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Broadcast from Bolivia, Aymara voices will not be silenced

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This article appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of NACLA’s quarterly print magazine, on NACLA Reporting. Subscribe in print today!


Radio San Gabriel, an Aymara-language radio station based in El Alto, Bolivia, has been a part of life on the altiplano longer than the city has existed. The station’s reach – known affectionately as “the voice of the Aymara people” – runs through the heart of the Aymara-speaking territory of the Andes, spanning the 20 provinces of the Bolivian department of La Paz and the highland sections of Chile and Peru. In the bustle of El Alto, the highest city in the world and a hub of indigeneity and resistance in the Andes, Radio San Gabriel is arguably the soundtrack of Aymara pueblo.

San Gabriel was founded in 1955 in the Altiplano town of Peñas in the wake of the Bolivian revolution. Created by a parish priest from Maryknoll, the radio’s initial objectives were to educate and evangelize the Aymara population. In the years leading up to the 1952 Revolution, emerging radio platforms in upland mining communities intersected with communist political currents, making community radio an important source of information, literacy and education. activism in rural Bolivian society. The indigenous communities of the Highlands allied themselves with the miners’ unions, setting in motion the formidably reorganizing forces of the Bolivian revolution. While the Aymara and Quechua campesinos were central protagonists of the uprising, their role was defined in terms of class and not ethnicity.

Following the Revolution, the Catholic Church and the Bolivian state sought to “modernize” and integrate the indigenous population, largely through literacy in Spanish. With this project in mind, Radio San Gabriel was founded in the heart of Aymara territory. Its illustrious inauguration involved a letter from Pope Pius XII, the presence of the first lady and 8,000 Aymara guests.

While the name of San Gabriel – a messenger from God – conferred celestial authority on the station very early on, in the decades that followed that authority would increasingly be derived from the collective moral influence of Aymara nationalism, as the ‘observed researcher Karl Swinehart. The evolution of radio continued to reflect the dynamics of struggle and identity formation across the altiplano and the greater Andean region. By the mid-1960s, the emancipatory fervor of the Revolution had given way to a series of repressive regimes that targeted unions and sought to reassert control over the countryside. The Aymara-centric Katarista movement, taking its name from the 18th-century anti-colonial leader Túpac Katari, emerged in the 1970s as a radical response to the continued exploitation and cultural oppression of indigenous populations. With ripples sweeping through the geopolitical landscape of this struggle, San Gabriel has become a megaphone for the movement.

San Gabriel’s growing alignment with the Aymara language and culture merged with the adoption of liberation theology in parts of the Catholic Church in Latin America, prompting a move away from its assimilationist position. This openness allowed the Radio to deepen its reflection on linguistic purism. To this day, the radio promotes a “pure” form of Aymara which is essentially decolonial in nature. At the same time, the station has made popular education a central pillar of its work, developing a number of adult literacy and livelihood training programs to better meet the needs of its listeners. In 1976, Maryknoll relinquished management of the radio, handing it over to a Catholic teaching congregation which manages the station to this day. As San Gabriel continues to offer Christian programming, this content has taken a back seat to the emphasis on Aymara language, culture and livelihood development.

The view where El Alto and La Paz meet.  (Juliane Chandler)

Over the years, San Gabriel has been a constant companion for Aymara communities in Bolivia as the demography has increasingly shifted to urban spaces. In 1945, the first neighborhoods were founded in El Alto, paving the way for subsequent waves of migration that would definitely reverse the rural-urban divide. In 1980, Bolivia’s urban population was just under 40%, but in 2019 it was almost 70%. Despite its rapid growth, El Alto was not officially consolidated as a city until March 1985. In 2001, Radio San Gabriel moved its headquarters to the Aymara capital, where it continues to serve as a bridge between the city and the great altiplano. Today, El Alto has nearly a million inhabitants, making it the second largest city in Bolivia, and 82 percent of that population identifies as indigenous.

Amid the urbanization associated with a complete absence of the state, the voice of Radio San Gabriel has become a unifying and democratizing force. As Santos Colque Quelca, FM director of San Gabriel, told me, in times of socio-political crisis, Alteños sees the station as a strategic site for negotiation and resistance, both as a reliable source of information and an arena. physical dialogue. In turn, Aymara residents protect the radio from real and perceived threats. In 2019, after a coup backed by civilians and police toppled longtime Indigenous President Evo Morales, local residents held a vigil outside the radio headquarters, sending a clear message: our voices. will not be silenced.

About 2.5 million people in the Andes speak Aymara today, spread across Bolivia, Peru, Chile and Argentina. About three-quarters of this population reside in Bolivia, where El Alto serves as the nucleus of commerce, identity and collective Aymara memory. As an oral language and tradition structured around the Andean concept of ayni, or reciprocity, radio provides an ideal medium for the expression, preservation and celebration of Aymara culture. When paired with vocational training, adult literacy, and Aymara pride-centric content, San Gabriel also signifies a stable and enduring front against the continuing legacy of colonialism.

At 33, the director of FM Santos is a product of the migratory and politicizing forces that have shaped El Alto in recent decades. He strives to bring a youthful voice to indigenous radio, managing the station’s Spanish content. While the station is no longer uniquely Aymara, Santos is optimistic about the future of indigenous language media. The key, he says, lies in the fighting spirit of the Aymara people. “The [Aymara] people are very receptive, very affectionate too, ”he told me. “But when it comes to the lucha, the people of El Alto have extraordinary tenacity. When the potatoes are burning, if I can use that expression, the Alteños come together. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Julianne Chandler: Can you tell me a bit about yourself, your radio background, how you got to Radio San Gabriel, and some of the work of Radio?

Santos Colque Quelca: Currently, I am the Executive Director of Radio San Gabriel FM.

In terms of media, San Gabriel operates two radio stations. One is the AM channel, which broadcasts programs entirely in Aymara and is basically the backbone of what we do. The objective of the FM is to bring programming mainly to the population of La Paz, El Alto and certain neighboring municipalities of the metropolitan axis. The aim of the AM station is to reach the 20 provinces of La Paz, covering almost the entire department. Our current director is Brother Felipe Ampuero Montes.

Radio San Gabriel is not just a form of media, and I think that’s important. It’s a whole conglomerate of initiatives. For example, we work with teachers and professors whose mission is to offer high school diploma courses in different provinces. So they take a truck – or they did before the pandemic – and a group of teachers go to remote provinces once a month. One of the educational programs is called SAAD, the Distance Self-Education System. Its main objective is to support people who, for various reasons, have not been able to complete their secondary education. It’s quite remarkable to see graduation ceremonies for people who are 30, 40, 50, even 60 years old and finally getting their degrees.

Read the rest of this interview here, available in open access for a limited time.


Julianne Chandler is a writer and educator based in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Currently, she is a Masters candidate in Latin American and Caribbean Studies and Global Journalism at New York University. Her research interests include autonomous feminist articulation in the Andes, land defense, and indigenous cultural affirmation.


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