Tracing Latino Roots Via Sound
Sonic Trace is a multimedia project that follows Latinos living in Los Angeles travelling back to their families' native lands. Led by radio producer Anyansi Diaz-Cortes, it examines the link between what some Latinos consider home – before and after they or their families came to the U.S.
Diaz-Cortes told NPR host Michel Martin, that she was always interested in international reporting – even on a local level. "To cover any American city in the year 2013 or in this decade you really have to go beyond U.S. borders."
There's another aspect to Sonic Trace, too. It's called La Burbuja, or, the bubble. It's a portable recording studio where they invite people in to talk about their reflections on home – why did they leave, stay, or return from their home country.
Sonic Trace was produced by KCRW and Localore, a national initiative by AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio and Zeega. Sonic Trace is one of several interactive public media stories that NPR's Tell Me More will be highlighting in the coming months.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're turning now to the West Coast, to Los Angeles, which is often in the news for tensions within that city. But of course tension is not the only story, often not even the most important story that people think of when they think about their lives. The trick is to figure out how to get that story.
Our next guest has been working on that. Radio producer Anyansi Diaz-Cortes started the storytelling project, Sonic Trace, with member station KCRW in Los Angeles. She's particularly interested in Latinos living in L.A. and she's collected a wide variety of interviews and stories with different methods, and she joins us now to tell us more about it.
Thank you for joining us.
ANYANSI DIAZ-CORTES: Hello, Michel. Thank you.
MARTIN: Let's start with one story. Let's give people a taste of what you've been doing. Julian(ph) is a 19-year-old tuba player in Los Angeles. He goes back to Santa Maria Tavehua to play his tuba and to find out more about his mother and she's been absent since his childhood. Let's just play a short clip.
JULIAN: Right now we're here in Tavehua, Oaxaca. We're in the fields. I'm with my grandfather right now from my dad's side. (Foreign language spoken) - what are you doing?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) I'm cutting some cane out here in the fields.
JULIAN: When I see my grandfather working in the fields, I feel far away from Los Angeles.
MARTIN: So he went to Mexico. He met his grandfather. Then what happened?
DIAZ-CORTES: Well, he actually went to Mexico to learn more from his mother's side of the family, who's also in the town. You know, he lives a very painful experience and he goes back - he calls his sister back after meeting his grandma and this is what he says.
JULIAN: (Unintelligible) my grandma and I knocked at her door and she opened and she recognized me. I cried, she cried, and we were just emotional, talking about my mom, and she was saying sorry, but I told her that it's OK because it was not her fault.
KIMMY: So what did you find out about her?
JULIAN: That she lives in Arizona. She has four other kids.
JULIAN: Four other brothers, Kimmy(ph).
KIMMY: Wow. I'm the only girl?
KIMMY: Did you have any contact with my mom at all, like...
JULIAN: We tried calling her. She didn't pick up and maybe she doesn't want to talk to us, Kimmy.
KIMMY: I know it's fate, because she was afraid of what you might say, her firstborn son. Did they tell you why she didn't call after all these years?
JULIAN: They said that they don't know, Kimmy. They don't know why she didn't call.
DIAZ-CORTES: I think we were all expecting kind of a happy ending, you know, including the grandmother and including Julian and we just - we didn't find that.
MARTIN: Well, let's go back and tell us how you got started on this project. There are a number of different oral history projects that I think many people might be familiar with. A lot of people are familiar with StoryCorps. What makes this one different?
DIAZ-CORTES: Well, I think, you know, my personal interest was always, you know, international reporting and international stories. I'd never really done local reporting and local documentaries and kind of the premise of this project was, you know, reporting locally on American cities and about American citizens. And then, you know, slowly, as we were brainstorming and flushing this project out, we realized what we all probably already know, which is that to cover any American city in, you know, the year 2013, or you know, in this decade, you really have to go beyond U.S. borders at the local level.
So it was really kind of, you know, shifting a little bit that paradigm of saying, what would happen if we covered in this case Los Angeles, like if we were covering Mexico or El Salvador or Honduras?
MARTIN: So you've got two things going on here that make it different. There are some lengthy stories that span different countries, but there's also a part of Sonic Trace that's something called La Burbuja.
DIAZ-CORTES: Yes. La Burbuja. It means the bubble.
MARTIN: The bubble. How does that work?
DIAZ-CORTES: Yeah, and it wasn't made by me but by the architect. So basically the premise is, how do we get these stories and how do we target areas in L.A., which is like this huge sprawl that are also - you know, part of the mission of this project is the changing migration patterns and in capturing that story of recent immigrants. And you know, what came out of it was La Burbuja, the bubble, which is basically the silver orb metallic booth that opens kind of like a Lamborghini and you step in, and what it's caused is that it's allowed us to enter communities that you usually can't enter just with your microphone and make kind of an event around them, create a space around them where people feel that what they have to say is important.
