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How Spanish-Language Radio Helped Radicalize A Generation Of Miami Abuelos

·20-min read
(Photo: Rebecca Zisser/HuffPost; Photos: Getty)
(Photo: Rebecca Zisser/HuffPost; Photos: Getty)

MIAMI — Virginia’s mom has parroted a number of lies in the last year: The 2020 presidential election “was stolen, of course.” Antifa and Black Lives Matter share responsibility for the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Joe Biden is a pedophile.

Disagree? Then Virginia’s mother would say you’re probably a communist.

Virginia, a 58-year-old Cuban immigrant who lives in Broward County, north of Miami, says that many of her mother’s radical views stem from the same source: misinformation on regional Spanish-language talk radio. To her growing dismay, Virginia says her mamá, 79, is an avid listener, with particularly strong allegiance to right-wing commentators on Radio Mambí, Miami’s leading Cuban-exile station.

“She follows these people loyally and whatever they say is God’s word,” Virginia said. “I think that we’ve allowed the Spanish radio here to get away with murder for a long time. There’s no accountability.”

Misinformation targeting Latinos comes from different sources, from chats on popular messaging platforms like WhatsApp to Facebook pages and Latin American YouTube channels. Many of these platforms translate conspiracy theories that originated in English into Spanish. But when that misinformation — from unsupported claims about election fraud to anti-vaccine propaganda and everything in between — makes the leap onto Miami Spanish-language radio (a space dominated by Cuban Americans, a key Republican constituency in Florida), it receives a mainstream stamp of approval from stations that have, in some cases, been a part of people’s daily routines for decades.

Those include Radio Mambí and Actualidad Radio — the two AM radio stations with the highest ratings in Miami, according to Nielsen — and La Poderosa. Mambí has been on the air since 1985, and is owned by Univision, the national Spanish-language TV network headquartered in the Miami suburb of Doral. Even Radio Caracol, a fourth local station and a rare example of moderation on Miami’s Spanish-language airwaves, was criticized last year when it aired a racist and anti-Semitic rant, via programming paid for by a local businessman. In response, the station banned the businessman from the airwaves and promptly apologized.

Political analysis of this phenomenon has focused on the role misinformation could have played in helping doom Democrats’ prospects with Latino voters in 2020, including Biden’s, as well as those of South Florida congressional incumbents Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell. However, more intimate fallout continues to reverberate across South Florida as family members — many of them second- or third-generation Cuban Americans — grapple with what they describe as the deepening radicalization of older loved ones.

A supporter of former President Donald Trump wearing a protective mask attends a rally outside the
A supporter of former President Donald Trump wearing a protective mask attends a rally outside the

To better understand the strain that conspiracy theories are exerting on local family ties, HuffPost spoke with South Florida residents who say they’ve lost older relatives to right-wing, Spanish-language misinformation. All interviewees singled out talk radio as the on-ramp to extremism, with conspiracy theories disseminated on the airwaves subsequently reinforced online and offline, through social media algorithms and in echo chambers in Miami-Dade’s Cuban enclaves. When trying to push back on the misinformation, many family members found, the conversation tends to end with the same retort: “Communist!”

Cuban Americans’ susceptibility to right-wing propaganda and red scare tactics is fueled by a political culture that presumes loyalty to the Republican Party, which many have long viewed as the ideological antithesis to the communist government they fled. Polls show that support for the GOP is strongest among older Cubans, for whom the wounds of Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution run deep. Even after decades in the U.S., the spectre of socialism still triggers their most visceral reactions — and in South Florida, Republican politicians have been happy to do the triggering. Trump’s dominance among Cubans in 2020 was the product of persistent outreach to the Cuban exile community, in which he positioned himself as a bulwark against socialist ideas.

“This has destroyed my family.”

Contributing to Spanish-language radio’s persuasive power is the presence on the airwaves of high-ranking public officials, who often feature as guests in a variety of telecasts, ranging from those led by responsible journalists to others with more notorious reputations for spreading misinformation. On occasion, those same politicians take active roles in amplifying conspiracies.

