A Discussion with Guillermo José Perdomo Montalvo, S.J., Director, Radio Marién, Dajabón, Dominican Republic
June 5, 2017
Background: As part of the Education and Social Justice Project, in June 2017 undergraduate student Mary Breen interviewed Father Guillermo José Perdomo Montalvo, S.J., director of Radio Marién in Dajabón, Dominican Republic. In the interview he explains the success of the Jesuits’ radio education program in reaching people who have fallen outside of the formal education system. He also describes his dreams for strengthening the network of Catholic radio stations in Latin America and expanding the news coverage Radio Marién provides.
How would you describe the mission and work of Radio Marién?
Historically, the fundamental mission is educational: above all, to broadcast the schools of Radio Santa Maria, which is a work of the Society of Jesus in La Vega, Dominican Republic. We were born to broadcast them here at the border. Radio Marién was founded by a Jesuit that had been the director of Radio Santa Maria. He was sent to the border and knew how to work in radio. Our fundamental mission is education, but also evangelization. At one moment of our history, the part of evangelization was not very clear. The new bishop defined it as a social promotion that combines the social plan of women, ecology, news, and sports with the plan of evangelization. It wasn’t that we weren’t doing the evangelization, but rather from his perspective the messages need to nourish the dioceses and then we are nourished.
With the topic of our presence in Dajabón, Dominican Republic, we listen to the other side of the border, and the greater part of our programs are in Spanish. There was a moment in our history in which it was impossible to have programs in the Creole language, because in fact the Dominican constitution demands that we promote the values of our country and our culture. Emphasizing programs in Creole would seem like we are trying to promote false images or unite with the other side, which would be looked down upon by the government. The number of radio stations in Haiti is increasingly growing. Probably, in this moment, we have in Dajabón more radio stations being listened to by people in Haiti than by people in Dajabón.
In any case, we have tried to establish a positive relationship with Haiti despite the problems of migration, commerce, and transporting products that create tensions. The broadcasters of the radio here have training of the heart, but they still use expressions that are not that happy. Our mission is to present positively this relationship between the two sides. Instead of saying “those Haitians,” they should say “our brothers and sisters from Haiti.” After the earthquake, we had promotions for Haiti with expressions like "Animo Haiti" in Spanish and Creole. We were the headquarters of a radio marathon for the four northwestern provinces of the Dominican Republic to bring help to Haiti. We organized the program in just six days.
We try to be a bridge to combine the formal education that produces a degree with informal education that people get from these programs. For example, today is the World Environment Day, so today we are going to broadcast chapters from Pope Francis’ radio series based on his encyclical “On Care for our Common Home.” We are going to put four chapters from the series, a song, a chapter, and a song. In this way, we are educating in an entertaining and fun manner in the time when we are free from 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m.
Borders of all islands confine and restrict, unlike a bridge. In the same way that Dominicans go to the United States and Spain and have problems with their papers, so too do Haitians come here. With the topic of remittances, many Dominican families live off remittances from overseas, and so too do Haitians depend on remittances from the Dominican Republic.
How is the radio station funded?
Normally, we are dedicated to formal education. We have four hours daily dedicated to programs with radio courses from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. So, the state pays for these spaces. It is four hours of the day that are prime listening hours. The state pays a little, but it is not all of the cost. We also have advertisements, people who are fundraisers, and activities, like raffles for Mother’s Day and Christmas. We have a special sports league with competitions in the neighborhood. In that way, we raise some money, not a large amount. Between the two raffles, we raise RD$15,000, which is not sufficient. We do not always raise the money that we need, but we come up with strategies and projects to do what we can. We are a non-profit, but our plan is not to lose money either. Non-profit? Sure, but efficiency. We need to create attitudes of efficiency among people. It is not only private enterprise that makes us go, but also renewing the society. We are in the air but we do not live off air. We have to get money from somewhere. People think you are a non-profit and so you have a lot of advantages, but no. Many times the government tells us that you are a non-profit organization, so you have plenty of help, so we have nothing more for you.
Are any of your programs available on the internet as well?
No, everything is broadcast over the radio. It is not easy to maintain and keep a web page going. You have to buy the domain and the space. It is a challenge. But, we have the need. In the future, we would be able to have radio programs repeated so that anyone can play it repeatedly at different times.
Is the curriculum the same as that of the state?
The curriculum in general is determined at the state level, but the examples, tone, explanations, and the way in which we help are from the Society of Jesus. The subjects considered include proper treatment, corruption or something bad, justice, and faith in God. It is not Catholic, but faithful.
If a student completes her courses, does she receive a certificate from the state that is the same as a student who attended a traditional school?
Yes, and there is a big party on the recordings. If you are in jail, for example, you can take one class towards your high school degree, but you may not know if you are going to continue or to get transferred to another prison. You can continue step by step regardless of where you are located. We celebrate every year, every step and achievement. The bishop comes, photos are taken, and the students and teachers give speeches, which are all transmitted by radio. It is beautiful.
Can you describe the communities and groups that use these radio programs for education?
At the beginning, the network of schools in the outskirts here was very limited and did not include all grades of basic education. Most commonly, schools went up to the sixth grade, but many schools did not offer seventh and eighth grade. Some people wanted to achieve more; for example, we have a woman here who only made it through fourth grade. She had three children, and by taking classes on the radio she finished primary school and high school. Then, she went to university and became a nurse. There are cases like this in which people begin their family life very early. Sometimes the condition of the family in which you live leads to an early age of childbirth around 14 years old. When you have children, you are not able to study. The need to work makes it impossible to study during the normal day. When you end your work day in the afternoon, there are motivating courses on the radio. This is for poor people and for adults in general. At the beginning, it was used mostly just for adults, but now it is for all of the poor and people who work and cannot study.
