Q&A: How Reporting The 'Forgotten Revolutionary' Podcast Shifted A Reporter's Perspective
As a journalist, you’re taught to be as distant as possible from the work you do, yet there can be a lot lost in that distance. To be the subject of the news is that last thing you want. For Adolfo Guzman-Lopez, it has been something he intentionally avoided for more than 20 years at KPCC/LAist —until a rubber bullet hit him while covering protests in Long Beach over the police murder of George Floyd on May 31, 2020.
The incident rattled the newsroom, his family and his body and spirit. It took Guzman-Lopez nearly two months to process his reaction enough to share his trauma with LAist readers. It also represented a turning point in his career. He realized that his own perspective wasn’t irrelevant to his work, but in fact, it could inform and strengthen his reporting.
His perspective is fully on display in the LAist Studios podcast, "Imperfect Paradise: The Forgotten Revolutionary."
Over eight episodes, Guzman-Lopez investigates the mysterious death in 1994 of Oscar Gomez, a 21-year-old UC Davis radio DJ and host from Baldwin Park. Gomez had a widely listened to and celebrated show called “La Onda Xicana” — translated to the way of the Chicano.
For years, Guzman-Lopez needed to tell Oscar Gomez’s story, but he also needed to talk about his own experience in the 90s Chicano student activist movement and as a Latino public radio reporter in the early 2000s.
Recently, Latino journalists have spoken publicly about the demands and struggles with reporting on their own communities. Together with the team, Guzman-Lopez consistently asked and was asked what to reveal both about Oscar Gomez and himself.
After wrapping up the last episode, I met up with Guzman-Lopez in Downtown L.A. to talk about his journey in journalism, and how making the show was a healing journey for him:
The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Q: For many Latino journalists, having some visibility to what is possible is essential. Who were your influences?
AGL: When I think of language, I think of my aunts and uncles in gatherings who would be very chatty, would talk about culture. There was also a show in the late 70s early 80s that would broadcast from Mexico to San Diego called “Para Gente Grande,” and what I remember is interviews with writers like Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, they would talk about the Nueva Canción movement in Latin America — Silvio Rodríguez, Pablo Milanés — that to me was sort of a lifeline.
Q: In “The Forgotten Revolutionary,” you take us on the journey of hosting your own radio show — was that the start of your deep interest in journalism?
AGL: I got the bug in August of 1990 when a group of us from the UC San Diego Chicano student newspaper, Voz Fronteriza, came up to East L.A. to cover the 20th commemoration of the National Chicano Moratorium from 1970. I was 21 years old, you know, going to an event and seeing people chant and protest and knowing we had a job to do, capture it, condense, tell the story in the newspaper. And then the radio program really was influenced, not by Oscar, 'cause I didn’t know him very much — there was a guy, Darron de Leon, who I still talk to to this day, who was doing a Chicano radio show at UC Riverside called “Radio Aztlan.” I called my show “Radio Califas.”
Q: Was 'Radio Califas' one of the reasons you got through UCSD?
AGL: It was, you know, when I listen back to how engaged I was, I was sounding pretty good! Despite the troubles at home, some of the issues with my stepfather, trying to get my GPA to graduate, I sounded pretty good in the interviews.
Q: Tell me about what happened inbetween 'Radio Califas' and KPCC.
AGL: I tried everything and anything, freelancing and — at the time I was contributing to the San Diego Monthly, then I pitched a story about the band Tijuana No! for the San Diego Union-Tribune and it did well and I was asked by the San Diego NPR member station, KPBS, if I could turn the story into a radio story.
It was perfect. Especially with Tijuana No!, there’s so much there. Then I got a job offer at KPBS, I took it, that became full-time. KPBS was a really good place to be at. I hosted my own five-day-a week live arts and culture program called “The Lounge.” I was 29 years old, they needed something young. I was the host and main producer.
Q: As a Latino journalist, I sometimes feel a weird pressure — there’s a pressure by my mother or family to do well or represent my community better. How has that pressure for you maybe shifted?
AGL: It was sometime in the winter of 1993, my stepfather threatened to kill me as I was finishing UCSD. I didn't want to find out if he was really going to do it.
So I left and took a break. That break wasn’t just with my stepfather but my mother too and what was going on in that house. And I still feel it to this day when I go visit at home, there's an energy there that I don’t want to be a part of.
It doesn’t mean I made a break with being Mexican. And I made a break with the Chicano movement and that's documented in the series. That then allowed me to cover the community in a news way. Represent your community, yeah, but that's the tension.
The community wants feel-good stories. We need those. But we in news should do a fair amount of that but also show people that our people could be just as hurtful, corrupt and have all those qualities every other community has. Why? For accountability.
Q: So what is your relationship with objectivity?
AGL: Objectivity, as it has been promoted, adopted, embraced by journalism, says you are to somehow take a detached position towards a topic or subject.
Detachment. That doesn’t work for me.
Objectivity framed in that way has been used to silence some approaches to covering stories. Some of the best journalism in history has been engaged where there is an attachment to the humanity.
I think pre- and post-"Imperfect Paradise," I’m rejecting objectivity as a way of journalism where you try to separate being human from doing the story.