Maria Elvira Salazar, then a Republican candidate for Florida's 27th Congressional District, talks with voters at a Miami-Dade County housing facility on Nov. 6, 2018. (Photo: Tom Williams via Getty Images)
Maria Elvira Salazar, then a Republican candidate for Florida's 27th Congressional District, talks with voters at a Miami-Dade County housing facility on Nov. 6, 2018. (Photo: Tom Williams via Getty Images)

On Jan. 11, during an appearance on Ninoska Perez’s daily show on Radio Mambí, Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, a Republican who represents Miami-Dade and the daughter of Cuban immigrants, shared a false claim about the integrity of voting in Pennsylvania, one of the 2020 presidential election’s most closely contested states.

“How is it possible that in Pennsylvania there are 200,000 more votes on Election Day than there were [voters] in the electoral rolls? That’s not possible,” she said, referencing a repeatedly debunked conspiracy theory based on incomplete data.

In March, during an interview about immigration on Actualidad Radio, Rep. Carlos Gimenez, a Cuban American and Republican representing parts of South Florida, didn’t push back when hosts claimed that the Biden administration is letting in thousands of unauthorized immigrants as part of a “Machiavellian plan” to turn them into Democratic voters. Instead, as WLRN reported, he replied “no te lo dudo,” which translates to “I don’t doubt it.”

Miami Republicans like Salazar or Gimenez “could shut it down,” said Guillermo Grenier, a sociology professor at Florida International University and one of the lead investigators of the school’s highly watched Cuba Poll, which tracks the opinions of the Cuban-American community in South Florida. “What gives this juice, what institutionalizes the misinformation is that [elected officials] go on these stations and give them credibility.”

Both Republicans have seemingly accepted Biden as president, often pushing for the administration to give more support to Cuba and its people. Salazar’s and Gimenez’s offices did not respond to requests for comment.

Rep. Carlos Gimenez (R-Fla.), right, speaks as House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) listens on May 20, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Alex Wong via Getty Images)
Rep. Carlos Gimenez (R-Fla.), right, speaks as House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) listens on May 20, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Alex Wong via Getty Images)

Sandra’s parents began listening to Radio Mambí as soon as the family emigrated from Cuba to South Florida in 1993. They never stopped.

“If you go to my mom and dad’s house in Hialeah, they’re bound to be listening to that radio. It’s on constantly,” said Sandra, 52, who asked to be identified only by her first name. “If they’re home, then that’s what they’re doing. They’re bombarded 24 hours a day by those stations.”

She said her parents, both of whom are in their mid 70s, dismiss more mainstream Spanish-language news, such as Telemundo or Univision, as “communist.” They feel much more affinity for the current of hardline anti-castrismo — narratives rooted in opposition to Castro — coursing through the airwaves of AM Spanish-language talk radio.

“Everything they say in those news shows are really targeted to people like my parents. They know the culture really well,” Sandra said. “For my parents, it’s like a drug. It does something to their brain.”

In a way, Sandra’s experience with her parents is far from unique: Research has shown older adults are generally more likely to fall for and spread misinformation. But Grenier says something specific is at work with older Cubans and the radio, which gave many their first sense of belonging as an exile community, years before subsequent waves of immigrants refashioned Miami into the Cuban-heavy town it is today.

“The radio has always been a kind of town hall in Latin America,” he said. “The old Cuban immigrants shaped these stations. They are their stations; it is their voice that is being heard there. They are very influenced by it. They are tied to it in a way that we can’t really understand.”

In Sandra’s view, the misinformation on the radio started becoming more extreme around the time of the 2016 election, when her parents would relay information they’d heard about, for instance, suspicious trips Hillary Clinton had allegedly made to Cuba in the past.

“I’m no fan of Hillary Clinton,” Sandra said, “but I would tell her, ‘Ma, don’t you realize that those are all lies?’”

Now, she worries that conspiracy theories disseminated on the air about the 2020 election and Democrats’ supposed desire to implement communism in the U.S. is warping her parents’ understanding of reality.

A man holds a sign that reads
A man holds a sign that reads

That’s a concern others likely share: Up to 40% of Cuban Americans in Florida reject the legitimacy of the electoral result that certified Biden as the winner, according to a poll by Bendixen & Amandi International, a Miami-based consulting firm.

“I know what it means to be listening to this stuff constantly. It’s like a hypnosis session, and then after a while you’re part of that cult,” Sandra said. “For me, those stations have been horrible. My dad has become another person. My mom has become another person, completely. This has destroyed my family.”

