Remembering a ‘Cinco de Mayo miracle’ in the 30-year history of ‘Latino USA’

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President Bill Clinton speaks at a "Latino USA" event May 5, 1993, at the Public Radio Conference in Washington, D.C.

Many years ago, it was my dream to produce a program with Latino/a editorial control, one that would tell the Latino/a story in all its beauty and all its pain, and that spoke of Latino/a contributions to this country. I dreamt of a radio project that would help make public media more “public” and create bridges of cross-cultural understanding. The culmination of that dream took place on May 5, 1993 — Cinco de Mayo, 30 years ago.

At that point, almost a year had passed since I’d left my position as NPR’s first and only Latino Affairs Editor to come to the University of Texas at Austin to try to fulfill that radio dream. I wanted Latino USA to be a creatively produced program of substance, as good as anything heard on NPR. This was a tall order with just a small staff, insufficient funding, and dealing with the gender and ethnic discrimination Latinas and other women then faced daily.

I almost gave up several times, but despite the challenges, I kept going. It was partly my love for producing radio, but especially for following through on the opportunity to have Latino voices and concerns be a solid part of the public media landscape. Above all, there was the realization that everyone involved in this project had been given an enormous gift by the universe: 30 minutes a week of national airtime to tell the Latino story. The responsibility weighed heavily on me.

To balance out the challenges, there was the best creative production team anyone could ask for — Angelica Luevano, a talented producer from El Paso, Texas, and technical engineer Walter Morgan, a true wizard of sound production. We were together for more than 10 years, and I’ve never experienced a more creative work environment. Maria Hinojosa, then working for NPR in New York, was to host the program under an arrangement I’d made with the National Desk to allow her half an hour weekly to record in the studio.

After the first programs aired, NPR agreed to distribute this “radio journal of news and culture” that would eventually be formally called Latino USA. And while some people had told us we were crazy to think we’d get carriage by 100 stations within a year, we reached that number within a few months. I was thrilled when, at a National Federation of Community Broadcasters Conference, one station manager told those attending that “listening to Latino USA is like being invited into a Latino living room.”

This was exactly what I had wanted for the program: for it to be inviting and informative to a general audience and at the same time feel authentic to Latino listeners. This was one of the reasons that I, as editor and producer, insisted on authentic pronunciation of Spanish-language names. Our listener line received mostly complimentary calls about this: “I wish I could put my radio on my windowsill and let all my neighbors hear it,” said one excited listener. “I believe,” she continued, “that then they’d understand more about my culture and who I am!”

In April of 1993, our staff was busy preparing for the program’s official launch at the Public Radio Conference. The annual gathering would take place in early May in Washington, a city re-energized by Bill Clinton, who’d taken office just three months earlier.

The Latino USA staff was excited about making a splash at this conference. Here was our opportunity to shine in the larger world of public radio, a chance to prove we could compete with the best producers and programmers, that we were not only “affirmative action hires,” and that we had something valuable to contribute. Most of all, the PRC offered us a chance to make a case before the media community that serving the public meant including the diverse voices of an ever-changing America. We wanted to put on an event that would convince station programmers to carry our show — because Latino USA was great radio, and because it was the right thing to do on behalf of current and future audiences.

The symbolic timing with the Latino celebration of Cinco de Mayo was significant, even though it meant our celebration would be competing with other popular events at the conference. We sent out a slew of invitations, including to every major Latino elected and appointed official in Washington. The RSVPs trickled in very slowly. My heart sank.

But then a Cinco de Mayo miracle happened.

Apparently, inside the White House, the new president’s advisors were counseling that his administration needed greater outreach to the Hispanic community. Cinco de Mayo was coming up, and the launch of Latino USA was about the biggest Latino event taking place that particular day in the nation’s capital.

I couldn’t believe it when we were informed President Clinton planned to attend and say a few words in praise of the program’s debut. “Maybe this is a reward for all our hard work and dedication,” I thought. Maybe our blood, sweat and tears had been worth it.

I arrived in Washington and was faced with telephones that wouldn’t stop ringing. Suddenly, the Latino USA launch was the hottest ticket in town!

“Hello,” one caller began, “I’m calling on behalf of NPR Vice President Bill Buzenberg, and he’d like to be part of the program for the evening. We’re calling to see if he can be seated in the front section.”

It was as if the world had been turned upside down — with those usually on the outside now members of an insider clique. I won’t pretend it didn’t feel good.

