We get up early on Saturday morning to take the bus to the psychiatric hospital. Not all stories that begin with that sentence will end as happily as this one, trust me.
Vilarde Psychiatric Hospital (one of only two such institutions in Uruguay) is an imposing structure from the outside. (I realize that melodramatic writers always refer to such places as being “imposing,” but in this case it is true.)
A huge fence with overgrown vegetation surrounds the grounds. Some of the buildings appear to be uninhabitable, but the central entrance is large and grand (albeit somewhat worn with time). Once ushered through the security checkpoint, helped by our host Maria, we enter a series of outdoor courtyards. One part of the structure was a church at one time. Maybe it still is. People are sitting here and there, enjoying the morning sun. Some are talking, some are on their own, some are playing cards, sipping on mate (a tea).
In one outside courtyard, there are two tables set up in the corner. One is surrounded by chairs and has two microphones on it. The other has a computer and a four-channel mixer. There are wires that then go to a room off the courtyard, through a large open window.
This is Saturday morning at Vilardevoz — a radio station that is the voice of the patients of the Vilarde hospital.
From about 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. during most of the year, this is an open time on the radio station. Any patient can participate if he or she wishes, and people from the outside can join in as well.
There are a set of volunteers who help put the station on the air. Some are former patients (“alumni,” let’s call them). Participants get a chance to talk about what is on their mind, about issues at the hospital, about societal views of mental health, whatever.
Some clearly come with a prepared talk, written out carefully on scraps of paper. Some conversations seem to move in the moment, as participants question each other and debate issues. All of it is under the watchful ear of the volunteers and a few psychologists who are on staff.
We go to the courtyard that is the radio station. We wave to a few folks at the microphones, smile, and meet Diego, an alumnus of Vilarde who will be our guide and sometimes translator, and Santiago (a psychologist at the hospital).
Santiago tells me right away that he loves the Canadian flag, saying it is one of the most beautiful in the world. He also remembers studying in university about one of the former federal ministers of health from Canada. He can’t remember the name. I try to think of a minister of health who did something important. We both search the hard drives of our memory for the name. “La-la something,” Santiago thinks out loud. “Lalonde?” “Si, Lalonde!” “Marc Lalonde!” Santiago and I are united in our victory over this little puzzle.
However, why a psychology student in Uruguay would have to read about Marc Lalonde is beyond me. I make a mental note to Google Mr. Lalonde later.
Diego proudly shows us the banner for the station. It is a large bright yellow sign, with the logo: “Vilardevoz … locos por la radio!”
“Loco” has about the same meaning in English as in Spanish. I don’t think that sign would go over well in Canada, without a protest. But they love their logo here, since the patients came up with it themselves. I’m not about to tell them it might be seen by some to be in bad taste. Diego and his friends have a good laugh as they explain it to us.
I ask about whether all of the officials at the hospital support the station, which initiates an animated discussion. Apparently, there is a complicated relationship between the hospital administration and the radio station. Even though the station has operated since 1997, they have generally done it without the blessing of the various directors of the hospital.
“Does the current director listen to the station,” I ask one of the volunteers?
“No, I don’t think so,” they say quickly, with a chuckle.
But Vilardevoz is a recognized official station under the recent law regarding community radios, sanctioned by the ministry in charge of radio, and so it has the right to continue to broadcast — even if the patients sometimes talk about the conditions in the hospital or their concern about the usage of medications or the lack of support when they integrate back into society.
“When the patients talk, some people get nervous,” one person noted, smiling.
“But,” I asked, “is it not a goal of mental health therapy to get patients to talk, to listen to others, to draw a line of connection between their own experience and that of others?”
To be honest, I didn’t quite say it like that, since it was partly in Spanish and the other part (the words I didn’t know) in English.
“Si, yes, por supuesto, of course,” they answer (in the same spirit of Spanglish). But they are among the converted.
Within a few minutes, we hear our names on the radio. “Vamos hablar con dos canadienses, Maria y Ivan….”
Shortly afterwards, our names go up on a chart on the wall which indicates the running order of the radio show for the day (which is in transition throughout the morning). So much for being invisible observers.
There is a mixture of people present. I have to keep stopping myself from trying to decide whether someone is a patient or a volunteer or a family member or a former patient or a psychologist — or just a visiting researcher.
It is a welcoming group, warm and inclusive. To create boundaries would be against the spirit of this place on this morning.
We have our interview. It is an exercise in community translation, for both languages. But we share a similar vision for community radio, and 40 minutes disappears quickly.
They want to know about Canada. Is the media there controlled by the state? Is there community radio? Was there really two metres of snow when we left our country? Do people have the right to speak out? Does everyone have their chance to be heard on the media? What do I think is the best model for community radio?
In response to the last question, I say: “after this morning, I think that the best model is Vilardevoz.” The place erupts in cheers.
OK, it was maybe a bit cheesy, kind of like playing to the hometown crowd. But I follow up by pointing out that the things that were happening there that morning were what I thought have to happen to make local radio work.
It was a true community, people felt that they were included, they were allowed to speak honestly about their true feelings, and it was addressing what people needed to talk about (and which other media could not address in the same way). But mostly, it was fun. And if community radio isn’t fun, it isn’t worth doing. I wasn’t being cheesy then, because I actually believe those things.
At the end of our interview, Diego suggests that we play a song together — he on guitar and me on harmonica. He begins singing a local song, and is joined by a chorus of other voices. The stars align at that moment, since the song was in the key of “G.”
And that was the very same key that my one and only harmonica was in. And so we end our interview with a song together. A Latino beat, Spanish lyrics, and a Newfoundland harmonica.
Handshakes, smiles and kisses, and we get up from the microphones to rejoin the rest of the folks. We’re just a couple of gringos from the north who are part of the community that is Vilardevoz on this particular Saturday morning.
You can look up more information about Vilardevoz (the station) on the Internet (although it will be in Spanish — you can use Google Translate to get a bit of a sense of what they are talking about). Their web page (on which you can sometimes listen in to the broadcast) is: radiovilardevoz.wordpress.com
Their Facebook site, which includes pictures of their broadcasts (including the one we took part in), is at: https://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Radio-Vilardevoz/152357398168947 (but you’ll need a Facebook account for this).
For today’s music link, do you ever feel that you arrived in town the day after the circus left town? I sort of feel like that, since I got to South America a couple of weeks after one of my favourite groups finished a South American tour, playing at a variety of cities where I’ll be living. The band is Mana, a highly accomplished Latino rock band with multiple awards from Guadalajara, Mexico.
Here is a link to their concert which took place in Montevideo a few weeks ago, a short bus ride from our apartment. Partway through this song, Fher Olvera (the lead singer) puts on a local football jersey and then unfolds a flag that includes the Uruguayan flag. You know how it goes… playing to the hometown crowd! Of course, the sound isn’t great, since it is live, but it kind of captures their energy. Here is the link!