Radio of the Tseltal People: A Happiness Project, by Mauricio Beltrán


This is a story that begins in the kitchen of a Tseltal woman in Bachajón, Chiapas, México.

“I was sad, but then you came and spoke with me, and then I could be happy.”

The visit to Micaela Morales Moreno that changed her mood was from a group of young people from the local radio station Ach’ Lequil’cop. She had been a leader in a variety of community programs and now, widowed and far from her community action days, she passed the time talking with her children and grandchildren and preparing with wisdom food for the family.

The radio is a wonderful space for communication and all of Latin America shares this tradition of listening to the radio on a daily basis. It is a medium that accompanies and draws people in. Radio can speak to millions of people at the same time, but more importantly, it can touch the heart of each person.

We went to Bachajón as guests of the nongovernmental organization One Equal Heart and with the University Washington’s School of Information. The purpose of our visit was to share the experience of community radios in Colombia.

The work began with our listening and learning from the group of young people who worked with the Tseltal radio. We shared dialogue that was fluid, relaxed and sometimes emotional, limited only by the inability of me, the facilitator, to speak Tseltal. Several of the people spoke a limited amount of Spanish, but could express with complete facility their ideas in the language they inherited as children of these lands, descendants of the Maya, proud and humble sons and daughters of the People of Corn.

The week was a delicious mix between Tseltal and Spanish, of conversations, exercises and proposals that we shared to build together a radio closer to the dreams of those who live in these mountains 180 kilometers from Tuxla Gutiérrez. As if the mere vibrations of the words were sufficient, the ideas flowed freely even before the translators could convert them into the language of Cervantes, and the ideas in the Mayan language drew pictures in the air, just like hundreds of years ago their ancestral communicators drew them in the stone.


A young woman told us about her dreams as a mother. She and the people in her group thought UNITY is an important value and symbol to unify a communication project. María Inés had to leave a day early before our week of workshops ended because the baby in her womb announced its arrival to this world, but her proposed value along with the need to encourage REPSONSIBILITY were both included as critical axes for the communication project that we, a group of many voices, began to build.

The words came and went, the attentive looks and the dark and shining eyes followed each new idea. We discusses, laughed and built consensus through our work together, something that was much easier for people accustomed to working as a community and not as individuals.

Over the week, we rebuilt with ideas and drawings a communication ecosystem where the radio plays an important role. Some of the subjects we identified as important for the radio to disseminate and strengthen: the vitality of the Tseltal language, the rise in popularity of ranchera music, the existence of hundreds of Tseltal mariachi groups in the region, the importance of community organizing work, the participation of youth, access to educational programs and the increase in the participation of women. Other subjects included the risks posed by the rise in religious sects, the introduction of harmful revenues from drug traffickers, the abuse of alcohol, and the use of agro-chemicals and agricultural practices that are harmful to the environment.

We spent time diluting the notion that communication is the same thing as using media. By the second day all of us were on the same page: content is more important than techniques, and good communication depends on good social programs more than on good spokespersons.

Now we had agreement about content, the purposes of the radio and possibilities this mediums opens up to us. At this moment we began an exercise to discover how we can tell these stories. We divided into work groups, men and women, and between laughter and games we created three radio formats that in a concrete and easy way allow us to convert into radio the values that we want tot promote.

Soon the radio will air LOQU’IB HA’, a program about the Water Caretakers, people who lead rituals to celebrate and honor water, natural springs and rivers. This is a program that promotes respect for Mother Nature and seeks to defend the blue that runs down the mountains and plunges into wonderful waterfalls and natural swimming pools that attract people from around the world and that the Tseltal People must learn more about so they may better defend them.

While the program about water spreads across the Tseltal region, a program called BATS’IL CAPEL, with the aroma of coffee, has already begun to spark discussions. During our week together, this program was recorded at the center for coffee production in Chilón with host José Aquino, not only a great conversationalist, but also a connoisseur of coffee culture who has much to teach.

Just as we produced the program on coffee, we also produced another program called GRANDMOTHER’S RECIPE. This program promotes family life and takes radio listeners into homes and around the tables of Tseltales to recover the wisdom and knowledge of elders and to contribute to strengthening the unity of Tseltal families.

We still have a long way to go with adjustments to both technical and informative aspects of the radio. Greater involvement of the staff, elders and community leaders is required. But soon the radio communication flow will integrate the Tseltal family into one equal heart. For this reason, our work continues. And the words of Grandmother Mariana make us think we are on the right path: the radio should bring happiness to the big Tseltal family.

Mauricio Beltrán, a native from Colombia, is a journalist, director and screenwriter for radio and television, specializing in communication for social change for over 25 years.

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