Thisbe Wu

The morning Daniel Alarcón found out he won the MacArthur fellowship, he bought three pairs of sneakers. The other plans would come later, the more grounded impulses: transforming the  650,000 dollar award into a trip with his children, one with his wife, more novels, more projects—more time. After the shoes, time was perhaps the most necessary item on his list. Alarcón works as a professor at the Columbia Journalism School, writes regularly for the New Yorker, and runs three podcasts under Radio Ambulante Estudios. He is also a novelist: his first book, War by Candlelight, was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award, and his collection of short stories, The King is Always Above the People, was long-listed for the National Book Award. He works at a pace that almost every person I spoke to for this piece described as insane. With more time he could deepen his commitment to his literary career while exploring new projects. But that morning, after hearing from the MacArthur committee, Alarcón allowed himself a first indulgence; as he told NPR, “I was like, I’m getting those green Nikes.”

The award that would finance the sneakers celebrated a career dedicated to chronicling the personal and collective stories that make up the Americas. Over two decades, Alarcón has covered, among other topics, Salvador Allende’s cybernetic ambitions (in Spanish, with the Radio Ambulante podcast team), the COVID-19 pandemic in Ecuador’s capital (in English, for the New Yorker), and the aftershocks of political violence in Peru (in English again, throughout his first two books). Alarcón’s work spans and crosses genres, mediums and languages. This Pan-American range takes the shape of his life, one spent navigating the cultural codes embedded throughout the Americas, South to North.

Alarcón was born in Lima in 1977, the year the Maoist group Shining Path decided that it had enough cadres to start a “popular war” against the Peruvian government. Two years later, as the country entered a large-scale armed conflict, Alarcón’s parents, both doctors, left for Alabama. Indoors, speaking Spanish with his family, Birmingham was not so different from the country he had just left—but outside, where he was one of the few Latinos in the area, the distance was indisputable. At eighteen, he moved to New York to study anthropology and creative writing at Columbia. After graduating, he lived in Lima, Iowa, and California before moving back to the largest city on this continent. The hemispheric scope and cosmopolitan tint of Alarcón’s work— they come from this itinerant background.

At least I had that suspicion when I read him for the first time. Back then I was in high school and obsessed, for some reason, with American nonfiction—its novelistic thrust, its heedfulness. Back then I passively believed that the New Yorker was a very well-written website; only months later, after subscribing for the tote bag, I realized that it had been a magazine first. I spent my nights trudging through the Harper’s website, wondering occasionally if it was common for Latinos to write for them, if someone on those websites had written about my country and city with the same exhaustive, delicate detail.

During one of those nights I discovered Alarcón’s eight-thousand-word essay about election night in Lurigancho, Lima’s largest prison. The next day, I listened to Radio Ambulante, the podcast for which Alarcón is the presenter and an executive producer, for the first time. The episode was called La concursante. Near the end of it, the mother of the protagonist begins to sing. The Andean lilt of her voice was the same as my grandmother’s. I was seventeen years old then and had been living outside of my country, alone, for the first time. Over those first months abroad very few things made sense to me. But that voice, its cadence—I understood them instantly.

I don’t say this to Alarcón when we speak over Zoom, but the topic comes up anyway. “When I was your age,” he tells me one morning in November, “all I wanted was to be part of the conversation. I came from Alabama, which is the most random place you can come from in the United States, and before that, I came from Peru, which is the most random place you can come from if you’re in Alabama.” As a teen, his heroes were musicians, painters, poets, novelists. Art made him understand that the world had, somewhere, a space reserved for him. Hence a career dedicated to depicting the personal and historical forces that define our time. “When I was your age, I looked at art as the key to understanding this world we live in. There were things that I read that made me feel less alone. I wanted to be part of that.”




In January 2011, Alarcón was writing his most recent novel, At Night We Walk In Circles. He had been working on it for five years, and didn’t seem to be making much progress. “The draft of the novel that I finished was terrible. It was a moment of panic about my talent, my future, and my abilities. And I was like, well, why don’t I try something completely different?”

