Faces of NPR: Felix Contreras
Faces Of NPR showcases the people behind NPR--from the voices you hear every day on the radio to the ones who work outside of the recording studio. You'll find out about what they do and what they're inspired by on the daily. This week, we feature Felix Contreras, the Host of Alt.Latino
Name: Felix Contreras
Twitter Handle: @TioFelixC
Job Title: Host, Alt.Latino
Where you're From: Sacramento, CA.
What is your favorite part about your job? And your favorite part about NPR?
People always ask me what it's like working at NPR and besides the mission, It's the people who are accomplishing that mission. They're the smartest, wittiest, most accomplished journalists in the country. I've never encountered anyone that isn't just really a genuinely nice person.
I'm 20 years now here at NPR. I can indulge my passions for both journalism and music and company. So other people are here doing the same thing.
Tell me about your experience at NPR?
I came to NPR during a period of transition, because I was working for what was then called the Programming Department. And it was completely different than what happens now. This is 'pre-podcast', 2001, if you can believe that. So we had a lot of programming.
It was all radio. Opera, classical. We had a daily live classical show that was award-winning. They had a weekly opera show, at least four or five weekly jazz shows and a great documentary series, a Peabody award-winning documentary series.
I was hired to do jazz programming for the programming department. There was a change about two years after that, where they shifted away from that and eliminated some of the programming. Eventually some of that stuff got absorbed into NPR music. But I was part of that transition out of programming.
And then I went to the news department and I was the producer for the arts desk, from about 2002, until about 2012.
How was that transition for you?
It was challenging. It was a lot of fun. I was able to establish myself working through the arts desk. I pitched a story about a Latin jazz musician that I thought epitomized the bi-cultural nature of Latinos here in the US. It was a guy named Ray Barretto. The arts editor at the time, Tom Cole said, "we don't have anyone who's familiar with that music. Why don't you do the piece?" And I hadn't done any radio pieces up to that point. So I said, "Sure, let's do it." So that's how I transitioned into producer/ reporter for the arts desk. Always with an emphasis on trying to present as many and varied styles of Latin culture, basically arts, literature, music, film, etc. So I pitched stories, I did them myself. I helped others as a producer. I help others get that representation on the air.
How did Alt.Latino come into fruition?
Jasmine Garsd, who co-founded the show with me, and I had the idea of starting the show. And we were at the right place at the right time because NPR had received a grant to develop podcasts during the first wave of podcasting. So around 2008. Then we pitched this idea and put a pilot together. And the short version is that eventually we got accepted among all the other 150 pitches for podcasts. It's the one that's still around 11 years later.
The idea was this type of music, Latin alternative music, was not being covered. Not only by mainstream US media or public media/public radio, or even a Spanish language media. These are artists who were considered alternative to the mainstream pop machine.
So even though they were singing in Spanish and they were coming from Latin American countries, a lot of these artists were not getting covered by the mainstream Spanish language media. So we were filling a backend for a number of demographics.
So how did you expect people to react to your podcast about LatinX culture and music?
I expected people to accept it and embrace it and say "Yeah, this is what public radio should be doing."
And did they respond that way?
Yes, absolutely. We don't have as many listeners as some of the other podcasts. And there are many reasons for that. But what we do have is a dedicated audience. It's been consistent. The people who listen to this show count on it for a lot of different reasons: music discovery, conversations about culture. For example, we had a whole show on the J-Lo/Shakira Super Bowl performance and that's part of the national discussion.
What I try to do with the show is make it relevant, and make it not only just about music discovery, but also about what's going on in our lives that's maybe not covered by the mainstream media.
Who has been your favorite guest to interview and who is your dream interview?
My favorite interview was probably the second time I interviewed Rita Moreno. Because the first time I interviewed her, she had just released a record and she did the interview from the New York bureau and I was in DC.
And the second time I interviewed her was for a much bigger event or much more public event in that it was the second season of 'One Day at a Time', the Netflix show that was really highly regarded and a lot of people were watching it. It was very popular. So she's coming to New York, she's doing interviews. So I went to New York because I had to. She has been a personal favorite of mine. I've been a fan boy since my teenage years. But as I grew older, I watched her career develop and watched her do different things and then read about her. I began to really respect and admire her for being the pioneer that she is. She's been our flag bearer for as long as I can remember, once I started paying attention to that. The second interview was a chance to let her tell her story again about what she's done in the past and what she's done in this show. Then at the end, I was able to thank her for, part of myself and then countless Latino baby boomers for being such an icon. Then I cried a little bit and then she cried a little bit.
