Story time at the Azteca Boxing Club: Daniel Alarcón on the origins of ‘Radio Ambulante’

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Daniel Alarcón records an interview with boxing fans on an early “Radio Ambulante” reporting trip. Mayer, who eventually became the subject of the story, is at center.

Practitioners of documentary audio reflect on their work and the medium in a new, expanded edition of the book Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound, published in February. Among them is Daniel Alarcón, executive producer of public radio’s Radio Ambulante, whose contribution to the book is new for the second edition. In “Story Time at the Azteca Boxing Club,” Alarcón explains how and why the show came to be.

In the summer of 2012, a friend of mine from Lima, Peru, called to let me know he was flying to Los Angeles to interview a very famous Peruvian boxer named Kina Malpartida. I was living in San Francisco at the time, and he asked me if I wanted to drive down and record the audio. We (three partners and I) had just founded Radio Ambulante and were trying to make radio with very little practical knowledge. (This is not self-deprecation. “Very little” might even be an overstatement.) We’d raised some money via Kickstarter, gathered more than six hundred supporters from twenty countries, and even built a list of potential collaborators — but we were still a long way from producing our first episode. It would be fair to say I didn’t really understand what a radio story was yet, or how it differed from a piece of print journalism (I’d done quite a bit of that). I was still figuring out how to use Pro Tools and had yet to write a single radio script. I was intrigued by the form but had many more questions than answers.

But I said yes, and here’s why: I assume most people reading this don’t know who Kina Malpartida is, but for us Peruvians, she’s huge. Iconic. We have many famous athletes, but Kina is more than that: She is one of Peru’s most recognizable celebrities, one of those superstars everyone refers to simply by their first name. She won the World Boxing Association belt for her weight division in 2009, then successfully defended her title on six occasions. In 2012, she was at the height of her fame. Each time she stepped into the ring, nearly half the televisions in Peru were tuned in to watch. She is also very private, and the fact that my friend had gotten an interview was extraordinary. I figured that having a profile of someone this well-known could only be useful for our fledgling radio project. If no one else listened, at least a few folks in Peru might. So I packed up my gear and I drove down to Los Angeles.

A few days later, my friend and I were at the Azteca Boxing Club, a nondescript tan brick storefront on an anonymous strip in Bell, California. There’s a very simple painting of a boxer out front, next to the sign in red, white, and green, the colors of the Mexican flag. The windows had been painted over, in the same beige as the bricks. We went inside and asked for Kina. She wasn’t there. So when was she coming? we asked. We were met with blank looks. The folks who worked at the gym wouldn’t even confirm that Kina trained there.

Here’s another measure of Kina’s fame: The day we visited the Azteca, there were four Peruvians who’d come on the rumor that Kina might show up. They were there for no reason other than to watch her spar, maybe get an autograph, and wish her luck. Like us, they had no intention of leaving without seeing their hero. They were all older, retirement-age Peruvians, men who’d lived in and around Los Angeles for decades. They were chatty, and particularly interested in my friend, who worked for a newspaper they’d heard of. They seemed to prize this whiff of authenticity and peppered him with questions about how things were back in the Peruvian capital.

While they talked about sports and politics and crime, I had my kit out, my headphones on. I’d never been in a boxing gym before; certainly I’d never listened carefully to the way a space like that sounds. These are loud spaces, full of noise and clutter. I was new to radio, and all of this sonic chaos felt exciting to me. A bright digital bell went off every two minutes; trainers challenged their boxers in colorful language; dumbbells clanged to the gym floor; a jump rope slapped against the canvas in a syncopated rat-tat-tat. It was hardly an ideal place for a long interview, but in terms of texture, it was startling, even revelatory.

But there was no Kina.

I recorded endless beds of boxing gym ambi, but naturally, after twenty minutes, the novelty began to wear off. I was feeling a little bit bored, wondering why I’d bothered to drive down from San Francisco, when one of the men leaned toward me. He was short, squat, with silver hair combed to the back, a square jaw, and wildly expressive eyes. He’d been staring at my microphone for a while, with a look I’d come to recognize — the look of someone who had something to say. Finally, he said:

Esto te puede interesar. Mi hermano, que en paz descanse, fue la primera persona en cruzar los Estados Unidos en canoa.

I’ll translate this for non-Spanish-speakers in a moment. But first, to understand the importance of this statement, you need to understand the pitch and tone of his voice. It was high and nasal and confident and resolute. Full of bravado. Also, you need to understand his smile: wry, conspiratorial.

Okay. Hear that voice. See that raised eyebrow, that mischievously curled lip. Now this is what he said, in English:

This might interest you. My brother, may he rest in peace, was the first person to cross the United States in a canoe.

