Spanish-Language Radio Makes Waves Kdna Demands Better Conditions For Migrant Workers While Keeping Their Culture Alive

It’s a tiny radio station, but its voice is heard everywhere in the fields and the ramshackle homes of central Washington.

Broadcast from an abandoned building in this fuel-stop town, Radio KDNA Cadena is a bridge between the immigrant apple pickers and their Mexican pasts.

It’s also the only publicly funded Spanish radio station in the Northwest and information headquarters for tens of thousands of poor, oftenilliterate field hands.

Led by a worker-rights activist, KDNA encourages workers to demand minimum wage, toilets in the field and water to wash pesticides from their hands before lunch.

The station’s logo shows a man in a field with a long rake: “La Voz del Campesino” - voice of the farm worker.

When KDNA surfaced 15 years ago, orchard owners bombarded the Federal Communications Commission with claims the station was sparking worker rebellions.

But almost everyone now accepts FM 91.9 as as part of the region’s fabric.

“They realize now that we’re not really inciting or promoting restlessness amongst farm workers,” said KDNA General Manager Ricardo Garcia. “What we’re all about is information and education.”

Instead of vanishing, KDNA is growing. It’s building a repeater in Royal City, extending its range into Moses Lake, Othello and beyond - doubling its listeners to about 160,000.

“There aren’t enough inspectors to get around,” Garcia said of life in Washington’s fields. “The workers need to be the enforcement. With more education, the work force becomes more stable.”

KDNA also provides information about AIDS and immigration. It urges parents to keep their children in school instead of yanking them out for long winter runs back to Mexico.

The station offers commercial-free cultural programming, too. KDNA starts at 6 a.m. on a typical day with mariachi music, then slips in regional news, a talk show about health care and some afternoon dance music from such bands as the popular Banda Macho.

KDNA beams its 5,000 megawatts from an 85-year-old building, formerly a school and allegedly a brothel, between the Tri-Cities and Yakima.

On nearby Main Street, the Granger City Hall and Police Department share the same little building. A sign at the entrance to the Hitchin’ Post Tavern warns patrons, “No Firearms Permitted on these Premises.”

Around the corner, construction workers listen to KDNA on a cheap static-plagued radio. A block away, Estella del Villar spins discs or CDs at the station.

On Garcia’s office wall is a bust of John F. Kennedy and a photograph of Cesar Chavez, a California union activist and renowned champion of farm workers before his death in 1993.

Chavez marched with Garcia and Yakima Valley farm workers protesting poor working conditions in the 1980s. Chavez and Garcia became friends, allies. Their messages are similar.

No longer simply branded an activist, Garcia now is a political power. In 1993, he received the state American Civil Liberties Union’s highest honor.

Sunnyside Police Chief Wallace Anderson recently thanked Garcia for his “unselfish help” in passing a public bond to spend more money on law enforcement. “Without your help, there is no question that there would have been serious trouble in passing” it, Anderson wrote.

Garcia and his crew are excited the new repeater will allow the station to inform a new audience of farm workers, a third of whom are illegally here.

Hundreds of workers still are routinely fired without warning, Garcia said, noting many workers still don’t receive minimum wage because they are paid by the bushel instead of the hour.

Garcia wants to tell workers what they need to know to survive in the United States.

“You have to learn English here,” he said. “We want you to stay, but you most also learn English to survive better.”

Station walls outside Garcia’s office feature more pictures and posters of the revered Chavez, former president of the United Farm Workers of America.

KDNA often reruns interviews with Chavez, keeping his words alive.

The union hero autographed one poster: “Para mi favorita radio KDNA, con carino, Chavez.”

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