Henry Sales (left) and Cresencio Ramirez in the radio booth at Homies Empowerment in East Oakland, just prior to the launch of Radio B'alam. Credit: Henry Sales

A new online radio station made its debut this afternoon in Oakland, and it’s unlike any that have come before it. Radio B’alam is the first station dedicated to serving Oakland’s Mam-speaking Guatemalan immigrant community.

Henry Sales, who is spearheading the project along with Crecensio Ramirez, said Radio B’alam’s purpose is to preserve indigenous Mam language and culture in Oakland and keep community members informed about critical issues and services.

“There was no network for the community to communicate about themselves or to be informed about local news or even the whole country—things like immigration, COVID, and schools,” said Sales. “So we thought, let’s just start doing it.”

Radio B’alam is headquartered at Homies Empowerment, a youth and community development nonprofit in East Oakland. When Sales and Ramirez pitched the idea of a Mam-language radio station to the organization, its members quickly got on board with the idea, said Sales. Homies Empowerment even secured a grant to support Sales and Ramirez as part-time employees over the next four months, while the pair fundraises to keep the station operating long term.

Most of the station’s programs will be streamed in Mam, said Sales, and when Spanish or English speaking guests speak on the air, every effort will be made to make the programs accessible to the community. 

“The goal is to translate everything in Mam, to keep the community informed,” said Sales. “Call-in shows, interviews, music, local news. We want to have folks from the school district, for example, so our community members can ask questions about enrollment; we want to share information about COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders.”

The Mam population in the U.S. has been on the rise in recent years, a result of poverty and violence in Guatemala that has forced many to flee. Oakland has become a hub for the community, with several thousand Mam-speakers now estimated to be in the city, mostly in and around Fruitvale in East Oakland.

“I grew up in Guatemala where everyone speaks Mam,” said Sales. “I learned some Spanish back home, but no English at all. I came to Oakland when I was 18, and when I came here I went straight into high school.” Now, Sales dedicates his time to uplifting others in Oakland’s Mam community, as an administrator working with immigrant students at Newcomer High School, and as a Mam language teacher at both Laney College and Oakland High School.

Since Radio B’alam will be streamed and have a Facebook presence, said Sales, it will also serve as a bridge connecting the local Mam community in Oakland with communities back home in Gautemala.

“This going to be available to people in Guatemala as well. This will be a good way to connect folks who live here and there, in the two communities.”

Above: Henry Sales announces the launch of Radio B’alam to his community in his Mam language.

Radio B’alam launched on Friday, December 11, at 3 p.m. and will air daily from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. You can listen in here.

Community members interested in supporting the station can send a message to  homiesempowerment@gmail.com or call 510-485-2224.

Jacob Simas is the Community Journalism Director at Cityside and Managing Editor of The Oaklandside. He joined us from Univision, where he led social-impact initiatives and established the Rise Up: Be Heard journalism training program at Fusion for young people and community organizers in underserved areas of California. He was a senior editor and director of youth and community media at New America Media, where he led a community news network that amplified student and youth reporting in California news deserts. He is an advisory board member for Youth Beat, a graduate of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and a former producer with KPFA's First Voice apprenticeship program.