Jennifer A. Doudna is a Nobel Laureate, Thomas Jeffrey Hanks is an actor, Katalin Karikó is a biochemist, David Levering Lewis is a historian, Michael Glenn Mullen is a decorated military leader and Hugo Morales is a pioneer in public broadcasting who co-founded Radio Bilingue Network in Fresno in 1976 and is its executive director.
A little less than two weeks ago, this group from very diverse backgrounds was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from Harvard. Five of those individuals are most likely better known around the globe than Morales. But I think it’s fair to say that once you know his story, it defies all odds that a dirt-poor indigenous Mixteco kid from Oaxaca would one day emigrate to the United States at age 9 and not only attend and receive a law degree from Harvard, but also his alma mater would bestow him with an honorary doctorate in Doctor of Humane Letters.
“At the formal dinner for the honorands, we were lined up with our spouses and led into Memorial Hall by loud trumpets with the entire Harvard faculty giving us a standing ovation,” Morales said. “It was unreal, for me, as Mixteco from Oaxaca.”
“My fellow farmworker friends were denied the preparation to go to college. I had to fight my counselor to get my college preparatory classes,” Morales said. His formal education served him well when he returned to Fresno and founded Radio Bilingue in 1976. It went on the air four years later and today it has grown to a network of 25 owned and operated stations along with 75 affiliates all over the United States and two in Mexico. In Kern County, you can hear it on KTQX, 90.1FM.
You won’t hear professional DJs trying to be clever while saying nothing. The programming has a daily dose of news, public affairs and myriad music.
“We don’t speak about Mexicans, Latinos, indigenous peoples or the incarcerated. We speak with them and for them,” said Samuel Orozco, news director for Radio Bilingue. Besides Spanish and English, other languages heard are Mixteco, Tagalog and Hmong, said Orozco.
The staff is comprised mostly of ordinary community folks and volunteers who take pride in delivering and covering issues ranging from immigration, education, politics, labor and more. Radio Bilingue fills a void that no other Spanish-language commercial station can match.
Not to say it’s been easy to keep the lights on, because as a nonprofit entity, Radio Bilingue relies on grants and donations to keep operating. That’s where Hugo Morales has been so key to the operation, being able to work with others to keep it afloat. The Harvard honorary doctorate is just the most recent in a string of prior recognitions as well as serving on diverse boards. He is also a past trustee of California State University, and former MacArthur Fellow. He has received the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s Edward R. Murrow Award, the National Endowment for the Arts’ Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship, and the Lannan Prize for Cultural Freedom.
“I do what I do because it is work that has to be done, to lift the voices of our Latino youth, farmworkers, the poor, our teachers, our professionals and then lend our powerful microphones to other linguistic minorities in need, like the Filipino community, the Hmong community, etc.,” he said.
Meeting Morales in Fresno in 1981, he’s never changed from being a simple down-to-earth type person who puts on no airs. He remains as committed today to serving marginalized communities while lifting others along the way. He is intensely proud of his indigenous roots and that’s something I can admire.
“These values came from two beautiful, brilliant illiterate Mixtecas, my mother Concepcion and her mother Licha, who raised me as a baby and child,” Morales recalled. Now in his mid-70s, I asked him if he sees himself slowing down anytime soon.
His response: “I have stayed working for Radio Bilingüe because the work and challenges of leading Radio Biingüe makes me happy. It fulfills my person. It fits my values of serving others in collaboration with the community.”
Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a news anchor/reporter for Telemundo Bakersfield and KGET. Email him at email@example.com. The views expressed here are his own.