In search of Mexico's lost radio superheroes

By the time we reach the coastal area of Punta Chiquita there is no radio signal at all. 

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“As soon as anyone gets back home, the TV goes on. In Mexico, radio is for cars.”

Driving south of the resort town of Puerto Vallarta along Mexico’s Pacific coast, my friend Roberto lists some of the things that have changed. He says that as late as 1987 his mother would send him soap and toothpaste from Mexico City, because they were hard to come by in this western state of Jalisco. He adds that until a couple of years ago, everybody used to listen to a local station that featured mariachi bands from the district playing music “all day, every day” – live and super-chaotic in the studio.

Now, though, it’s just Radio Disney, which has almost total saturation across the country thanks to its competition prizes of film merchandise (the pencils are popular) and powerful surprise guests such as President Peña Nieto himself, who makes absurd appeals about the dramatic rising price of fuel (“The hen gave us eggs of gold, but the eggs have run out”).

Along the one road south run leafy fields of mango trees, frothily green but with a sap so acidic that any plantation workers wear hoods like highwaymen. We stop for bread at a shack with an oven cut into a rock face; the only thing not thick with soot is a picture of the Virgin strung with tinsel. Ants are busy on the ground. Hungry dogs search endlessly among twigs for scraps.

By the time we reach the coastal area of Punta Chiquita there is no radio signal at all. No station, no frequency; never has been – though Roberto’s friend here, José, swears he remembers listening to soap operas on the radio with his grandmother.

José recalls such characters as the Mexican superhero Kalimán and the 19th-century revolutionary hero Gabino Barreda, who had “amazing special effects. Pah-pah! Drum-drummm! Y’know, a guy who made horse sounds with his hands, or a bucket, or his mouth. You would have to use a lot of imagination.

Mi abuela estaba loca por eso,” he adds – “my grandmother was crazy for it”.

José can’t place the station. Soaps play all day on TV now. Perhaps memory has muddled the mediums I (primly) suggest. “Ah no!” he scoffs, insulted. “No no. Radio was once a whole big deal.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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