In a statement, Radio Mambí’s parent company, Univision, said: “Radio Mambí has a long history of providing South Florida with a forum where all opinions and open debate are welcome via the live opinion shows that make up the majority of Mambí’s program lineup. Univision takes misinformation very seriously and we strive to ensure that our audience has access to various perspectives and points of view.” La Poderosa and Actualidad Radio management did not respond to requests for comment.

“Our truths are opposite.”

After growing up listening to Radio Mambí, Amore Rodriguez, 28, said she still gets the station’s jingle stuck in her head.

Rodriguez is the first Miami-born member of her Cuban American family. Her early exposure to local Spanish-language radio programming came from her grandmother, a former professor at the University of Havana who became a political prisoner on the island.

“It’s been her source of news since I’ve been born,” Rodriguez said. “She learned how to put Radio Mambí on her phone so she wakes up and it’s on, like blasting the whole time. That’s all she listens to ... Fox had been her source of English news but she excommunicated them after they called the election for Biden.”

Rodriguez’s grandmother has been listening to Spanish-language talk radio for so long — and takes the opinions of hosts and commentators so seriously — because doing so reinforces a key part of her exile identity.

“There’s a level of trust that has been built there for years, and I think the best media and the best communication happens between people who trust each other. And some of these commentators are the same people, just older. I’ve grown up with these people. My grandma calls in, she has their phone numbers, she feels connected to them,” Rodriguez said. “These are the programs that have made my grandma feel at home, or that she’s not alone as a Cuban exile.”

Rodriguez says her grandmother believes, among other lies, that the election was stolen by Biden due to fraud in places like Arizona and that Democrats run sex rings, as QAnon followers have suggested. Rodriguez’s mother, who listens to less radio and consumes more digital media, holds similar views.

“It’s so shocking to me that they believe these things and there’s nowhere to go because they think I’m the one who is brainwashed,” Rodriguez said.

While Grenier says that misinformation has long been a feature of many South Florida Spanish-language radio programs, pressure began mounting more forcefully in the wake of the Capitol riot, which was fueled by baseless claims about voter fraud and other conspiracies.

A woman holds a sign referencing the QAnon conspiracy as supporters of President Donald Trump gather outside the Governor's Mansion on Nov. 7, 2020, in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Photo: Stephen Maturen via Getty Images)
A woman holds a sign referencing the QAnon conspiracy as supporters of President Donald Trump gather outside the Governor's Mansion on Nov. 7, 2020, in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Photo: Stephen Maturen via Getty Images)

In January, Latino leaders from more than 20 local advocacy groups called on Spanish-language stations to implement more rigorous fact-checking processes to curb the spread of false information, warning in an open letter that “hateful rhetoric can have deadly consequences.” Earlier this year, a report from progressive-leaning nonprofits and Latino communications agencies cataloged a week’s worth of programming across two popular Spanish-language stations in Miami. Aside from allegations of widespread voter fraud and assertions that Biden would usher in communism, the report said that the stations claimed that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) committed immigration fraud and married her brother, and that “Chinese communists” were behind the pandemic.

Pressure is also coming from Latino lawmakers at the federal level. In the leadup to the 2020 election, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), then-chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and Mucarsel-Powell (who lost her reelection bid to Gimenez in 2020), requested an FBI investigation into disinformation targeting Hispanic communities. Hispanic Caucus members also mobilized in April to pressure the Federal Communications Commission to reject the sale of Radio Caracol over concerns that its new owner would pave the way for more far-right disinformation.

Despite the increased scrutiny, there remains a widely shared perception that local broadcasters don’t face consequences when circulating conspiracies in Spanish, in part because of the Miami area’s language idiosyncrasies.

Phillip M. Carter is a sociolinguist at Florida International University, where he focuses his work on Latino communities in the U.S. He said that distortions of the truth are just as likely to occur in English-language media but the difference is that, in Spanish, the problematic content “flies under the radar.”

“That’s nothing inherent to the Spanish language, it’s about the language dynamics and the political dynamics in South Florida,” he told the Miami Herald earlier this year. “There’s a sense in which saying things in Spanish is not subject to critique because Spanish is constructed here as a minority language even though it is in a way the majority language.”

Miami-Dade, the most populous county in Florida, is nearly 70% Hispanic, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Almost three quarters of the county’s residents speak a language other than English at home, a higher proportion than in places like Los Angeles or El Paso.