I can only describe that night as a gift from heaven. Wall-to-wall public radio people were in attendance, with more trying to get in as long lines stretched past the Secret Service security checks at the door.

At our display tables, instead of mugs and tote bags, Latino USA was giving away … rain sticks! Everyone went crazy for our hollow, dried-out branches filled with small pebbles that, when tilted at an angle, made the sound of gently falling rain. Yes, Latino USA’s party favors were beautiful pieces of genuine Latin American folk art!

Salsa music played in the background, the lines at the bar were long, and the air was thick with anticipation. On stage, our program’s host, María Hinojosa, tried to get the rowdy crowd to simmer down. “You don’t want me to get all ‘New York’ on you, do you?” she joked. “This is the formal reception of a very important program that is now being broadcast on the airwaves across the United States.” She added that “without María Martin’s vision, this whole reality of a national broadcast of, for and about Latinos would not be possible.”

Listening to the tape of that night’s presentation decades later, with much water under the bridge, I was almost surprised to hear my strong and confident voice speaking to a now-attentive crowd. “It’s exciting to be here at the Public Radio Conference on the Cinco de Mayo … not just a time to celebrate an event in history, but a time to celebrate the Latino presence and the Latino contributions to this country. … That’s what Latino USA is all about,” I told the crowd right before I introduced Henry Cisneros, whom Clinton had named Housing and Urban Development Secretary and who’d one day also become a powerful force in Latino media.

“Never before has any English-language network in the United States,” Cisneros told the audience, “put together a half-hour program of top quality, week in and week out, to celebrate Latino history and culture in the United States.” He was interrupted by loud applause. “As important as our political and economic progress is and will be,” Cisneros pointed out, “it is equally important that we make progress in informing Americans about the role of Latinos in American life — and that’s what this program will do. It will allow Americans to learn about our art, our architecture, our food, our issues: children, families, food, colors, music, all that is Latino life — and it will be done with quality, and it will be done with class.” These were high expectations to live up to, but I was so glad this official understood what we were trying to do. I truly believed we were poised to fulfill Cisneros’s expectations.

The word was that President Clinton was running late. The delay only made for more excitement. Finally, the familiar charismatic figure entered the building and slowly moved toward the stage. The president stopped to exchange a few words with, it seemed, nearly everyone.

On stage, Clinton, of course, won everybody over. He confessed that he and his wife were “NPR junkies” and that “the earnest sincerity of NPR” always got him going in the morning — even when he preferred to sleep.

Clinton then congratulated those of us who had launched Latino USA. “I believe,” he said of our show, that “it will be a new forum for all the diverse voices throughout America’s Latino communities, and a new way for more Americans to learn more about the importance of the many Latino cultures throughout the United States and the many leaders who have brought and are bringing hope and inspiration to many Americans.” He paid special tribute to César Chávez, who had recently passed away, and congratulated NPR News Vice President Bill Buzenberg on the twenty-second anniversary that week of NPR’s flagship program, All Things Considered. Clinton, amazingly, then expressed this hope: “… that Latino USA does for its audiences what programs like All Things Considered and Morning Edition do for audiences all across America today. Perhaps twenty-two Cinco de Mayos from today,” the president speculated, “you, too, will be able to look back and see what an important beginning this really was.”

María Martin, founder of "Latino USA"
Martin at the mic in 1997.

I write this some 30 years after that night, and though the road for Latino USA has been bumpier than that for either All Things Considered or Morning Edition, as has my own trajectory in the world of public radio, I believe that life is a great mystery. The program so many people said wouldn’t work is still on the air, now produced by the Futuro Media Group and distributed on PRX. And though I haven’t been associated with the program for many years, I am so proud that it’s been a vehicle for consistently bringing in new Latino/a voices, and the voices of those interested in the ever more significant Latino beat.

I myself have spent many years trying to heal from the wounds of the cultural and ethnic battles of trying to be a change-maker in public radio. I hope and pray it’s easier for upcoming generations as public media strives to truly reflect the whole of society while staying strong and viable. I also hope that in the next 30 years and beyond, Latino USA continues to fulfill those early hopes and promises so eloquently articulated on that long ago Cinco de Mayo.

María Martin is an award-winning 48-year veteran of public radio and a Hall of Fame member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She directs the GraciasVida Center for Media based in Texas and Guatemala, which has trained thousands of Latin American journalists. She’s the author of Crossings Borders, Building Bridges: A Journalist’s Heart in Latin America and Reporting Across Borders: A Short Guide to Becoming a Foreign Correspondent.

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