Indigenous-Language Radio Show In Oakland Helps Mam People In Vaccine Efforts Amid the pandemic, a new audio program is trying to reach residents who speak the Guatemalan language Mam. The show's founder Henry Sales hopes to help combat the COVID-19 crisis in his community.

Indigenous-Language Radio Show In Oakland Promotes Vaccine Effort

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Figuring out how to sign up for the coronavirus vaccine has been a frustrating process for many people, but it can seem nearly impossible for those who speak less common languages. Sara Hossaini from member station KQED reports on a group of Indigenous Guatemalans in Oakland who started a project to help.


SARA HOSSAINI, BYLINE: The project is a radio show called...

HENRY SALES: Radio or Radio B'alam.

HOSSAINI: Twenty-seven-year-old founder Henry Sales says the show is reaching out to thousands of Mayan Guatemalans in the Bay Area who speak a language called Mam. The name translates to Radio Jaguar, a historical reference to the Mam king, who led his people up a mountain to escape the Spanish invaders.

So do you feel like you're trying to save your people?

SALES: Yeah. Hopefully, that's what we're going to do. We're trying to, you know, save, you know, some people and, you know, guide them to the right direction.

HOSSAINI: Over the past 40 years, a community of an estimated 18,000 Mayan Mam speakers fleeing violence and poverty in Guatemala has formed in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood. Now they face yet another threat, says Sales, the pandemic.

SALES: I remember there were many of them telling me that, I don't care about COVID because I will end up in the street. You got to work. There's no benefit, like, you know, if you work in construction. So that's why many of them got sick.

HOSSAINI: A testing event in Oakland in the fall showed that more than a quarter of Mam tested already had the coronavirus, the largest proportion of any ethnic group by far. But many Mam don't speak English or Spanish. And a significant number don't read, 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. By mid-December, Sales had a radio booth in the middle of an active food pantry.

SALES: So this is the space. And they're going to move over, so we have, like, extra space.

HOSSAINI: And this food pantry is run by a local nonprofit called Homies Empowerment. The group decided to offer Radio B'alam the space after figuring out that most of the people who came were Mam, and there was a communication barrier. Juan Dominguez runs the site.

JUAN DOMINGUEZ: So the moment that we realized how diverse our community was, we wanted to find a way for representation.

HOSSAINI: Just before the winter holidays, Radio B'alam went live...



HOSSAINI: ...Offering segments on COVID vaccines and testing, virtual schooling, unemployment and free groceries. County public health officials acknowledge that a successful COVID 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. Sales translates for him.


SALES: "I work in a restaurant. And I'm very happy to get the vaccine because that way, I'll feel more protected."

HOSSAINI: And word from the show's broadcast is getting around. Cresensio Ramirez is a co-founder of Radio B'alam.

CRESENCIO RAMIREZ: Even Guatemala - there's, like, television channels going on. And they call us - like, hey, we're so excited you guys are hosting this. Can you make it bigger?

HOSSAINI: 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.


HOSSAINI: For NPR News, I'm Sara Hossaini in Oakland.

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