As of July 2012, people of Latino origin were the nation’s largest ethnic or racial minority, constituting 17 percent of the nation’s total population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
But, despite decades of a growing Latino population, you can probably count the faculty teaching Latino studies around the country on your fingers, said Lucila Vargas.
She is one of them. And through Latijam – Latino journalism and media at Carolina – Vargas has been working to build a new generation that understands how to write about – and for – the Latino community around them.
“The field is growing and so is the Latino population. How can you cover a group you don’t understand?” Vargas said. “That need increases, and not only in North Carolina. If you take a job in Texas, you’re going to need this.”
Despite an increasing presence in American life, Vargas has seen efforts to cover Latino issues come and go, showing momentary interest in the culture. She wants there to be dependable, consistent coverage that is absent of the negative stereotypes that still permeate the media.
“There’s a sense that, ‘There, we covered it, we’ve done it,’ as if there’s one story to tell,” Vargas said. “Latijam’s mission is that Latinos are not just a subject to study, or an object to research for stories, but part of it. They are people with agency.”
The components of Latijam work to serve the Latino community, as well as create a more “culturally competent” kind of student, Vargas said. Cultural competence combines cultural awareness with cultural skills, cultural knowledge and cultural practice – the immersion into that culture.
“Cultural competence is a set of skills that allow you to relate to people and navigate social situations effectively, with a knowledge of history,” she said. “In the same way that we want students to become critical thinkers, I want them all to graduate culturally competent.”
Reaching out through radio
Latijam hosts a bilingual website that offers a broad section of scholarly resources on Latino journalism and media. It’s a place where UNC students and faculty can disseminate their research and news stories on Latino life, and its annual Regional Directory of Latino Media is the only free directory of Spanish-language print publications and radio and television stations in North Carolina and its region.
Vargas, who has been teaching in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication for 19 years, developed Latijam in 2009 to improve journalism and strategic communication surrounding Latino life. Latijam operates on four pillars – news research, curriculum, engagement and public service – and includes an undergraduate certificate in Latino Journalism and Media Studies and the service-learning initiative Radio Latijam.
In 2003, Laura Wenzel, now a student at UNC’s School of Social Work, started a nonprofit afterschool program for local Latino teens called Pa’lante, which included a weekly radio show for, and produced by, Latino teens in the Chapel Hill and Carrboro communities.
Vargas volunteered, though she had no experience with radio. Her own research had shown that Latino teens used media to help them through the multiple transitions of their lives.
“A radio show for local Latino teens provides a resource that is about them and for them,” she said. “Visibility is wonderful for self-esteem.”
Vargas took on the show in 2009 and it became Radio Latijam, an APPLES service-learning project for students in her global communication and Latino media studies classes. Vargas’ students produce the Spanish-language radio show each Friday evening, every week of the school year, on WCOM FM 103.5 and streamed live on wcomfm.org.
In the process, they become immersed in the needs of the Latino community, finding interview subjects that would be important to Latino youth while learning to produce a live show.
In previous years, Vargas’ students have closely mentored the local teens who helped produce the show, but this year a leaner budget meant going without a formal participation between the two groups.
Still, dedicated teens stop by the radio station just to hang out. “In Radio Latijam, they are a member of an ‘us,’ when very often in mainstream media, they are a ‘them,’” Vargas said.
Following Vargas’ example
Ryan Comfort, a master’s student at the journalism school, works as Vargas’ research assistant and coordinates the operations of Radio Latijam, from pre-production through post-production. With his guidance, students learn how to interview, how to produce the show and what sounds good on air.
“The students producing the show have this opportunity to engage in community service, to create messages that impact those just a few years behind them who are approaching college age,” Comfort said.
As a member of the American Indian community, specifically the Keweenaw Bay Tribe, Comfort came to Carolina to work specifically with someone like Vargas, who helps bridge minority communities, media and youth.
Vargas’ students Kiara Aranda and Simone Duval had no previous experience with radio before Radio Latijam. And just like the professor they admire so much, they’re hooked. As both students entered their last semesters at Carolina, they were looking for ways to stay involved in the show.
“This is my second semester with Radio Latijam,” said Aranda. “I’m trying to figure out how I could do it a third before I leave Carolina.”
Aranda and Duval became involved in Radio Latijam while enrolled in Vargas’ “International Communications” class last spring. The experience was so meaningful for Aranda, the political science and Latin American studies double major changed plans to take Vargas’ “Latinos in the Media” class this fall.
Duval, who has a double major in journalism and Latin American studies, signed up for the second class, too, and even stayed at the station through the summer, single-handedly running the show to prevent dead air during their normal slot.
“It’s important to establish consistency with a community. We want them to know that there’s a source available for reliable information,” Duval said.
Interviews this year included Maria Palmer, who was running for (and won) a seat on the Chapel Hill Town Council; Maria Morales, the service coordinator for the Latina/o community at the Orange County Rape Crisis Center; and José Nambo, the assistant principal in charge of bilingual education at Frank Porter Graham Elementary School in Carrboro.
Both Aranda and Duval embody Vargas’ goal of creating a more culturally competent student. They say the experience has changed their view of the local community – and their own lives.
Aranda, who is from Rockingham, is of Latina heritage, but did not fully realize the difference in her life and the lives of other Latinos until she became involved in the local community.
“Even though my parents are immigrants and I grew up in a Latino community, I never really thought about all the resources I’d had available to me, especially in being at UNC,” she said. “It was humbling, remembering where I came from and realizing there’s much more that can be done to provide for this community.”
Duval said she has come to realize that there are tangible things she could do to help a population that’s grown important to her.
“There are so many basic resources that we can provide information on, from where you can go to enjoy free music, how to get a passport, or where you can access free sexual assault services,” she said.
“That’s what I’ve felt most proud of: providing those things to the Latino community.”