MARTIN: Well, let's hear from one of the people you caught up with, and we just picked this one just because this is somebody we know, Gustavo Arellano. He's been a frequent guest on this program. Love him. Many people know his column and his books. This is what he had to say. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO PROGRAM, 'SONIC TRACE')
GUSTAVO ARELLANO: My name is Gustavo Arellano. I'm the editor of the O.C. Weekly, author of the syndicated column "Ask a Mexican," and I'm from Orange County, California. (Foreign language spoken), my dad, is from a rancho called (foreign language spoken). My mom comes from a rancho called (foreign language spoken).
Ranchos are basically pastoral villages. Everyone always speaks of it so romantically. I don't. (Foreign language spoken) and (foreign language spoken) - they're beautiful, but there's no work to be had. There is no work. The last time I went to the ranchos as a child was in 1988 and, at that time, they still didn't have potable water. There was - electricity was via generators. There was one phone for the entire town. I mean, this is 1988. Now, imagine how it was when my parents were growing up.
I'm proud of my Mexican roots. Specifically, I'm proud of my roots from (foreign language spoken), from (foreign language spoken). Yeah, (foreign language spoken), blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, but that's the beauty of this country. Some days, I feel 100 percent John Wayne American. Other days, (foreign language spoken). You know, viva Mexico (foreign language spoken).
MARTIN: OK, Gustavo. So - well, what are you going for with these? Because, you know, Gustavo is a brilliant writer with a very distinct voice. Is everybody quite as polished as he is?
DIAZ-CORTES: Well, definitely not everybody is quite as polished, but what we're really going for is - go back. Really, the relationship to that root, to that place of origin and that's the kind of interviews we're going for that creates that kind of personal narrative. So those answers came out of asking him, like, why do you go back or why don't you go back? And then it's like his point of view on (foreign language spoken), which is a lot like his parents' point of view, you know, when they left the country. So you also find that, you know, people's relationship in second generation to their place of origin is a lot like their parents' kind of point of view on it, so you get that nuance, as well, especially in Los Angeles.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the storytelling project "Sonic Trace." That's a series of audio documentaries that traces the roots of Latinos in L.A. often to Mexico and Latin America. I'm speaking with the lead producer on the project, Anyansi Diaz-Cortes.
I notice that you weren't afraid to turn the mic on yourself, either. Was that scary?
DIAZ-CORTES: That's a story in and of itself, Michel. I mean, honestly, I wasn't planning on it. You know, because of this field, you know, you become kind of like a natural documentarian, so documenting the death of my grandma was kind of natural, but I never imagined I'd actually use the tape. It was just like kind of some form of catharsis.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO PROGRAM, 'SONIC TRACE')
DIAZ-CORTES: (Foreign language spoken). What you're hearing is my grandma tubed up to machines in a government hospital in Mexico City. When I got in from L.A., she was in her third week in this state. (Foreign language spoken).
I say goodbye. She's conscious. She can't speak. She says goodbye with her eyes. She died a few days after I recorded this piece of tape. I know what I'm supposed to feel, but I don't feel it. I feel cold, hollow inside.
I was actually in Mexico City around the time of Day of the Dead and had pitched a kind of more reporter-style piece since I was going to be down there and, you know, was thinking, you know, to get an expert and to make it this very formal thing and with this kind of very formulated reporter style. And what ended up happening was that everyone I would interview, including, like, my own mother, everyone had such horrible, horrible English - because I didn't want to use voiceover. I wanted to stay away from that, so it was almost like, if I'm going to use voiceover, why don't I just voice it? And the moment it turned personal, it really came to life.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO PROGRAM, 'SONIC TRACE')
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DIAZ-CORTES: I carried my dead with me from Mexico City and instead of peace, these 100-plus overwrought, crowded altars are getting the best of me and all I can think is, how are the dead supposed to find these altars? It's October 27th. The dead know to come on November 2nd. I choose one altar and I look closer. I make out a family, a musician, a husband who lost his life to prostate cancer. I peek behind the altar and find Andrea Espinosa.
ANDREA ESPINOSA: I'm celebrating the life of my husband, Jose Espinosa, my best friend and an amazing musician. To Jose, that's what life was, music and family and love.
DIAZ-CORTES: I look at each different altar after the interview and it isn't a show or a stage. Every altar has been made by the living, dedicated to a loved one that passed away, and it becomes hard not to hold back tears when I think of my (foreign language spoken).
MARTIN: You were right there. Well, thank you for that. I understand that there's more. There's a website that also launches this week.
DIAZ-CORTES: That's right.
MARTIN: Tell us a little bit more about that.
DIAZ-CORTES: The idea was really to create, you know, a digital space where these communities that are kind of not represented on a physical map or that kind of identity and that kind of emotional map is created online and so we went for that and the reason we were able to accomplish that is because it's built on this crazy platform that lets you kind of create stories without being a coder or a programmer. It's called Zeega. So what's really special is that we were able to kind of create that mood and that tone where people feel that they're kind of represented digitally, as well.
MARTIN: That was Anyansi Diaz-Cortes. She is the lead producer on the storytelling project "Sonic Trace," and she was kind enough to join us from NPR West, which is in Culver City, California.
Anyansi, thank you so much for joining us. Keep us posted.
DIAZ-CORTES: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: If you want to hear more, you can head to KCRW's website at KCRW.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.