Nancy López began working with Radio Ambulante last year when the project was just getting underway. She’s a graduate of the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and is now a producer at Radio Ambulante, as well as a member of the Editorial Committee. Her piece, Los Polizones, is featured in the current episode of Radio Ambulante, Mudanzas. We asked her a few questions about her background and her experience producing this piece.
How did you start working in radio?
Nancy: I got my start in journalism in 2006 collaborating with a radio project called Soul Rebel Radio. We were a group of about 10 people, all with full-time jobs, who on our own time produced a one-hour show that airs on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles the first Friday of the month. We felt the news content of public radio was sterile and dry and oftentimes didn’t include the voices of young people. So, our aim was to package news in fun and interesting ways for younger audiences as well as include their voices. As a team we went out into the field to conduct interviews, we wrote editorials, created skits, and included tons of music, always around a theme that we felt our listeners cared about: homelessness, immigration consumerism, fear—to name just a few. This experience was my first exposure to the power of radio storytelling and the reason why I’m still involved in this medium.
What was it about this story that attracted you originally?
Nancy: Who would hide in the bottom of a massive cargo ship, in the complete dark, for days on end, to get from Peru to New York? I had to know who this person was, his motivations and what that experience was like.
What were some of the challenges you faced in producing this piece?
Nancy: It took a long time to determine how to write the beginning and end of "Los Polizones." We knew the heart of the story was about Mayer and Mario’s experience on the ship, but we were on the fence about where to begin. Do we quickly summarize their childhood or go in-depth to show all the struggles they had been through together? What tape do we keep and what do we cut? This was difficult because we had such great tape of Mayer himself describing the humble conditions he and Mario grew up in as children.
This, for example.
“El me enseñaba a limpiar lanchas de pescado y nos daban tres pescados y diez pesos, me entiende. Entonces como el no tenía donde cocinarlo me daba los pescados a mi, yo se los daba a mi mama. Mi mama los cocinaba. Se los daba a el y a su hermano que tenía un hermano que era loquito, Manuel. Y ellos dormían en el costado de la pared de la casa, ahí ponían una tabla, un plywood y ahí dormían los dos. Entonces a mi mama le conmovía mucho eso, no, pues mi ama siempre que comíamos, llévale un poco a Mario y a Manuel. Entonces los fines de semana, no había sábado ni domingo para la gente pobre. Tu sabes que no hay esas diferencias. Todos los días salíamos a buscar que comer.”
“He taught me how to clean the fishing boats, and he would give three fish and ten pesos for doing it. And you see, because he didn’t have anywhere to cook, he would give the fish to me, and I would give them to my mother, who would cook them and give them back to him and his brother—he had a crazy brother named Manuel. They put a plywood plank against the wall in the house and that’s where both of them would sleep. And this touched my mother deeply, so every time we ate, she would bring a little bit over to Mario and Manuel. And so, on the weekends—well, poor people didn’t really have weekends. You know there isn’t a difference for them, right? Every day they have to go out in search of food.”
“Siempre tenía que irme a los barcos para buscar trabajo y el paraba ahí esperando que desembarquen el arroz, el trigo, para poder llevarse en las camisas. La amarraba las camisas así y ahí en la manga metía el arroz para sacar el arroz o en el pantalón. Se amarra uno el pantalón y se hecha la arroz aquí y después sale uno con el arroz en los pantalones.”
“I always had to go to the boats to look for work, and he was stopped there, waiting for them to unload the rice and the wheat so that they could carry it in their shirts to wherever it was going. They would tie their shirts like so, and through the sleeve they would dump rice. Or they would put it in their pants. They would tie up their pants and put rice in there, and you would end up leaving with rice in your pants.”
Determining how to end the story was even more difficult. After his friend took that left turn and Mayer went right, his life went on and on from one extraordinary feat to the next. As we wrote in an earlier version of the script:
“Justo a la derecha estaba la entrada al metro y ese mismo día Mayer consiguió un trabajo. Ni si quiera voy a intentar describir las aventuras que le ha tocado vivir a este señor implacable. Comó paso de ser un polizonte a trabajar para el New York Times. O como pasó de trapear pisos en los estudios de Hollywood a ser empresario en Los Angeles. Una vida de película.”
“Just to the right was the entrance to the subway, and that same day Mayer found work. I’m not even going to try to describe the adventures this implacable man has lived through—how it came to be that a former stowaway ended up working for the New York Times. Or how he went from mopping floors in movie studios to being a businessman in Los Angeles. It’s like some sort of Hollywood script.”
What makes a good RA piece? As a producer and member of the RA editorial committee, what are you looking for in a pitch?
Nancy: Stories of the extraordinary things every day people do in the most uncomfortable and unforeseen of circumstances. I believe that’s what makes a great RA piece. A story that shows in the most humorous and ironic way that human beings aren’t as predictable as we think they are. I can already point to some of my favorite RA pieces that do just that. In "La Caída de River," the boldness of sports anchor Atilio Costa Febre to take on the cry of all of Argentina’s disillusioned sports fans and defy radio protocols. In "La Palabra Prohibida," the courage of a 15-year-old Reza Salazar to say out loud the unthinkable. In "Zelaya," the unwavering tenacity of Hondura’s ex-president Jose Manuel Zelaya to return to his violence-ridden country. Had these three individuals not stepped outside the bounds of the expected, there wouldn’t be a story, at least not a Radio Ambulante story.
Translation provided by Daniel Gumbiner.