In the 1980s, his bare feet took him through the dirt roads of Guatemala, climbing up the mango trees of Boca del Monte, walking to school, playing fútbol in makeshift fields.
“Now it hurts,” joked Oscar Contreras, 37.
The years have caught up to him since migrating to the U.S. at age 12, where he reunited with his father, helped his parents navigate a country whose language they didn’t speak and became the voice behind Radio Poder. In 2020, Contreras marks 13 years at the Spanish-language Christian radio station that unites the Richmond region's fast-growing Latino community and connects listeners to resources.
On Radio Poder (WBTK 1380 AM), Contreras draws on his early days in Culpeper – when the language barriers meant the school bell would ring and he’d be lost in the hallways, how the teacher would speak and he couldn’t understand what was being taught, how there were days he and his sister would get on the bus and cry the whole way home.
His mother got him through, Contreras said. She was someone who helped people – a fixer whom neighbors came to with problems, knowing she’d fight for them.
Her son has lived his life doing the same.
“I see so many broken families because of immigration. Marriages that just don’t survive. Kids that can’t deal with all the trauma and the pain,” Contreras said. “I’m extremely blessed that my father waited and fought for us.”
On Radio Poder, his community programs feature government officials, health workers, lawyers, advocates on the ground and others to share information in Spanish. Topics range from government ordinances, health insurance, immigration and events to nearby churches, flu vaccines and, in 2020, the pandemic.
Since COVID-19 arrived in March, Contreras has worked to counteract misinformation and mitigate inequities faced by Spanish-speaking communities. He shares pandemic news each morning, telling families where to get tested, how they can prevent infection and whom to turn to if they get sick.
His commitment to community took hold in Culpeper, where he first confronted the issues that immigrant communities navigate: immigration policies, insurance access, language barriers, isolation and more. Contreras established a Hispanic Resource Center, passed out flyers – with his contact information – in places frequented by Hispanics in the area and created one of the first Latino festivals in Culpeper, which is in its 17th year.
At the center of it all has been his faith – a foundation the Latino community continually turns to – and the relationships he has built.
In the years he has known Tanya Gonzalez, the executive director of Sacred Heart Center – a hub for Richmond’s Latino community - Contreras has stepped up anytime Gonzalez has needed help, she said, whether as an emcee for events, a participant in her dancing groups, a photographer (his major at Virginia Commonwealth University) or simply as a friend.
The community also knows Contreras as the church deacon who has worked to feed people experiencing homelessness. He's the father who helped his son start a club at school to aid kids with homework. He's the man who works to find a solution for any problem brought to his attention.
“Thanks to Oscar, this radio station is what it is,” said Arlene Guzman, a fellow Radio Poder voice who has worked with Contreras for more than a decade. “He’s not in this for himself. He’s in this for this community. ... It’s like the less you center him, the better it is for him.”
Nearly every morning Contreras is on air, wife Rachel and their kids – two boys and two girls ranging from 4 to 11 years old – will listen in.
“My little one – he’s 4 – will go, 'Hey Mami, tell Papi to put on this song,' " Rachel said. "And I’ll be like, 'He doesn’t control every radio station!' "
They still ask. To them, he’s famous.
IN HIS WORDS: OSCAR CONTRERAS
host, Radio Poder (1380 AM)
Hometowns: Boca del Monte (in Guatemala) and Culpeper
Family: wife Rachel, four children
Tell us about an object you own that has great sentimental value.
On Oct. 31, 1995, my mom, my two older sisters and I were heading to Guatemala's international airport to fly to the USA. I was 12 years old. I had on khaki pants and a blue-jean button-up shirt with a blue and white pattern.
I knew this trip was going to happen since I was 5. We would be greeted by my older brother, who had arrived a few months earlier, and my dad, who had been in the country since 1986.
We left everything we knew in Guatemala to be together as a family after a decade of separation. It was my first time on a plane. I had been to the airport to pick up my dad or drop him off when he would visit us every six months or so. Now he and my brother would be waiting for us at Washington Dulles International Airport.
So many memories of that day, now 25 years ago. Different sights, smells, feelings. It was a whole different world.