I have this on tape — this bizarre, slightly surreal statement, offered so casually, so blithely. But what you can’t hear on the tape is my befuddlement, or my subsequent curiosity. Huh? In a canoe? How? What?

This was an important moment, I’ve come to realize. I was tired of waiting for Kina, tired of wearing those giant over-the-ear headphones. All those sounds that had felt interesting half an hour before had now congealed into a blur of undifferentiated noise. I just wanted to listen to someone. To have a human being tell me a story. This man would become that someone.

Alarcón records audio at the Azteca Boxing Club.

His name was Mayer. He stood at the edge of the training area, dying to tell me about his brother, who’d crossed the U.S. in a canoe. And I was dying to unpack that statement, which on the face of it made very little sense. I asked him what he meant. Mayer said it was a long story, which involved Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign, his family’s past in the Amazon, and, much later, the Mississippi River. (That cleared up one question about crossing the United States: north to south, not east to west. Duh.) Mayer gave me his card and told me to come by the next day and he’d tell me the whole story.

“And,” he added, “I have others.”

I put the card in my pocket, suddenly hopeful again.

We waited another two hours for Kina to show up. When she finally did, she was opaque, reserved, cagey, more interested in training than in giving an interview. That dedication is what made her a champion, I suppose, and of course it was her prerogative. But unfortunately for me, she had that quality celebrities often exhibit when faced with questions from the press — they are circumspect and resort to platitudes, because it’s easier and safer than opening up in any meaningful way. She was guarding herself, the way she might in the ring, to avoid being hit.

Even though I was new to radio, I quickly understood there would be no story. But at least I had Mayer’s business card.

My friend, the journalist from Lima, was skeptical. As we walked out of the Azteca, he said: “That old guy just wants to rob you.”

When I was a kid, growing up in the United States, we stayed in touch with our family back in Peru via cassette tapes. This was in the 1980s, the dark ages of global communication, before international calling cards and Skype and WhatsApp. My sisters and I would gather in my parents’ bedroom to be interviewed by our father. He’d ask us what we’d learned in school, maybe have us recite a poem or tell a story, and then he’d take these cassettes and drop them in the mail to our family in Lima. And it might take a month or two, but eventually, we’d get another tape back, a similar audio document, often recorded at a family gathering. I remember sitting and listening to these tapes, hearing the voices of uncles, aunts, and cousins. There’s one recording I especially love: my cousins interviewing various family members at a birthday party one evening, and it’s ten minutes in before you realize that all the conversations are happening in the dark. A bomb has gone off in Lima, and the power is out. Suddenly, you’re forced to reinterpret what you’ve heard; suddenly, all the joking and laughter sounds less spirited, and anxious. The precariousness of life in Lima has been laid bare, subtly.

I didn’t think of the tapes we made as radio programs, but they were, in fact: variety shows produced for a very specific audience. Most of these recordings have been lost, but it’s no matter. I consider them my first lessons in audio. I learned from a very young age and at a very intuitive level what radio could accomplish, the distances it could bridge.

When we started Radio Ambulante — my wife, Carolina Guerrero, along with reporters and producers Annie Correal, and Martina Castro — we wanted to do precisely that. We thought of the United States as being intimately connected to Latin America, and vice versa. We thought of the Spanish-speaking countries in the region as being linked to each other in ways that hadn’t really been explored — by language, of course, but also by culture, by shared history and shared challenges. Across Latin America, we are all storytelling cultures. The diversity of how we speak, the accents, the unique vocabularies of each country, only adds to the magic of the region.

Not everyone agreed, of course. We were told early on that Puerto Ricans only wanted to hear stories about Puerto Ricans; that Mexicans only cared about Mexico; that Colombians were only interested in Colombia. But we knew intuitively that this wasn’t true. We believed that political borders were real, but that cultural and linguistic borders were fluid and well-told stories were universal. We knew the United States and Latin America were part of one grand, unfolding narrative that needed to be told in Spanish. And we knew this to be true, because we had lived it. All of us had lived in the United States at one point or another, while maintaining strong roots with the country where we were born.

But how do you go from an idea, or a set of principles, to an actual show? In practical terms, we were fumbling in the dark — which is the best way to figure it out, of course. You must fumble boldly and with purpose. That’s what I was doing in Los Angeles at the Azteca Boxing Club, wasn’t it? You do an interview. What next? Select the best tape. Bang out a script. Read it aloud with your cuts. Your heart sinks. So you make something new, and hope that this time it’s better. It may take a dozen attempts or more, but eventually, it does get better. It’s magical. This is the process, and there are no corners to be cut. Every mistake, every shitty script, is a small down payment on future excellence.