He and Carolina Guerrero, his girlfriend at the time, had been thinking about starting a radio project. Their podcast, inspired by radio shows like This American Life, would be called Radio Ambulante. It would combine narrative journalism and investigative reporting; crucially, it would be one of the first projects to do so in American Spanish-language radio. Neither of them had significant audio experience, but that didn’t deter them: as Alarcón told The Rumpus in 2014, reflecting on those first days, “Not knowing what the fuck you’re doing is always exhilarating.” 

Alarcón became the host and the executive producer; Guerrero, the CEO. The next year, in 2012, they got married. Instead of a wedding registry, they asked their friends and family to donate to Radio Ambulante’s Kickstarter. (They also fundraised by holding a bake sale in their neighborhood for a couple of days.) By July 2012, these campaigns had yielded about $46,000. Recorded from Valparaíso, California, Tamaulipas and El Callao, the show’s first season put into practice an unifying principle: the three Americas are a single cultural region connected through the Spanish language. 

Early on, some doubted the viability of this pitch. As told by Alarcón in a MELUS interview from 2014, executives at outlets like Univision told him and Guerrero that there was no shared market for a show that compiled stories from across Spanish-speaking South America, let alone Central and North America. A Cuban residing in Miami, a mother in Cuzco, a student activist in Buenos Aires—they all have different backgrounds, convictions, lives. Does it really matter that they speak the same language? 

Alarcón and Guerrero believed so. Yes: Latinos comprised a vast, complex range of stories. But neither Spanish nor English-language media in the U.S. made space to explore these narratives with the thoroughness each one demands. Opening up that space, teasing out the singular, local circumstances that framed each story—that was what Radio Ambulante would do.

As Natalia Sánchez Loayza, an editor of the show, told me, “We’re producing for everyone who speaks Spanish—everyone, everywhere, which is a lot.” Alarcón was aware that this was an ambitious undertaking from the outset: as he said in that same MELUS interview, it would be enough to capture the attention of an interested niche of listeners. Radio Ambulante did not need “to have a massive audience.”

But three years after the bake sale, in 2015, the show hit over 1.5 million annual downloads. The following year, it was being distributed by NPR. Luis Fernando Vargas, a senior editor for the show, told me that when he joined in 2016, the team consisted of six people; now they are 32. And this November, when Spotify Wrapped released its data, Radio Ambulante was in the top 1% of the most popular podcasts on the platform globally.

For most who came of age in the 2010s, podcasts have come to be associated with a certain form and milieu: sour advice (Call Her Daddy), political polemics (The Joe Rogan Experience), or terminally online cultural commentary (Chapo Trap House). But Radio Ambulante has less in common with them than it does with, for example, a magazine like The Atlantic. Their approach to episodes is delicate, rigorous, nearly artisanal: between reporting, outlining, drafting, editing, copyediting and fact-checking, it might take anywhere from five weeks to two years until a story is ready for publication. 

While the exhaustive editing process means that every episode has many contributors, Alarcón’s presence is nevertheless crucial. In the words of his colleagues, his vision and attention elevate every story. “Daniel is the most artistic part of the team,” Vargas tells me. In the newsroom, he brings “the one phrase” that pierces through the team’s vision and “recontextualizes everything.” The result of this collective work is a tight 40-minute episode singular in its detail. The stories move, week to week, from a personal narrative about a love for karaoke to the dizzying street system of Costa Rica or the Venezuelan immigration crisis. They all bear specific, local marks — accents, words, historical notes — of the place they portray. Spanish, here, is deployed with care and attention: not as the dry language of books, but of families and city streets. Suffused with history, refined by its speakers, here the language is spoken as it is lived. 




Before the podcast, Alarcón was an Associate Editor at the Lima-based magazine Etiqueta Negra. For the uninitiated, Etiqueta Negra is perhaps best described through Alarcón’s fiction. Near the end of At Night We Walk In Circles, his 2013 novel, the nameless narrator takes a job at a nameless magazine of literary journalism. “At the beginning, we did everything: the writing and editing, the layout and design. We were the accountants, which explains why bankruptcy loomed each month; and we were the custodial staff, which explains why the office was in a state of constant disarray.” 

