Radio and politics in the Peruvian Altiplano

Posted by Ximena Málaga Sabogal, PhD student in Anthropology at NYU

Radio Onda Azul - XMS

I am used to being asked what anthropology is and what, as an anthropologist, do I “actually” do. I usually have a different set of answers depending on my interlocutors. But something that I always have to deal with is the “classical” definition of anthropology, the one that implies studying “a traditional way of life”. Although that definition can be a good starting point for a conversation, I try to bring it to and interest in social changes as soon as I can. If not, how to explain that analyzing the ways in which radio affects – or comes from – everyday life is also anthropology? When studying media as social and cultural repertories, anthropologists have a lot of competition in the field. I am constantly mistaken for a journalist working on a piece, which changes the interactions with my interlocutors.

What has this interest on radio to do with my search for Aymara and Quechua identity definitions and its connections with the international indigenous movement? In Puno the answer is: a lot. Radio has been present in Altiplano’s peasants’ life for a long time. In part due to the low electrification of the region, radio has been – and in some districts of Puno still is – the most popular communication device. The first radio to begin operations in Puno was Onda Azul, back in the 1950s. This is not only the first radio, it is also a very special one. It comes from an early initiative of Puno’s Catholic Church and answers to the developmental model of educación popular. In a time when Puno had one of the highest levels of illiteracy, Onda Azul worked hand in hand with the Peruvian government to develop a program of escuelas radiofónicas. Radios were given in different communities in the Aymara and Quechua sectors of Puno and every day the people would come together to listen to classes and solve exercises with the help of a facilitator. At the end of the school year, the Ministry of Education would organize exams for the people involved in the radio classes, and hand out official diplomas to the ones who passed everything.

From its beginnings, Onda Azul had what in Puno is called “a social purpose”. It worked thanks to donations, especially the ones conducted through the Maryknoll catholic order. As the years passed by, Onda Azul became a meeting point for thinkers and “doers” influenced by Liberation Theology. In the aftermath of the Agrarian Reform (1969) – which in Puno failed to achieve its purpose – priests and nuns linked to the Iglesia Sur Andina (South Andean Church), along with Onda Azul’s workers, accompanied the struggle for land conducted by social organizations and leftist parties in the Altiplano. Onda Azul was strongly involved in the politics of that time, at first through Vanguardia Revolucionaria (VR), and later, Partido Unificado Mariateguista (PUM).

Besides these explicit political links, Onda Azul was also deeply embedded in the organizational network of Puno and its hinterlands. Since this radio had its own funding and was not looking for financial gain, time slots were given for free to the organizations supporting the causes that Onda Azul felt strongly about. The peasant federation and the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (at the beginning of the 1980s, when the Shining Path started its lucha armada) were given its own programs, while Quechua and Aymara time slots were established daily. Iglesia del Sur Andino funded an Institute for Aymara Studies, while the question about indigenous identities became – along the struggle for land – its main preoccupation. Many future Aymara and Quechua leaders came from Onda Azul.

Of course this is a very quick overview of a long and complex history, but it can give us a glimpse into a fascinating research topic: Church, politics, radio, and the formation of an identity discourse. Let’s see what happens in the archives and the conversations with Onda Azul’ people.

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