric Pearse Chávez

:: All of these stories would be told in quite a different way, if at all, without the use of modern digital technology. This NEA Arts issue focuses on how expanded digital technology has affected the arts world. So, in the case of Localore and Sonic Trace, the question is, How has technology transformed the way the stories are told?

Diaz-Cortes: "What digital media offers is this promise of reworking and reconstructing all the elements of the story. You can expand a story in all these different ways. So many kids in LA are on Facebook, and they’re sharing stuff with the city all day long. It’s the fact that these stories can live on all these different platforms. They can be transported from here in LA to the highlands of Oaxca. It’s been really exciting and key for Sonic Trace."

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In the studio. Photo by Eric Pearse Chávez

In the studio. Photo by Eric Pearse Chávez

:: Diaz-Cortes, on transforming public media:

"Projects like Sonic Trace have been done everywhere—in the U.S., in Mexico, in films, in small-time media. Where they haven't been done is in public radio. And that's where the transformation really has to happen—on broadcast.

"Sonic Trace sets us up in the minefield of problems with public media. This kind of content isn't covered across the board. We really feel like we're shaking things up. The more we start to get these voices out there, public radio really becomes very public. Localore’s only for a year. What can we do in that amount of time? We can plant a really solid seed for the future."

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Several girls wave their flags proudly during the procession of El Cristo Negro outside of Santa Cecilia Church. Photo by Eric Pearse Chávez

Several girls wave their flags proudly during the procession of El Cristo Negro outside of Santa Cecilia Church. Photo by Eric Pearse Chávez

:: Diaz-Cortes: "A lot of these people come to tell their story, and they’ve been beaten down. They've been beaten down in Mexico City, they've beaten down at the border, they've beaten down when they get here. Then suddenly, 30 years later, it turns out, Wait—my story is important? It's on a blog, it's on a website, it's on Facebook. That becomes really empowering to them. It becomes empowering on both fronts because there is a space for us to tell stories that are important. Maybe we didn’t affect the whole community, but even just those ten personal stories we broadcasted, there were ten people attached to those those stories, and then another ten attached to those. It matters. Your voice on the radio matters.

"We did an event with KCRW and the people from Oaxca. There was such a mix of people all in one room. Looking back at the pictures, I thought 'That’s it—that’s LA.' Sonic Trace kind of did that. I think even those small moments are the transformative moments."