The similarities to Etiqueta Negra are not coincidental. The job was, in Alarcón’s words, his school: “My education in journalism. I teach a master’s degree in journalism now, at Columbia, but I didn’t get a master’s.” It was at the small magazine that he learned “to report and to edit, learned to be part of a team, to work with other journalists.”

He worked for about ten years with Etiqueta Negra’s small team, producing longform journalism — though longform is a vulgar translation for what may be better understood as marathon journalism. A more apt word might be crónica, a genre that mixes investigative journalism and the literary voice of novels. The crónica, of course, has a long legacy in Latin America. As Yale professor Anibal González-Pérez explains to me, writers Rubén Darío and Manuel Gutiérrez Nájara first shaped the crónica before writing the poetry that would make them central figures of the Latin American modernist movement. Etiqueta Negra, however, was also conscious of American New Journalism — it was equally indebted to the literary tradition of Latin America and the elegance of American writers like Truman Capote.

Eliezer Budasoff, managing editor of the magazine between 2014 and 2016, calls his years working for the magazine both “hellish and full of joy.” During his two-year tenure, he recalls pulling all-nighters before every issue was sent to the press. “Our ambitions were so high and our resources were so low — one usually pays for the difference between those two things with one’s body.” Sánchez Loayza, who interned there from 2014 to 2016, tells me that the magazine taught her “to have high standards.” Alarcón speaks in the same effusive tone: “The people who published in those pages are some of the writers of my generation (and younger, and some older) that I admire the most.”

It was rare to start a magazine of such a high caliber with so few resources. It was more unusual to start it in a young democracy like Peru, which was recovering from the two decades of armed conflict that prompted Alarcón’s parents to migrate, followed by eight years under Alberto Fujimori’s antidemocratic government. That this magazine was also able to publish texts from Martín Caparrós, Susan Orlean, Joaquín Sabina, Jon Lee Anderson, and Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa alongside many other young writers from across Latin America—it’s almost surreal.

In a note posted in n+1 in 2008, Alarcón wrote that “Etiqueta Negra has been called (not by us) the finest magazine in the Spanish language.” (In the next line he added, “we’ve been called other, unprintable things as well, but this isn’t really the point.”) When we spoke, Alarcón recounted those years with reverence: he calls its impact in Latin America “legendary.” Even now, referring to one’s time at Etiqueta Negra carries its own gravitas. “It’s as if the New Yorker had died at some point,” Sánchez Loayza tells me, “and you say you used to work for it.”

Some view that comparison as inadequate. Budasoff, raised in Paraná, an eastern province of Argentina, told me he grew up reading the New Yorker online but had never seen a copy in the flesh. After he arrived in Lima to work for Etiqueta Negra, he held an issue of the American magazine for the first time. Immediately he was disappointed. “Many people used to explain what Etiqueta Negra was by saying it was the New Yorker in Spanish. But at that moment I said ‘fuck, no.’” He laughs. “‘Our magazine is much more beautiful.’”

Etiqueta Negra alumni speak about their publication in the past tense, but often the present tense slips in. Listening to them, one gets the impression of an insular, mythical world, now extinct—especially given that when the magazine closed in 2017, it left no official website or online archive. People my age learned of its existence through certain preeminent texts, photocopied and shared in classrooms or reposted in blogs. I have memories of going with friends to the historic center of Lima and wading through large bins of old issues of National Geographic and People to find a second-hand copy of the magazine. In a sense we were in love. The stories in Etiqueta Negra fascinated us; they were like nothing we had read before. Or, we would admit, they were like the stories we had found in the English-language websites. But they were better, we would say to each other. Because they were written in Spanish, and they were about us.




