Mis Ángeles: For Bakersfield's Campesinos, Pepe Reyes' Golden Voice Has Been An Invaluable Resource

(Photo courtesy of Pepe Reyes and El Gallito/Illustration by Chava Sanchez, LAist)

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Pepe Reyes has the kind of voice some audio nerds probably gush over when they talk about the Golden Age of Radio. It's a perfectly rich baritone, warm, confident, charming even.

I wonder if those audio nerds might picture a voice like that coming from a 6-foot-tall Mexican from Nogales. But Pepe has been using all that warmth to reach campesinos picking grapes, citrus and almonds on the southern edges of the San Joaquin Valley for the better part of a 40-year career in Spanish-language commercial radio.

"A lot of our listeners work the fields and they rely on us for important information and for entertainment while they work," Pepe told me during a phone call this past weekend.

He was calling me from his home in Bakersfield. The agricultural hub sits about 120 miles north of L.A. in Kern County.

When COVID-19 began to spread earlier this year, Spanish-language morning radio shows in the region like Pepe's, which airs on Bakersfield AM/FM station El Gallito, were helping to get essential info to these most essential workers.

"It's part of the grand tradition of radio to get information to the community," Pepe said.

Up until Kern County's stay-at-home order lifted in May, Pepe had been hosting his show from his dining room table, set up with a microphone and some basic broadcasting equipment. It wasn't the only major professional change brought on by the pandemic.

"Usually around this time, we'd be having these big Friday block parties for the farmworkers," he said. "There'd be free food, bandas and celebrity guests. We'd do car giveaways, stuff like that. It was like a fiesta or pachanga. But there was more to it."

Each week, Pepe and his team would go directly to the fields, picking a different farm camp to to stage the event there. The "more" part, Pepe explained, included things like guests from the legal world, or from the business community, who would give lectures and classes to the people who attended. They'd also bring in educators to tutor the farmworkers' children, and give away school supplies.

Although Pepe is back in the studio, it's not clear when "La Cuadrilla De La Semana," what the show calls these Friday gatherings, will happen again.

I asked Pepe if he felt like the pandemic was setting the community back by robbing them of La Cuadrilla De La Semana. He said yes, especially for the children.

"It was a true community outreach, true difference making, that we would do for a different camp every week," Pepe said. "That's all gone because of the pandemic."

La Cuadrilla De La Semana usually started on a Friday in early April and lasted all spring and summer long, every week. But by that time this year, coronavirus was already spreading through communities in most of the Golden State, and the shelter-in-place order had sent Pepe home to his makeshift studio.

The campesinos, however, don't get to work from home.

These underpaid and overworked, mostly Brown farmworkers never stop. And they are the primary reason the rest of us here in the big city have still been able to eat fruits, nuts and vegetables this season of sickness, death, and now fires.

They have been and will remain an essential resource for the region, the state and the country. And after so many years as an essential resource for them, Pepe Reyes told me that he wants that to continue, even if it's just over the airwaves for now.

THE BIGGEST NEEDS

Since much of his audience is undocumented and doing grueling work that make injuries practically inevitable, legal advice is one of the biggest needs for farmworkers.

Yes, lots of people call in to request a song or join a discussion, Pepe said. But the calls are often more serious.

"Sometimes they call because a boss is mistreating them or sexually harassing them," he said. "Sometimes they call because they got hurt at work, and no one is looking out for them."

Two years ago, in response to these calls, Pepe and the station partnered with a Kern County-based small law firm to provide free legal advice during a weekly segment.

Pepe said the legal segment helped a lot of people, and that helping is the best part of the job.

And just this week, the show shared vital information about the heat wave-led power emergency and the wildfires, because farm work is especially dangerous when there's smoke in the air — and workers don't always receive adequate protection.

The pandemic has also made farm work more dangerous. Back when the virus first began to spread, Pepe said he dedicated much of his shows to getting accurate information out about safety and health to campesinos working the fields.

"We got the word out about masks and social distancing, and I think that's one of the reasons our death rates have been relatively low considering how a large part of our people have been out there working this whole time," Pepe said.

As of Aug. 18, Kern County had reported 228 confirmed coronavirus cases for a population the CDC estimates at about 900,000. That's about 25 deaths per 100,000 people. L.A. County's death rate is 49 per 100,000 people. The U.S. death rate is 52.

Like with most counties in the state, Kern County's COVID-19 stats went up during the phased reopening. Pepe has even gone on on Facebook Live to show his audience that he wears gloves and a mask at work.

I asked Pepe if it helps for people to see him with his mask and gloves. He thinks it does. I try to imagine what it's like being out in that field picking fruit with a big crew of other workers, and listening to Pepe and his golden voice telling me to wear a mask.

And I think he's right. It helps.

About the Mis Ángeles column: Erick Galindo is chronicling life in Los Angeles for LAist. He took on this role after serving as our immigrant communities reporter. Erick came to us last year from LA Taco, where he was the managing editor of a James Beard award-winning staff.

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