¡Viva Radio!

On a recent Sunday morning, several twentysomethings in jeans and T-shirts race around the otherwise deserted offices of La Buena Onda 1190-AM, a radio station in central Phoenix. In an hour, El Break will go live for its weekly noon to 2 p.m. broadcast.

It couldn't have been easy for Luis Avila to get out of bed this morning. Last night, he was at Club Rain in Scottsdale, falling in love with singer Ely Guerra (think: a Latina Mazzy Star). Even in jeans and Chuck Taylors, Guerra was breathtaking, and she stole Avila's heart with her guitar and songs about lonely nights. Between each number, as the crowd applauded, Avila swooned, yelling "I love you! Marry me!" loudly enough to make his friends and radio cohosts crack up. They were dancing and downing beers until 2 a.m., when the thought of food and sleep — and work the next day — finally tempted them off the dance floor.

Actually, the members of El Break were at Club Rain on business, doing interviews for the show and spreading the word about an upcoming pro-immigration event. This morning, the mission continues.

If they're hung over, it doesn't show (though the two underage contributors, who missed last night's festivities, do look more rested). Avila has shed his party shirt for a brown T bearing the show's name. He and Obed Hurtado are editing interviews about Guerra's concert, while the others type last-minute notes and make a few hurried phone calls. Above the editing equipment hangs an autographed photo of Hillary Clinton with Avila.

Five minutes until airtime, and the chaos is calming down slightly, though one contributor, Laura Suarez, is still editing her segment about quinceañeras. Avila enters the main studio and takes his place behind the mic and the control board, where he'll direct the show.

"Chavos," he yells. "Chavos!"

Guys, guys!

Avila pulls his microphone in front of him and gets ready to go live. The others follow his lead and take their places in the two studios.

Avila cues the introductory music for that day, the song "Give Us Some Truth," by Instant Karma.

In rapid Spanish, Avila greets the audience in his best radio announcer voice, "Hola, muy buenos tardes!"

Hello, good afternoon.

"Como esta ustedes?" He asks his co-broadcasters how they are.

"Muy bien," they say in unison. And for the next two hours, this group of young, hopeful immigrants controls the airwaves of a corner of Phoenix.

Bienvenidos a El Break.

Welcome to El Break.

Avila and the other Breakers are members of what sociologists call the "1.5 generation" — caught between first- and second-generation immigrants.

All but two were born in Mexico. Some came here as small children, some as high-schoolers. Even those born in the states have spent substantial time in Mexico. In the unique position of being not quite American but no longer fully Mexican, El Break easily navigates both worlds.

According to ASU sociology professor Cecilia Menjivar, that gives them a power others do not have.

"They are cultural brokers," she says. "They are more versatile, more flexible. They can move easily in two worlds and translate not just the language, but also the culture. It can be alienating, but it can also be empowering."

In a city with more than a million Latinos (almost all of them Mexican), El Break represents the future — a way to fill both a cultural and political void. The old guard has faded somewhat — Chicanos Por La Causa remains a strong organization, but not as galvanizing as it once was. Immigration activists in Arizona are split on just about every policy issue and treat every matter with an almost ridiculous reverence.

Not so El Break. They are activists, true, but as much as they believe in immigration reform, they also believe in having fun.

Marcos Najera, a journalist who covers Latino affairs for local public-radio station KJZZ, says he's attracted to El Break's enthusiasm. Instead of grinding an ax on the air every Sunday, Avila and company know how to laugh. Najera has witnessed Avila's playful attitude firsthand; the two moonlight as actors and have performed together.

"They get things bubbling, and a lot of politicians can't even do that. When they're on the air, it's like hanging out with your friends, " Najera says. "It's not like preaching, it's like you're hanging out at a bar with your friends and telling them what hurts or worries you or makes you laugh. And then it doesn't end there. There's a way of saying, 'What's next?'"

For most Phoenicians, "Spanish radio" means getting an earful of ranchero music blasting from a car at a stoplight. Many people tend to tune it out — even Najera.

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Megan Irwin
Contact: Megan Irwin