He started a Latino radio network in Fresno. Harvard just awarded him an honorary doctorate
BY LAURA S. DIAZ JUNE 01, 2023 5:30 AM
Earlier this year, Hugo Morales was at home in Fresno, eating lunch with his family, when his wife checked the mail. They noticed an envelope from Harvard University, Morales’ alma mater, and joked it was an honorary doctorate.
To their surprise, Harvard had in fact awarded Morales — co-founder and executive director of Fresno-based Radio Bilingüe — an honorary doctorate.
“It was really, really surprising for me,” Morales said. “It’s an incredible honor.”
He received the award in Cambridge last week along with five other honorees: actor Tom Hanks, biochemist Katalin Karikó, historian David Levering Lewis, admiral Michael Glenn Mullen and medical chemist Jennifer A. Doudna. Morales is the first Mexican Indigenous person to receive an honorary doctorate from Harvard.
Past honorary doctorate recipients include 16 U.S. presidents, New Zealand’s former prime minister Jacinda Ardern, South Africa’s former president Nelson Mandela, former Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and other renowned civil rights leaders, artists and trailblazers.
“I don’t work to get awards,” Morales said, humbled by this recent distinction. “I work because it’s important to help others, and I do it gladly, every day.”
Morales arrived in Northern California as a nine-year-old Oaxacan immigrant. As a child, he worked in the fields alongside his Mixtec parents and attended public schools. Despite the challenges he faced as a child, he excelled academically at Healdsburg High School and graduated from Harvard in 1972 and Harvard Law School in 1975.
Soon after, he returned to California, settled in Fresno and co-founded Radio Bilingüe. Today, Radio Bilingüe is the leading Spanish-language public radio network and producer of educational and informational content for Latinos across the United States.
(Morales is the first Indigenous Mexican to receive the honor that has previously been granted to 16 U.S. presidents, world leaders, civil rights leaders, scientists and artists. Courtesy of Radio Bilingüe )
MORALES CO-FOUNDED RADIO STATION IN FRESNO Morales said he first learned about the “power of radio” as a child living in an agricultural labor camp in Sonoma County.
He helped his older brother, who worked at a radio station in San Francisco, with his Sunday morning Spanish program for Chicanos, Mexicans and Latino communities across the Bay Area and Sonoma County, and observed how Latino agricultural workers depended on radio shows for information and communication.
By the time he finished his studies at Harvard, he was academically prepared to be a business lawyer. However, he said he did not go to law school to work in that industry.
“I wanted to know how I could try to influence the system for the better, considering we are living in a capitalist country,” Morales said. That way, he said, he could combine his acquired knowledge with the ways Latinos and Indigenous people care for their communities’ social well-being and create a resource and information network for them in the U.S..
Upon his return to California, he settled in Fresno to work with larger agricultural communities and help them stay connected. Partnering with local fieldworkers, teachers, activists and artists, Morales co-founded Radio Bilingüe as a non-profit organization in 1976 and their radio station went live on July 4, 1980.
Since then, over 3,000 Radio Bilingüe volunteers have been trained to broadcast their shows, including some of the first radio segments in Hmong and Tagalog, Morales said. Samuel Orozco, Radio Bilingüe’s news director, joined the station in 1981 and helped create the news division. He’s worked with Morales since then and has witnessed Radio Bilingüe grow from a single station to a national network of 25 stations and 75 affiliated stations.
“Hugo’s story should definitely inspire many communities and many young people from communities who traditionally are disadvantaged,” Orozco said in Spanish.
“For a young Indigenous man to defeat the challenges set against him, to reach his goals at the height that he has because of his commitment to his community,” he said, “Hugo Morales’ story is a testament that surely many more young people, if they set themselves to it, can also break many barriers.”
DOCTORATE IS RADIO BILINGÜE FOUNDER’S LATEST HONOR
Since starting Radio Bilingüe, Morales has collected a series of accolades in his name that, in his perspective, honor the teamwork of volunteers, staff and the community rather than his individual work.
He is the first person from the San Joaquin Valley to be honored as a MacArthur Fellow for communications and journalism in 1994. Also known as the MacArthur Genius Grants, this fellowship is granted to individuals who have shown talent, extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits. In the same category, Morales is accompanied by other journalists like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Daniel Alarcón and Nikole Hannah-Jones.
In 1999, he was awarded the Edward R. Murrow Award, the highest honor in public radio. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting grants this award to individuals whose work has fostered the growth, quality and positive image of public radio across the United States.
In 2006, he received the Lannan Cultural Freedom Award, which the Lannan Foundation grants to individuals in recognition of their “extraordinary and courageous work” promoting social justice, human rights and cultural expression.
Lilia Gonzáles Chávez, executive director of the Fresno Arts Council, has known Morales for most of her career promoting the arts.
“When I first became involved with the arts in Fresno,” Gonzáles Chávez said, “Hugo (Morales) and Radio Bilingüe were a tremendous resource for sharing information about the development of art projects and programs.”
She said Morales’s recognition comes at a time when there are so many Latinos and gente indígena, Indigenous people, in the Valley and when many young people are interested in communication and the arts.
“They are looking for some validation that says, ‘yes, I can be successful if I pursue this goal,’ and often we don’t have examples of successful people in the arts that look like us,” she said. “So, this is just such a wonderful opportunity for young people to see someone that looks like them and speaks like them, that is recognized for his achievements.”
Margarita Rocha, Centro La Familia’s executive director, also has known Morales for decades. She praised his work with Latino farmworking communities.
“Many of our people receive information through radio, especially if they’re working in the fields,” Rocha said. “They carry their radios with them and get updated on news, what’s going on in the community (and) in the country.”
“I’m so, so, so happy that he (Morales) has been recognized this way,” she said. “As soon as the information came in, I sent it out to all my staff. It does us heartfelt-good that people who represent our community are acknowledged.”
Radio Bilingue’s programming airs on 91.5 FM in Fresno, 90.1 FM in Bakersfield and 90.9 FM in Salinas. For a full list of the stations where you can listen to them in the U.S. and Mexico, visit radiobilingue.org.