Although Rodriguez and her family members remain close, the relationships have frayed.

“There is no conversation that can happen because our truths are opposite. It’s like we live in a parallel universe … But I have accepted that this is not them being evil. It’s them being manipulated, and it’s been very hard for me as their daughter and granddaughter to see that happen.”

Paranoia

One of the most painful effects of the disinformation deluge has been seeing loved ones become viscerally upset by alarmist statements about the Democratic Party’s supposed drive to bring communism to the U.S.

Misleading rhetoric around communism and socialism isn’t limited to Spanish-language media, of course. Republicans nationwide have long accused even the most centrist Democrats of embracing socialism, popularizing the notion that Democrats want to make the U.S. into a Venezuelan-style socialist government.

I get angry looking back and thinking about it ... These are people who made it to their 90s and made it through revolution. It just seems abusive for them to be fed a bunch of lies to worry about and to pull on the strings of all the things that they are sensitive to, the things that have hurt them in the past.Armando Garcia, whose Cuban grandfather died in 2020

But for first-generation Cuban exiles in Miami, speaking about communism as if it were an ascendant force in the U.S. can bring up past trauma related to their experiences on the island, risking their mental health.

“I think my grandma has had the worst anxiety that she’s ever had since she’s been here, because she’s never felt like it’s so close to happening again,” Rodriguez said. ”She fought so hard and lost everything to get away from communism to come to the land of democracy and all of this misinformation makes you feel like it’s at the tip of your doorstep again.”

“So I think my family has almost started to relive their trauma. The fear tactic has been so brilliantly done ... My grandma feels like she is fighting for her life.”

Armando Garcia, 37, can relate. His late grandfather, once a fisherman in Cuba, was jailed by the Castro regime after he was caught trying to leave the island after the revolution. In his final years, according to Garcia, he was increasingly concerned about undercover communist operations in the U.S., a fear stoked in part by Spanish-language radio in Miami.

“I would try to not go into these subjects but he couldn’t help himself. He would get just very emotionally agitated. It’s like he stopped being the grandfather that I grew up with,” Garcia said. “And he still showed me that but in those last few visits before he passed away, he was increasingly more in this world of paranoia.”

Garcia’s grandfather died in early 2020. He was in his mid-90s.

“I get angry looking back and thinking about it … These are people who made it to their 90s and made it through revolution. It just seems abusive for them to be fed a bunch of lies to worry about and to pull on the strings of all the things that they are sensitive to, the things that have hurt them in the past,” Garcia said. “At those final moments I had with him, if they weren’t taken up by him obsessing over these political things ... What could we have talked about instead? That’s something I wonder about. It’s just kind of a cruel thing to do to people.”

For Grenier, the obsession described by Garcia could be indicative of a greater vulnerability immigrants have to misinformation.

“If you don’t think Biden is a legitimate president, then everything is up for grabs. This entire country that you supposedly came to for its democratic institutions it’s not what you thought it was,” he told HuffPost. “So I can imagine that it creates a lot of existential [crises] for a lot of people, probably more so in South Florida than other parts of the U.S. Among immigrant populations that buy into this, the anguish must be much greater.”

It’s not just invocations of communism that can deeply unsettle talk radio listeners. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, coverage of Black Lives Matter demonstrations provoked similar anxieties, with some Spanish-language media personalities repeatedly insinuating that those who protest violence are untrustworthy or dangerous. Those included radio host Carines Moncada, who made national news in October 2020 when she claimed on Actualidad Radio that a co-founder of Black Lives Matter practiced “brujería,” or witchcraft.

“So you ask yourself, ‘Why are they destructive?’” Moncada said, referring to protesters. “Because they are vibrating with the devil. They are vibrating with negativity. They are vibrating with the dark.”

Last summer, when Sandra’s parents drove to visit her in Jupiter, her mother was “in a terrible fright.”

A woman is draped with a cloth reading Black Lives Matter during a protest over the murder of George Floyd on June 2, 2020, in Miami. (Photo: via Associated Press)
A woman is draped with a cloth reading Black Lives Matter during a protest over the murder of George Floyd on June 2, 2020, in Miami. (Photo: via Associated Press)

“It was a lot of fear and terror. My mom would say, ‘We have to leave early because if we are on the highway and [protesters] block the highway they might kill us. Those people are evil,’” Sandra said. “It was an extreme fear.”