It's a highlight because very rarely do we get a chance to meet these people and thank them. So for 45 minutes, I had to be the journalist and ask the questions, but then It's like, okay. I just need to let you know what it means to me personally. It was just an incredible moment for me to be able to give thanks like that to one of my icons.
And then who is your dream interview?
Sonia Sotomayor. I've been chasing her for a couple of years because she is a huge fan of Fania salsa music from the 1970s. I've seen her talk about it. I've read about her talking about it. I want to get her on the show and just say: "Hey, bring me five or six of your favorite Fania Records and let's talk music."
I've interviewed my heroes: Carlos Santana, Dolores Huerta who started the United Farm Workers union with Cesar Chavez. Delores Huerta was very, very special cause you know, in her nineties she's like, again, an icon, she's a hero. But also I found out that she's a very big jazz fan. She said her biggest claim to fame besides being an icon for social justice is that she met Charlie Parker when she was a young girl. So I had her on the show and we talked about the documentary for 15 minutes and then for the last 15 minutes, I let her take over the show and she said, "Hi, this is Dolores Huerta, you're listening to Alt.Latino, and I'm going to play you some of my favorite jazz songs." She got to be a jazz DJ for the first time in her life, but every song had a social justice message. she played Miles Davis, she played Charlie Parker, but it had a social justice message. It was brilliant.
How did you coin the name Tio Felix?
I'm usually the oldest guy in the room, so I embraced it.
In the 70s there was a guy and he's one of my journalism heroes, a guy named Ralph J Gleason. He was a jazz writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He helped start Rolling Stone magazine in the 60s, and then he started covering all these young bands and he was always the oldest guy in the room back then. Because he came from a different generation and people accepted him and respected him and he became a respected reporter on genre and lifestyle. I just embraced that idea of being the oldest guy in the room.
I'm able to witness how our cultures are changing in real time. We'll go to SXSW and see 20 bands in a week. I see bands that are breaking down boundaries. They're meshing things to create, not just a pan Latin thing, but a pan world thing. They're making these musical statements, these cultural statements with their music because they don't accept boundaries anymore.
You know, I'm able to witness and participate in, and appreciate the change. Watch the culture change in real time. Keeps me young, man. You don't settle.
Where did you grow up?
When did you start playing the drums?
I was a teenager, about 15 years old.
What distinguishes Afro Cuban percussion?
There are certain traditions and techniques that are applied to traditional music, mostly from Afro Cuban music. Afro Cuban music is one of the things that I grew up listening to and learning. And how that is applied to things like salsa, Latin, jazz, Latin rock, etc.
It's distinct. It's distinguished by certain traditions, certain techniques and traditions from the Afro Cuban culture.
How do you contribute to the progression of Latinx cultures & what is the response?
We try to put the spotlight on as many different interpretations of Afro-Latino cultures that we can find. I have for years made an effort to dedicate February to Afro Latino cultures for Black history month. We've looked at different cultures, different traditions, and different topics. During the Black Lives Matter movement, we did a show on the role of Afro Latinos within the Black Lives Matter movement because there were a lot of times they were getting left out and not considered. I'm trying to show as many aspects of Latino cultures as possible and in many different ways, again, writers, authors, literature, filmmakers, photography, music and the stories behind the music and stories behind the traditions.
That's my contribution, keeping it progressive. It's looking at people who are challenging traditions. There are trans musicians in Mexico who are taking on the mariachi tradition.That's the legitimate expression of self-identity and culture.
We don't shy away from anyone or anything or anybody no matter how they identify themselves as an expression of culture. If they have an interesting story, they're making interesting music or doing something interesting, that's our contribution.
Which vinyls are you favorite?
My favorite vinyls are the ones I don't have. There's a jazz musician named Billy Taylor and he just had his birthday last weekend. It was the Centennial. And he was somebody I worked with at the Kennedy Center, but I loved and admired so much. I was just exchanging messages with a guy there and there's a trio album he did with this Afro Cuban percussionist that I have on CD. But this guy had it on vinyl man! And I'm like, "oh bro, I gotta have, I gotta look for that."
After this interview, Tio Felix interviewed me back.
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