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Volunteers Keep Alma Latina Going For 40 Years

A photo from the Kalamazoo Gazette on April 18, 1994. Kids from Battle Creek Public Schools were invited to watch a taping of Alma Latina.
Phil Mitchell, Kalamazoo Gazette

Not many all-volunteer programs last 40 years, but WMUK’s Alma Latinais one of them. The station’s Latin music program is coming up on its 40th birthday. Alma Latina was one of the first Spanish-language programs in the area - and one of the few to survive this long. 

Alma Latina host Mike Ramírez
Alma Latina host Mike Ramírez

In fact, WMUK had another Latin show in the early 70s called El Despertar De Una Raza, but it didn’t last.

Alma Latina got started in 1976, when a group called the Hispanic American Steering Committee came to WMUK. They wanted a place to play music and talk about what was happening in Kalamazoo’s growing Hispanic community.

“So there was a gentleman named Jose Escamilla who’s a community leader. He got together some students from Western and they approached Garrard Macleod who was station manager,” says Alma Latina host Mike Ramírez.

Alma Latina officially hit the airwaves in 1977. Ramírez started volunteering as a student just a few months later. His family were migrant farm workers. They moved to Texas from Mexico when he was 14. Ramírez says they would work all over the Midwest - including Michigan.

“1974 when I graduated from high school somebody came to my camp and said there’s university of Michigan’s that are offering scholarships for sons and daughters of farm workers. All you have to do is be regular admit to that university. So I had a friend in the same camp where I was staying and he said why don’t you go to Western. I’m there, it’s my second year and it’s a full ride scholarship. So I told my parents I wanted to stay here,” says Ramírez.

Ramírez worked hard in college and got his degree in three years instead of four.

“I wanted to tell my parents, let them know that ok this wasn’t in vain,” he says.

Ramírez says it was difficult being away from his family and he fast-tracked his college career to go back to Texas. But he would never live in Texas again. Not too long after that he was offered a job at Western. He’s lived in Kalamazoo and volunteered with Alma Latina ever since.

Ramírez is now the assistant director of Multicultural Affairs at WMU.  He says he still volunteers because of his commitment to the community:

"When we started Alma Latina there was no media, there was no newspapers, there was no television available. Nowadays we have more like we have cable so we have Univision and radio. Now we have 24 hour programs in Spanish. Back in those days, there wasn’t anything."

Starting out, Alma Latina had a big problem. All they had was a single Mexican record.

“We played one side and then we played the other side - the same artist. Cause when we started we had no records - very, very little music. And then we went around the community asking folks, ‘Do you have any Tejano - Tex Mex - music that we can play on the radio?’ And people donated some of those records,” says Ramírez.

Then in the 80s, Ramírez decided the show needed different music. So he took Alma Latina’s volunteers at the time - two students from Venezuela - to Chicago to search through record stores.

“'All we’re playing right now is conjunto, norteño. We need to find some salsa,' - which was a big thing back in the 80s - salsa music and buy the traditional Mexican ballads and mariachi - because we didn’t have that in our record library,” says ​Ramírez.

Ramírez says now they play music from Hispanic countries all over the world:

“Salsa, merengue, conjunto, tejano, bachata, banda, mariachi of course. So compared to other Spanish programs - radio programs - in the area, we play the most variety. Most of the programs in the area they play Tex Mex - or Tejano - is the type of format. And that’s all they play, they stick to that format. And we’re very proud of the fact that we’re able to play this variety of music because we’re in a college campus and students ask us to play the music. ‘We want to hear music from Venezuela. We want to hear music from Colombia, from Brazil, from the Dominican Republic.’”

Most of the volunteers on Alma Latina are Western students. Ramírez says hundreds of them have come through WMUK’s doors. Over the years each DJ has brought their own style to the show.

Adriana Cardoso-Reyes volunteered all four years of undergrad. Cardoso-Reyes says she loved finding new music for the show - especially banda. Cardoso-Reyes says it's a lot like American big band music. 

“Talks about lots of love stories through the music, music about culture, music about the impacts of immigration on families. Just kind of talks about what’s happening in Mexican society or Mexican society in the U.S. through some of those songs,” she explains.

Like Ramírez, Cardoso-Reyes was a first generation student from a migrant family. Now she works to help migrant students get access to education at Western. She says when she was a freshman in 2002, Latino students didn’t have the resources they have now.

“As I’m working in higher education now and understanding a lot of what we do for students at the university, student engagement comes to mind," says Cardoso-Reyes.

"And I didn’t realize that for me Alma Latina was my engagement at this campus. It was a way to connect me to the university, it was a way to support me while I was here.”

Alma Latina’s current volunteer, Daniel Oropeza, isn’t a student. He and his family actually started listening a lot earlier - when he was about 11 years old.

“It was just jaw dropping and we were just very tickled that we were hearing Mexican music or different type of Spanish music through the radio," he says.

“But from then on, I just had been listening to the program for many, many years. And when I had that opportunity to work with Mike earlier this year, it was just a no-brainer. It was just something that was like this is a must.”

Oropeza says getting the chance to work with Mike Ramírez 30 years later is an honor.

With Oropeza, Alma Latina has been trying something new this summer. He and Ramírez have been speaking Spanglish - a mashup of Spanish and English. Oropeza, says many Hispanic Americans speak this way - and it’s easy to see why.

“Parents are like hey here at the household you’re going to be speaking Spanish. In school, you speak English. So from day one - as a young kid - I can register both languages,” he says.

“So when I go home and talk to my parents and the rest of the family, it just came out that way.”

Ramírez says Alma Latina’s 40th is actually on April 2nd of 2017. But he says he thought it was important to highlight the show during Hispanic Heritage Month - which spans from September 15th through October 15th.

“It’s the time of the year most of the country people celebrate the Hispanic culture, Hispanic heritage and this program has been a staple in our community for almost 40 years,” he says.

Alma Latina airs on WMUK every Sunday afternoon from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.

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