In high school, at Indian Springs, Alarcón was classmates with the novelist John Green. They both wanted to be writers and shared, as Alarcón said in 2014, “a seriousness about it that wasn’t exactly normal for adolescents.” While working on his first novel, Alarcón told The Creative Independent in 2018, he would wake up at five in the morning every day to write for a couple of hours. While writing on his latest novella, he moved into his friends’ home for two weeks just to be able to finish the book. In that same interview, he was asked how he managed the responsibilities of his four jobs. “My solution,” he answered, “is to work until I’m dead.”

People notice. In the words of Vargas, the Radio Ambulante editor, “the man is crazy. He works like crazy. And somehow he always finds a way to pick up his son Eliseo from school.” Sánchez Loayza tells me in December that while Alarcón was supposed to be taking a break from Radio Ambulante, “he’s never truly on sabbatical.” And Elda Cantú, a former editor of Etiqueta Negra and current editor for the New York Times, tells me that when she and Alarcón worked together, she noticed he was deeply absorbed by his reporting. “He was always very curious about the people he met. By talking to him, you could just witness the way he was thinking about the story, how he was shaping it throughout a day of reporting.” 

I ask Alarcón if he ever had any pragmatic doubts about becoming a writer. “I don’t think I knew how precarious existence would be—or could be, because I’ve been really fortunate.” Even if people had told him, he adds, he wouldn’t have believed them. “I had that young person’s sense of invincibility. I just assumed that things would work out.” 

He tells me that his first job out of college was as a public school teacher. “I would get up at six, be at school at seven thirty, teach all day, grade papers, walk home, make dinner, then write until midnight, then do it again, every day, every day. My friends were living in New York and they were going out, and partying, and some were making a lot of money, and some were simply having much more fun in a traditional sense. And I was like, ‘Well, but I want to write a book.’”

“It’s not like I was a shut-in or anything. I had a life and I had friends. But, you know, if that was what I wanted to do, I was really happy to do it. I knew that it was going to be hard but, well, I grew up watching my parents work. I was never scared of working hard. That wasn’t really an issue.”

Julio Villanueva Chang, the editor-in-chief and founder of Etiqueta Negra, tells me he does not remember exactly how he met Alarcón. But he remembers Alarcón’s first story for the magazine: a piece about the Mall of America. “Dani traveled to Bloomington, gifting us his time and money, but above all his intelligence, generosity, and eagerness to learn.” Alarcón had already graduated from college and was working as a teacher in Lima, in the district of San Juan de Lurigancho. Later, he returned to the United States to work from San Francisco as an associate editor for Etiqueta Negra. “Dani was our chancellor in the United States,” Villanueva tells me. “I was impressed, from the beginning, by his desire to help and commit to a community, even in an adventure of uncertainty like the magazine.” 

A couple of minutes later, he shows me a picture of Alarcón. The writer is wearing a black shirt that reads LATINO-AMERICANO and bright red cleats. He is crouching down over the grass, surrounded by other men in black or bright sneakers, squinting in an expression of mock seriousness. The picture was taken during a lightning football match last October. Alarcón’s team was called Etiqueta Negra, Villanueva Chang tells me. They had just won the game. “A personality like Daniel’s can be misleading,” he adds. “He can be very calm in an earthquake and very euphoric in football. The same happens, I believe, in his commitment to work.”




Two of Alarcón’s books and several of his stories take place in an unnamed Latin American city that he describes as a version of Lima — Lima in the eighties, marred by political violence. “The news in the late 1980s and early 1990s never failed to supply a somber, cautionary anecdote starring families just like one’s own, now mired in unspeakable tragedy,” writes Alarcón in At Night We Walk in Circles. “Men and women disappeared, police were shot, the apparatus of the state teetered.” 

My classmates and I were born after the conflict, though nearly everybody in our generation has inherited a story of the war from the adults in their lives. As a teenager, if the lights went out in her neighborhood, Barrios Altos, my mother knew that the guerrillas had blown up a light tower. One of my teachers remembered that, as a child, he only understood the scale of the conflict when, upon turning on the shower, he was covered in both water and feces. 

