By Melissa Abbey
Carrboro Commons Staff Writer
Every Friday from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., instead of heading to a popular local hangout, a group of Latino high school students crowds into the tiny WCOM FM radio studio next to Cat’s Cradle.
Inside, they arrange themselves around the broadcasting equipment – a computer, soundboard and five or six microphones – each wearing a large set of headphones. This is Radio Latijam, and these kids are running the show.
Radio Latijam is a service program headed by Lucila Vargas, a professor in UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
“It is an after-school program,” Vargas said, adding that Latino students come from both Carrboro and Chapel Hill high schools. “It is for Latino youth. It’s a service-learning program, so I have students from my classes volunteer.”
Vargas said she pairs each UNC-CH student with a Latino teen.
“The UNC student is a coach of the high school student. It’s not really a mentor. It’s a coach, and they meet twice a week: once during the show and another hour during the week. During that hour they work on preproduction and also work on the specific needs of the teens. Very often it is helping them find information about how to apply to college and things like that. Often, they are from immigrant families, so their parents are not familiar with the system at all.”
Radio Latijam is a continuation of Pa’lante, a non-profit organization founded by Laura Wenzel in 2003. Wenzel said the area’s Latino population really started to grow in 2000. She explained that because Latino teens were socially isolated and without programs to get involved in they often fell into gang activity.
“No one had a real strong will to do anything for these kids,” she said. “I think there was some fear.”
Wenzel, whose daughter was very young at the time, said she didn’t want her child to attend a school with armed guards and decided it was time to do something about the gangs by providing an alternative social activity. She founded Pa’lente, which started as a high school group that put out a quarterly magazine. When the kids found out they could do their own radio show through WCOM, they jumped at the idea and the program transitioned from print to radio. The show first went on the air on June 3, 2005.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Latinos make up 13.8 percent of Carrboro’s population. However, Wenzel said there isn’t a gang problem today because of youth programs like this.
Ana, one of Radio Latijam’s core participants, is a junior at Carrboro High School and spoke highly of the program.
“This is just like what we do for fun,” she said. “People go places to hang out with their friends on Fridays after school. We come here.”
Though Ana said she doesn’t necessarily want to go into radio media, she really enjoys producing Radio Latijam with her friends every week. She also said meeting with the UNC-CH students outside of the studio time is helpful, especially when it comes to college planning.
Elizabeth Byrum, one of Vargas’s volunteer UNC-CH students, said giving the teens responsibility encourages them to mature as young adults.
“We teach them the practical skills like interviewing and working the soundboard,” she said. “The goal is for them to be able to do all of that themselves. I think giving them a sense of responsibility, too, is really important.”
Another volunteer, Rachel Pollard, added that she’s personally seen the teens mature and grow in character.
“I think taking on that sense of responsibility really increases their confidence,” Pollard said. “They get more confident, they become better communicators, they take on responsibility and mature. It’s really cool to see. I’ve definitely seen it.”
When Wenzel passed the program on to Vargas, the radio program remained basically the same. Vargas said producing the show gives the high school students a sense of responsibility, an outlet for self-expression and an opportunity to serve their community.
“They also not only have their voices heard, but do a service to the Latino community,” Vargas said.
During the show teens often interview guests with health expertise. Vargas said the show has had multiple guests from organizations like Planned Parenthood, the idea being to get essential information to their young Latino listeners.
In the last two weeks the teens have taken their service a step further and organized to help one of their own, a high school senior whose house burned down Feb. 10. When the Latina teen, who has been volunteering with Radio Latijam for three years, told the team what had happened, everyone agreed to organize a drive. They publicized the need for donations during their radio program and online.
Pollard, who works one-on-one with the teen whose house burned, said there were about 15 people living in the three-bedroom home.
“She’s handling it very maturely,” Pollard said. “I think she’s used to hard times.”
The family, which asked not to be identified, isn’t sure what to do next but definitely needs supplies. Vargas said the family could use items like clothing, appliances, furniture and other home goods, though money or gift cards would be even better.
Seventeen-year old twin sisters Paola and Vanesa, regular Radio Latijam volunteers, said they had been saving money to buy a TV for their family, but donated the money instead when they found out about their friend’s tragedy.
“I believe that if that happened to me, I would want somebody to do the same,” Paola said.
Any donations should be taken to El Centro Hispano, which is located at 104 Highway 54, Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.
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