Formal education is not obligatory in the Dominican Republic, so people fall outside of the education system. We are filling a gap for all of the people who were not able to finish their education formally. The people listening are more from the countryside than the city and more from the outskirts of the city than the city center. It is an important work. In this country, when a person with three kids receives their high school diploma it would be comparable in importance to someone from the middle class in North America getting a degree from Harvard, Yale, or Georgetown.
Have you seen that your students are as competitive as other students?
There is a national test that is taken by adults of these programs and students of regular schools. The information that I have heard about Radio Santa Maria is that they are competitive. The adult when he decides to study is very focused, while a child might attend a bad school. He does not progress. We are able to compete, and it is very equivalent to formal schooling.
Do you know how many students you have each year?
At the beginning, there was a great demand being satisfied and the groups were very large. The state had a radio program for high school that offered two high school courses in one year. They were very poorly prepared, which was seen in the state’s results. I think we have added in primary school 150 or 200 students each semester. For high school, we have a similar quantity. Right now, we have more students in the high school courses than in the primary ones. However, we have an opportunity with the pastoral education in the diocese of Monte Cristi to take on radio education, work in the area, and create new groups. There are three parts: the radio, the book, and the teacher as a facilitator. It is very important to have an effective relationship between the facilitating teacher and the student. In this relationship, the aspect of the family is helped—the motivation, the training, the lack of a book or birth certificate.
Students need to buy the books themselves, correct?
We have a program of half scholarships, so we pay a little and they pay a little. We never give complete scholarships, except for the residents of the correction and rehabilitation centers in Mao and Dajabón since they do not handle money. The correction and rehabilitation centers lessen the punishment of the residents, if they are studying and taking these classes. Also, for example, if you are in the correction center and not studying, you have more limits for calling your family and spousal visits. The traditional prison model does not have this same program in the region. It is more difficult to organize and manage. These correction and rehabilitation centers, one in Mao and one in Dajabón, are models for this.
How would you describe the training and preparation of the teachers?
For basic education, teachers need to have at least the second year of high school completed. To be in any of these positions, you need the spirit of service. It is guaranteed that these people want to serve. For the high school level, teachers are required to have a B.S. or a B.A. with a specialty, such as Spanish, mathematics, or biology. With topics like computing, human promotion, or religion, they only need some studies and not a degree.
Can you explain the weekly schedule of a student enrolled in one of your programs?
If I am in the first through fourth grade, I need to listen for one hour each day. If I am in fifth through eighth grade, I also need one hour each day. If I am in high school, I need 15 minutes every day, and the segments are repeated two times each day. Every week, the segments are distributed into mathematics, biology, chemistry, and others. Once a week, the primary school students meet with their teachers for about one hour. The high school students have a meeting each week for five hours from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. with their teachers to explain and discuss. There is a difference between primary school and high school.
Why do you think this radio program and this type of education functions well for the people in this region?
The people that use these programs have realized their position in life and have a strong desire. The degree of motivation in the students, professors, and community is very high. The motivational part is very important. If your family, facilitators, and community are supporting you, you do not need to worry. They are people who have a strong desire, so they are able to complete high school and go to university. Normally, the students are of average intelligence and take courses late in life, but on the other hand they have strong experience. Some things, like the speed of the lectures, are excellent for some people, but not others. It is not the same, for example, if I learn to play tennis at the age of six or the age of 40. Either way, everyone’s motivation is very great.
From your experience, has this radio program influenced other regions in the Dominican Republic or in Haiti?
Yes, there are people that listen to us due to the way we treat the themes. In this area, the radio stations have very sensational and simple content. I think that our style, tone, 40-year presence, and connection with the Catholic Church impact what is said and our listeners. Our opinion in the radio content is less tied down or chained than that of other radio stations. Where the money comes from permits or limits the words, so we are freer of this.
What are you wishes for the future for this radio program?
For me, it would be important to strengthen the network of Catholic radio stations and strengthen our work in order to be at the national level. I want an investment that we currently do not have. That is the first wish. Second, I want all of our news to have great quality and include all of the territories, not only cities.
My other desire is to have here at this radio station a news portal of the northeast of Haiti and the northwest of the Dominican Republic. We could bring this to the national level to explain how the relationship is in this region and what is going. The relationship between dioceses is growing, and it is important to discuss good news, not only bad news. Pope Francis in his last message about social communication invites us to have good news.
I have the dream of the internet, to strengthen the capacity of the internet to know more about the outside and for others to be able to see life here, but also the capacity to transmit from the territory not only news, but also concerts or music. In the case of natural disasters, this capacity can help and train people to know what to do during and after the event.
Another theme is the youth. They need to have something here on the radio but with values. There are many children here in the northwest and in Haiti. They live on the street. They have time and affection. There is also the topic of women. I think that the radio stations of the Society of Jesus can help them.
Sustainability is also vital. If I went to the provincial of the Society of Jesus with a debt of RD$70,000, the radio station would have six months and then it would be gone. We have to look for ways to be sustainable. I have this dream of sustainability, the internet, and more expansive work. In Latin America, there are more than 100 radio stations that are property of the Society of Jesus, but still we are not coordinated—100 radio stations. I dream of big things like a concert transmitted by all of the radio stations of the Society of Jesus. I have many dreams.