Garcia says his last remaining grandparent, his abuela on his mother’s side, had never been very political. But to his surprise, in recent visits, she has started bringing up Black Lives Matter.

“It was something about how these thugs are taking over the streets. I was like, ‘Desde cuando tu le pones atención a todas estas cosas? Since when do you pay attention to these things?’ ... I hadn’t realized that this stuff was coming from Spanish-language media,” he said. “It’s causing her stress. Like, ‘Oh, what’s happening to this country?’”

Disingenuous narratives about Black Lives Matter protests — which are very rarely violent — have remained a frequent feature on the airwaves. In the wake of the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol perpetrated by Trump supporters, hosts across a range of stations, including Radio Mambí, Actualidad Radio and La Poderosa, gave credence to the nation that Black Lives Matter and “Antifa” shared responsibility for the attack.

In the spring, following the conclusion Derek Chauvin’s trial, Poderosa host Lucy Pereda and frequent guest Julio Shiling, a right-wing commentator, said that “threats from Black Lives Matter” and “Black Lives Matter militias” pressured the jury into convicting the former Minneapolis Police officer.

“What ruled in that trial was mob justice, the terror of the streets,” Shiling said. He added that critical race theory is part of a Biden administration agenda to advocate for “Black supremacy.”

Fraying Families

For these Floridians, their wish isn’t to get their parents or grandparents to think like them. After all, their core political beliefs are already fairly similar. Sandra calls herself one of the “most anti-communist people out there,” and is proud of the anti-Castro activism that got her kicked out of university back in Cuba. Virginia was a lifelong Republican until she left the party last year.

Rodriguez is openly liberal — she is one of the co-founders of Cubanos Pa’lante, an alliance of progressive Cuban Americans — but said she fully shares her conservative grandmother’s fervor for freedom, noting she carries “the pain of the Cuban story in my soul.”

The fault line lies in the different generations’ ability to determine what’s true and what’s false, what’s fact and what’s conspiracy. The younger crop wants to help their older relatives, but despite their empathy, they’ve been unable to find a reliable strategy to debunk the misinformation.

When Sandra tries to fact-check some of her parents’ conspiracy theories in a direct manner, “They start yelling.”

“My dad yells. My mom immediately says, ‘No me hables. Don’t talk to me.’ She gets aggressive,” she said. “They’re a lost cause. And they probably see me as a lost cause too.”

Virginia’s methods are more subtle.

(Photo: Fajrul Islam via Getty Images)
(Photo: Fajrul Islam via Getty Images)

She has access to her mother’s Facebook account and logs in “like a parent” to “unfollow some of her crazy friends” and get her out of conspiracy-minded groups. Facebook groups are private pages for users with similar interests — and a big source of misinformation on the platform, especially for users who interact with content in foreign languages. According to the Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files series, only 13% of the company’s work addressing misinformation in 2020 dealt with content outside the U.S.

When her mom visits her home, Virginia also turns on the TV and sets it to a mainstream news station, which she leaves playing in the background.

“I’ll have the news on and I’ll tell her, ‘See, mom, this is what they are saying here,’” she said. “She doesn’t want to hear it. She totally shuts down.”

As for Rodriguez, while she previously felt a “responsibility to fact-check, to bring awareness, to bring truth,” she says she’s lost some of her drive because “right now everything is a lie,” and trying to explain the inaccuracy of something her grandmother heard on the radio very rarely ends well.

“She told me, ‘I’ve never been more disappointed in you. I can’t believe you think I’m a liar.’ And I told her, ‘I don’t think you’re a liar. I think you’re being manipulated.’”

A growing cause of consternation for Rodriguez, especially as hospitalizations due to COVID-19 surged in Florida over the summer, is that misinformation about vaccines has kept many of her relatives from getting the shot.

“My grandma says she has heard some doctors on the radio talk about how the vaccine wasn’t safe,” she said. “I’m the only vaccinated person in my family … They still think there’s a chip.”

In Rodriguez’s view, the status quo could only improve if the people her grandmother trusts on Spanish-language radio actually speak the truth.

But Virginia doesn’t believe that’s likely to happen in the foreseeable future.

“I have no faith whatsoever,” she said. “As long as I can remember, I haven’t had faith in Spanish radio.”

This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.

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