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Chico State

5 Questions with History Alumna and Author Sonia Robles

Photo courtesy of Sonia Robles

Born in Daly City, Sonia Robles moved with her family to Mexico City at three months old, then to Chico when she was 11. She attended Chico High School, and then Chico State where she graduated in 2005 with a degree in history. As associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Delaware, she teaches courses in Latin American, Mexican, borderlands, and Latinx history. History, and more specifically Mexican History, fascinates her—it ties her to her heritage and identity—and as part of a transnational and bilingual family, she has a unique perspective on Mexican history.

In 2019, Robles authored her book, “Mexican Waves: Radio Broadcasting Along Mexico’s Northern Border, 1930–1950.” In the 1930s, people and businesses in Mexico began moving north in large numbers toward the country’s border with and into the United States—and laborers in the US wanted to hear their own music. Seeing an opportunity, Mexican radio stations moved right along with them, transmitting to both Mexico and into the US. While Robles immersed herself in archival material in both countries, Chico State history professor Stephen Lewis showed her what a serious, honest, and hard-working scholar deeply devoted to Mexican history looked like.

“He reminded me that I’m part of the newer generation that is completely bilingual because I grew up with both languages and I’m able to understand both cultures,” she said. “The book is history, it’s not fiction, and it’s the result of a lot of decisions and time in the archives. I wanted this project on the history of the borderlands to be seen through the Mexican perspective, to be Mexico-centered, and for Mexico to have a voice in the conversation.”

How did Chico State prepare you for your work as a history professor and author?

If I could use one word to describe it, it would be “opportunity.” I felt that I’d had opportunity to learn new things. I also had an opportunity to do research. The summer between my junior and senior years, Dr. Susan Green, who was then in the History Department, helped me apply for a summer internship. I went down to the Fresno area and worked with one of the organizations aligned with the United Farm Workers, called La Unión del Pueblo Entero, or LUPE. I was able to help with this nonprofit organization training and recruiting leaders to organize and join the union. I was also able to take different and interesting classes within the history major, but then also with Chicano studies. Something else I took away also from my experience in the history department was that I could really link the two disciplines of Mexican history and Chicano history. Dr. Lewis and Dr. Green both gave me great mentorship, guidance, and advice for the next steps—and that carried over to graduate school. Dr. Green was the one who told me that I had what it took to succeed in grad school, which was incredibly impactful since I’m a first-generation student. Chico State showed me that when professors care, it goes a long way.

How did history appeal to you as a Chico State student?

It validated a certain part of my identity that I didn’t connect with in Northern California, which was the Mexican side—particularly the urban-Mexico City side. I grew up in a city of 20 million people and I was confronted with not really seeing this urban, rich cultural heritage that I grew up with. I felt that that kind of history in Northern California was distant, in the way that Native American history was there, but you had to look for it. As a child, my parents would take us to the pyramids, which are an hour outside of Mexico City, or even just driving to the downtown area, we’d pass by the anthropology museum and I would see these giant Olmec heads, these pre-Hispanic sculptures—it was history right in my face and just very real. I remember thinking that I wanted to make a connection with that—to acknowledge that part of my past and my identity.

How did you choose the timeframe for the book?

The documents actually chose for me. Most of the documents I found started in 1930 or 1931, which makes sense with the legislation—1931 was a major year for the first mass media legislation in Mexico, so it would make sense, even though radio had been around since 1923. In the archival files, the documents that started in 1930–1931 strangely dropped off around 1945–1946, just after World War II. At the same time, the television era was just about to begin. It’s this window of time where it’s still considered the Golden Age of Radio.

What were these stations along the border playing, was anything off-limits?

By law, they couldn’t broadcast religion or politics—of course, that doesn’t mean those didn’t bleed onto the airwaves. For politics, that meant political campaigns and elections. Religion was really important for a very Catholic country like Mexico. And that goes back to politics from the 1920s and the anti-clerical stance of the government that wanted to build a secular state and keep the Catholic church away.

There was a mix of music, commercials, weather reports, on-air cooking classes, and some propaganda. There were public health bulletins—a doctor would go on the radio and say things about a recent disease or vaccinations or hygiene. The Department of Public Health was really involved because they were trying to fight and be involved shutting down Dr. John Brinkley’s stations, which were the super-power, 1-million-watt stations. He touted that his surgeries could cure impotence, so people who heard him on the radio drove down from places like Oklahoma and throughout the heartland to do these surgeries, and it was completely illegal. The Ministry of Public Health got involved early on with these public health campaigns to try to counter the use of the radio to spread public health information.

Propaganda came in the form of these public health bulletins, but also from the Secretería de Gobernacíon, which encouraged citizens to participate in the census, to register, or something really simple like obtaining a birth certificate—efforts to try to feel like you were a part of the nation. There was also some news, but that would vary from the western part of the border to the eastern part of the border. In the book, I profile a couple of examples of sports broadcasters who would call baseball games in the summer. Bilingual announcers were very much sought after because they could go back and forth between Spanish and English without any trouble.

Are you a fan of radio?

Absolutely. Growing up in Mexico City and moving to Chico and going back and forth between the US and Mexico, we would be on the road a lot. We would take these long road trips—my dad loves to drive, he had no problem driving through the night, and we listened to music on the radio. I’m a believer in National Public Radio and local public radio, but also local music and local alternative music on my local station, WTMD. I co-chair the Spanish-language radio caucus of the Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF), a Library of Congress-supported project aimed to preserve, research, and disseminate radio recordings among public and private communities, like scholars, educators, librarians, museums, and archives. We had a conference in April in Washington, DC, and it was the biggest media conference the Library of Congress has ever hosted with over 300 people. I’m also still involved with more current radio projects. For example, last spring, I helped a student who was completing his master’s in library science with a digital humanities mapping project. He created a digital map of different radio stations and archives from my book and the work of RPTF co-chair Dr. Ines Casillas from UC Santa Barbara.