Faces of NPR: Daniel Alarcón
Faces Of NPR showcases the people behind NPR--from the voices you hear every day on the radio to the ones who work outside of the recording studio. You'll find out about what they do and what they're inspired by on the daily. This week, we feature Daniel Alarcón, Host and Producer of Radio Ambulante.
Name: Daniel Alarcón
Twitter Handle: @DanielGAlarcon
Job Title: Host, Producer, Radio Ambulante
Where you're From: Lima, Peru
How does it feel to be labeled a genius and do you agree?
It feels crazy. I guess, in a word: crazy. The whole experience has been completely overwhelming and fun and heartwarming, and I've just been inundated this whole week, completely overwhelmed by messages from old friends and old colleagues and family. And it's just been amazing. Do I agree or not? I mean, I'm not in any position to disagree because I'm thrilled.
Do you have plans for the gift money?
Well, look, I have two kids. If they want to go to college, they should go to college. That's super important. The day I got the call, I bought three pairs of sneakers which was really dumb but also a very personal gift to myself. I was like, I'm getting those green Nikes. I want to take a trip with the kids and my wife. I want to take a trip with my wife just without the kids. And then other than that, I don't know. The cool thing about MacArthur is that it feels like someone was like, "Hey, we like what you're doing, here's a bunch of money to continue doing that, and take your creative ideas and follow them wherever they take you. And here's five years to figure that out." That, to me, is an amazing gift. You can turn money into anything. You can turn it into a bunch of bling. You can turn it into time. The most important thing that I need to figure out is how to turn that money into time so that I can do the things that I want to do, things that I might not even know yet what they are.
How was your night in Peru's most notorious prison?
It was great because I planned ahead. I spoke with someone — one of the bureaucrats who run the prisons — and he was like, "When are you going to come out?" And I was like, well, such and such date. And he's like, "Oh, I won't be here, so that'll be fun." But then he was like, "This conversation never happened." And the thing about this prison in particular was that basically beyond the gates, it was run by the inmates. So if you wanted to stay inside the prison, you had to negotiate those with the people outside. But more importantly, the people inside. So I had to go talk to them and tell them what my plan was. And they were really into it. One of the guys gave me his cell and he slept somewhere else that night. And gave me the keys and everything so I could lock it myself. And I slept like a baby.
Were you scared?
The first time I went to the prison, I was not scared, but definitely hyper aware of my surroundings. But by that point, I had been reporting from that prison for five years or so. So it wasn't scary to me anymore. And sleeping there was just kind of an extra level. And there was a very clear journalistic reason for me to stay there. I didn't do it on a whim. It was like, there's this one thing that happens after visiting hours and I had to be there to see it. And if I didn't see it, then I would never be able to describe it to the readers. That's one of the most memorable evenings of my life
You've covered a lot of gangs. How do you do this responsibly (without implicating anyone or putting anyone further in danger) and still keeping yourself safe?
I'm glad you asked the question, because there's another responsibility implied in there, too, which is like, in a way that isn't exploitative and sort of was like a morbid fascination for violence. And I think that's something that I'm very aware of. There's a lot of writing about crime and I'm not at all a crime writer. It's not what I do, but I have covered issues of criminal justice a fair amount. I wrote about California and California's gang enhancement law, which is basically this situation where if you're a prosecutor, it's this fantastic tool that allows you to take any crime where, if you can convince a jury that the people who are accused of this crime are also gang members, then the potential punishments increase. The thing is, if you have, let's say, a white suburban jury and a young person of color, and you show the Facebook page of a 16-year-old kid who's Black or brown to the white suburban jurors, they all look like gang members. And so it's just like a very winnable trial within a trial that someone might be going to prison for four years, they could end up facing 14 years. And so what it does is, it forces a lot of people to take plea bargains. And something above 90 percent of people who have been convicted under these gang enhancement laws are Black or brown.
So that was the case. That was what I was covering. I was really interested in this tool and how this tool gets used and abused. And I talked to a lot of people who've been considered gang members because of the clothes they were wearing or because of the tattoo they might have. There's many, many cases that are a nightmare scenario. Like, I covered a case where a kid was being accused of being in a gang, he was facing 25 years. He had been in a fight. There was a shooting and he was a mile away at the time of the shooting. Literally, he wasn't even there. But because he had been in the fight earlier, he was implicated. And because they were saying that he was a gang member and part of the same crew who were all in the gang, he was facing, you know, 20 years or something crazy. So that's the kind of story that I've been covering. So I wouldn't be implicating anybody in anything because I was sort of like excavating. I was just sitting in on the trial and doing reporting around that. And I found the juror who was willing to go on record with me after the mistrial and all this stuff.
I like your comment about cultural and linguistic boundaries being fluid. Can you elaborate on that?
Yeah. You look at the United States and the mosaic of people who make up this country. And there's no wall big enough that anybody could make that would make us a monoculture country. And I have the experience. As a young person growing up, When we closed the door and we were inside our house, it was like we were in Peru, essentially. And then we opened the door and we were in the United States. We had parties with other Peruvian families in our neighborhood and it was a very Peruvian environment. Or even more stark, you would go downstairs where all the kids were hanging out with you, speaking in English and go upstairs to talk to your parents and they're all speaking in Spanish. So what I mean is that there's a cultural fluidity and a linguistic fluidity that is a beautiful thing. And it doesn't matter what the political borders are. People, wherever they go, they take their culture with them, you know? And sometimes that manifests in ways. It makes some people quite uncomfortable. But it's just a fact of human existence.