I have no trouble recognizing the country of my parents in Alarcón’s stories. It’s a strange feeling for someone like me, who spoke only Spanish for the first half of my life and still writes almost exclusively in that language. Alarcón’s novels contain some of the best prose about Peru that I have ever read. But unlike most other descriptions of the country, his works have not come to me in my first language or in translation from it. Alarcón’s English is fluid; it belongs to him the way it belongs to a native speaker. And it’s strange, deeply strange, to read in English about a country that I can only imagine in Spanish. 

It is a curious time to read Alarcón’s fiction. Let me explain. I spent the holidays back home, in Lima, and two days before Christmas I met with Sebastián, my best friend. We had dinner and then walked around Miraflores, an upper-middle-class neighborhood nestled over a seaside cliff. Outside of its commercial center, the streets are placid and cold. Sebastián and I spent the night walking; we had met because he was migrating to Spain soon and we didn’t know when we would see each other again. 

As we walked he told me, laughing, about the time he visited some of his cousins in Italy. Their parents, like Alarcón’s, left Peru as the war started. In Italy the cousins spoke to Sebastián in a Spanish frozen in the eighties. “They called me ‘chochera,’” he said. “I was like, man! Nobody in Lima says ‘chochera’ today!”

I laughed with him. “Do you think they are Peruvian?”

“I feel more Peruvian than them,” he replied. “But I don’t know if I’ll feel like that for much longer.”

A thin, warm drizzle started to fall. I told him that I felt the gap would only widen for me too. But a country needs to be seen from many points of view, inside and out; wherever you are, that’s where you should speak from. “But then maybe I wouldn’t have said this when I was younger. When I was in high school I just wanted someone to listen to me. And sometimes I think that I only say these things, speak from where you are, because now I am the one who lives abroad. Now people can listen to me. And I need to explain why they should.”

We turned left then, through Malecón Balta, toward a red tile park at the edge of the cliff. Fifty meters under us, taxis and cars moved north to south, south to north. Beyond them was the sea. I asked Sebastián if he thought that many young people were leaving the country or trying to leave. He said yes. We walked some more. “Actually, I don’t know the numbers. Maybe everyone has always been leaving.”

A year ago, Peru endured one of the largest episodes of political violence since its civil war. More than fifty people were killed by the police during protests following Pedro Castillo’s autogolpe. The government that murdered them remains in power. Alberto Fujimori, the dictator who oversaw a series of extrajudicial killings in the nineties, was released this December from prison against the request of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. And the Peruvian economic miracle, long impervious to the country’s political crises, has ended; last year, the country faced its worst recession in two decades.

And some people, it’s true, are leaving. According to a poll published last September by the research center Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 60% of young adults say they have plans to leave the country in the next three years. Last November, Americas Quarterly reported that in 2022, close to 400,000 Peruvians left the country and did not return—a four-fold increase from the 110,185 who did so in 2021. 

One wonders if countries, like novels, have themes. It’s a strange time to read Alarcón’s fiction because the questions he asks — about violence, migration and the tension between past and present — have reemerged with unusual force in the last few years. They are the questions every young person in Peru has had to ask themselves when confronted with a country sliding, slowly, down the edge of a cliff. 

When I asked Alarcón about the current democratic crisis, he said he saw Peru’s situation as symptomatic of the current crisis of this continent. “My concern is that the democracies, the precarious democracies, of Latin America did not fulfill their promises to the middle and working class. We’re paying the price now.”

He continues, “we — ‘we’ being people who believe in democracy — and the political elites did not prove to young people that democracy was in and of itself something valuable, worth saving. And so now you have an entire region that is tilting towards populism and nihilism. It’s scary and frightening and dispiriting.” 

“But I hate opinólogos. Take this with a grain of salt.” I nod, looking at the clock — in less than a minute our conversation has to end. He’s a busy man. I stop recording and switch back to Spanish to talk about our plans for the week. I joke that I’ll spend the rest of the day thinking of how to translate ‘opinólogos’. Alarcón laughs, and then replies “pundits”—with the swiftness of a reflex, without missing a beat.