We were fortunate to start our project at a time when the tools of production were so accessible. Every smartphone is also a passable digital recorder. Everyone can download free or basically free audio-editing software, good enough to play around with. All of us were already steeped in the language and rhythm and aesthetics of shows like Radiolab or This American Life, and we knew that would be our starting point.

It took us about six months to produce our first episode, and four months to produce our next two. We began with stories that seem very simple now: single voices, rather straightforward narrative, clunky language. But I feel great pride when I hear them again. We were after all trying something new, and learning in public. It’s not easy to be this vulnerable.

Before this process, all my work had been as a writer, where every project was both lonely and anxiety inducing. When you’re writing a novel, you’re the only one who can solve a problem in the narrative. Radio Ambulante was the antidote to that. The interview itself is a social activity, a kind of improvised dance, to say nothing of the editing sessions with your colleagues. You can feel them react to a good piece of tape, or a nice turn of phrase. I discovered I liked working within a team, with people whose opinions I respected. And there was something else I liked, something novelists might wait years for and never receive — feedback from the audience. It came quickly, and it was heartfelt. I remember when a young listener from Los Angeles wrote to say that she’d heard one of our episodes sitting alongside her grandmother. The email was written in English, the language she’d grown up speaking outside the home, in school, with her friends; her grandmother only spoke Spanish. And despite that divide, they’d been able to listen to the story we produced together, and it had sparked a conversation. This young lady was so moved by our story that she’d felt compelled to write to thank us.

The story that moved her this way, of course, was the one Mayer told us. We found him in his shop, where he sold quinceañera dresses, which hung on one long wall in two rows, like a cheerful, frilly set of crayons. Mayer hadn’t forgotten us, nor did he appear ready to rob us. Instead, he took us to the back, asked his employees to turn down the music, and pulled out a briefcase full of files — newspaper clippings and old pictures, handwritten letters and photocopies. Here was his brother’s life, in documents, but it soon emerged that his own life had been far more incredible.

Mayer was born in Callao, just outside Lima, into a working-class family that lived near the port. He’d always had to make his own way. His father was from the Amazon, and on a trip to the jungle, Mayer had been forcibly conscripted into the army, then escaped on a boat sailing along the river to Brazil. He wasn’t yet fifteen years old when he set sail on a merchant ship and spent the next few years traveling the world. When he came home to Callao, he and a friend decided to try their luck in the United States, and in 1959, they did, sailing as stowaways in the hold of a ship, when Mayer was only nineteen years old. They arrived in Brooklyn dirty and half-starved, looking so pitiful that the Greek stevedores who worked at the port took pity on them and snuck them out in a laundry basket. Each man was given five dollars and then dropped on Columbus Avenue to start a new life.

That, of course, was only the beginning. Each of Mayer’s stories spooled out into another, wilder escapade, so many that I began to lose track of them. Most improbably, the adventure ended right here, where we were standing, in the back of Mayer’s clothing store, one of six he owned across south Los Angeles.

Now the challenge was choosing which story to tell. How he got his first job moving bolts of fabric in a workshop off the Bowery? How he rode a bicycle around L.A. offering to clean carpets and built a small business? How he chauffeured starlets around Hollywood, giving them advice about their acting careers? There were a dozen others.

When we finally left Mayer’s store that afternoon, I was dizzy with stories. My friend from Lima, who hadn’t given up on his portrait of Kina, was flummoxed.

“What are you going to do with all that?” he asked, referring to the two hours of tape we’d just recorded. I told him the truth: I didn’t know.

In fact, it would be months before our producer, Nancy López, would go back to Mayer and unpack the story of his arrival in the United States. I remember hearing the rough mix later that year, long after I’d forgotten about Kina Malpartida and the boxing gym and her monosyllabic answers, and being transported by Mayer to another place and time. This was it, the Radio Ambulante story I was really proud of.

It just wasn’t the one I’d expected it to be.

Daniel Alarcón is the author of six books, including the novel At Night We Walk in Circles, a finalist for the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award. He began working as a journalist in 2004, first in print for Latin American outlets such as Etiqueta Negra, and later for American and European publications including Harper’s, the New York Times MagazineEl País, and Granta, where he was named a contributing editor in 2010. In 2012, he cofounded Radio Ambulante, a groundbreaking Spanish-language podcast, covering Latin America with long-form narrative radio journalism. He teaches radio and reporting at the Columbia University Journalism School.

From Reality Radio, SECOND EDITION: Telling True Stories in Sound edited by John Biewen. Copyright © 2017 by the Center for Documentary Studies. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press.