We always say that a good story is borderless. You can travel anywhere because everyone's interested in the same way. I've never been to Russia but I love Russian literature, you know? And I feel like when I was reading some of the best books that I've read, they were describing people that I knew. At the time I was living in Oakland, I was reading a lot of these writers and I was like, Wow, the way they described human foibles feels very current, even though they're set in the 1800s. A good story is a good story, no matter what. And I feel like human beings are very interesting to me. I try to sort of capture a lot of that in my work or just approach my work with a sense of curiosity about human beings and why we are the way we are.
Where do you think your curiosity stems from?
I feel like I've always been this way. I've always been somebody that people confided in for some reason. And I've always been somebody who liked to daydream about people's secrets for lack of a better word. I just find it fascinating. Before the pandemic, I would love to travel to places where I don't speak the language and get lost in a city, just because I think it's pretty fascinating, just things you see when you don't understand the language, you know the ways you have to try to communicate. I know I've had really incredible experiences like that. I just think people are really interesting. There's a couple of things that I think are true, that I've always sort of been fascinated by. No matter the circumstances that, externally, might be so bleak, people are always able to fall in love and dance and find joy in the most difficult places. And that's a beautiful thing. At the same time, there's a corollary to that. Is this kind of the opposite that's pretty stark, which is: there's almost no limit to the cruelty that people inflict on other people in order to protect what's theirs. And those two things I've noticed in my travels, in my reporting, in my writing again and again and again. One is very inspiring, and I've seen it and been moved by it in places all over the world. And the other is terrifying, and I've seen it also in many, many circumstances in countries and in different political and cultural moments, you know. And I don't think that they're unrelated. I think they go hand in hand.
Who do you look up to?
From artists and filmmakers and musicians and athletes, I look up to people who use their voice, who are brave. Writers, producers. I'm going to say one person I really look up to, Rita Indiana. I think she's a really brave artist and I got to know her work for a while. I got to write about her for The New Yorker last year and got really immersed myself in her work for a bit. She's a musician and a writer and an incredible performer, just a deep thinker. And it was just incredible to see her process. So she's definitely one. My friend, Alejandro Zambra, a Chilean novelist and poet, I think he's just brilliant, completely brilliant and hilarious and kind. But but I think he's brave in his fiction in ways that I wish I were. So let me just say those two.
Which book of yours is your favorite?
I've written in English two collections of short stories and two novels. But then I wrote a graphic novel, which is an adaptation of a story of mine, so it'll be five. And then I collected my non-fiction in another book. It was published in Spanish, so I would call it six. And then I edited another book. So I guess I didn't write that one, but it would be seven. I translated a book which felt like I wrote it. I have a book whose experience I'm most proud of, and that would be And Then We Walk In Circles, because I almost gave up in the process and I didn't. And just the fact of persevering is something that I'm really, really proud of.
How does the writing process look for you?
It depends. Different books are different. Lately, since I'm doing so much nonfiction, I write completely out of order. Every two days I write a memo to my editor at The New Yorker, and just tell her, "This is what's going on, this is what I've seen so far." And those usually form the bedrock of my first drafts.It's like if I can find the scene that opens the piece, then the generic structure unlocks for me, but that is often a process of elimination. Sometimes it's super clear and I know exactly who I need to talk to to walk me through that scene. Sometimes you stumble upon it when you're reporting and it just gets different every time.
When did you move from Peru to the U.S.?
I grew up in the States from age three. So we moved in 1980. I was born in 1977. My parents got jobs at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. I've been told things but I don't really remember it. Lima is on the ocean and so the sun sets over the water. And in Birmingham, obviously, it's not the ocean. The sun sets, and it's just over lots of woods. My parents say that I told them, "Al mar le crecieron palos," which means the ocean has grown sticks., I started school in pre-K. In Alabama, without speaking any English, within a month or a few months, I spoke English.
How has your time with NPR been?
It's been amazing. When I was a kid, the story is that my dad heard my sister speaking with a southern twang in English and then was like, "OK, we're listening to NPR from now on." So it's really funny for me personally to be on NPR except that now I'm an NPR person in Spanish. So I think it's somewhat subverting my dad's force feeding us NPR as a kid.
I'm really bad with horrific images. I never, ever play the videos of the terrible thing, I never watch them. I don't watch TV news, I can't. I physically can't. I don't like horror movies. And so for me, getting my news from the radio has been how I've always done it. I'm very aware of the horrible videos, like, I know what's happening, but I feel like it's just too difficult for me to process emotionally. I always feel like I'm encroaching on someone's intimate, often final moments. it just feels like it's like I'm crossing some kind of line. And so I mention this only because audio is how I get all of my news, essentially my day to day news and then I read. So to work with NPR in my capacities with Radio Ambulante, this is a really great experience. And it's sort of like a perfect fit.
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