I am so glad I kept that shirt all these years. I looked pretty good in it, and I would still wear it if I could. Now my 10-year-old son can wear that shirt. It reminds me of that 12-year-old Oscar and his innocence, not having a clue what that trip really meant for his future.
What is something about you that might surprise others?
Since 2007, I have been the main voice of Radio Poder. I have interviewed hundreds of people from many backgrounds, recorded thousands of commercials, come up with many advertising campaigns and produced radio programming. I even created a character for a children's show and have done so many more things that come with the job.
But before 2007, I had never thought about working in radio. I had no idea how radio worked.
In the beginning, I made so many mistakes. People used to call me and point out that I wasn't professional. They were right: I screamed into the mic, my headset was too loud, I hurt my voice and ears, and my self-esteem took a hit.
Time has passed, and I have learned radio – at least Radio Poder. People still call me once in a while to let me know I said the wrong day or told the wrong time. I haven’t stopped making mistakes, but now I go back on air, correct myself, laugh, thank my audience and move on.
Describe a small moment in your life that has had a lasting impact on you.
I was rejected the first time I applied to VCUarts. This gave me the opportunity to go to Germanna Community College close to home and stay in Culpeper with my parents.
At that time, a wonderful teacher from middle school also worked with the Department of Social Services and encouraged me to become an AmeriCorps volunteer with DSS. I was placed in a one-stop center where we helped people navigate county resources.
From there I learned that service to others is a part of who I am. I said yes in that moment to something I wasn't sure I understood, but I trusted the people who cared about me. AmeriCorps opened a door to a path of service, which I enjoy so much.
If you had to pick a different profession, what would you choose?
As a kid, I dreamed of becoming a professional photographer.
I have some very bad photos I took with a 110 film camera at one of my sister's quinceañeras. In middle school and high school, I was a yearbook photographer. That is where I worked in the darkroom and experienced the magic of drawing with light.
In 2004, I came to Richmond to pursue the dream through a degree in photography and film from Virginia Commonwealth University. In 2008, I graduated as a photographer working in radio! As the saying goes, I did not choose radio – it chose me.
Although I have been able to work as a newspaper and event photographer, radio has been my profession for almost 15 years, and I enjoy it so much.
As Ephesians 2:10 says: "For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." It is an adventure to know that God has a plan for you, and it is always better than your own. I chose photography, and it brought me to Richmond – where I found his plan for me in radio.
If you could spend a day with a historical or fictional character, who would it be?
The 1800s was such a significant part of U.S. history, and Richmond was at the center of it. The city played a major part in the nation's slave trade, and some years ago, I had the opportunity to walk a section of the Richmond Slave Trail. The experience made me aware of how that time in our history has shaped our interpersonal experiences and interactions today.
The Civil War is felt today as monuments come down and marches go on in the streets. There are so many incomplete narratives from those days that it would be insightful to spend a day with someone who lived through most of that era. As a recent immigrant, it would give me a better understanding of the ramifications that have carried into the present day.
Mary Hardway Walker lived from 1849 to 1969. She was born into slavery in Alabama. She lived through the Spanish flu, the Great Depression, the civil rights movement, the world wars and so much more. She is better known as the oldest student in the U.S. – she learned to read and write at the age of 116.
It would be nice to hear how she processed all of the things going on around her and in her own life. She was someone who, despite all she experienced, still had the spirit to learn new things and inspire others. We could all learn how to deal better with today.
Tell us about a setback or disappointment and what you learned from it.
Marriage was a great disappointment – but not for the reason you may think.
After three months of dating, I was ready to be with Rachel for the rest of my life. I had found my wife! I thought that was going to make me complete and fulfilled.
It didn’t. It didn’t because I hadn’t completely divorced myself from all the Hollywood ideas of love. I was basing my expectations on feelings. And my expectations – to make each other feel happy and loved all the time – were not only high but unrealistic. To love and be loved is without a doubt one of our greatest needs. The problem is that most of us don’t know what love is and what it looks like.
1 Corinthians 13:4-8 tells me love is more than a feeling: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
Love is a decision. We have to decide to put love into practice. Feelings come and go, and many times they will disappoint. Now with a better understanding of what love is, I can enjoy all of the experiences that marriage brings. What disappoints us is what we hold to be true when it is based on half-truths or lies. Marriage truly is a blessing!
Who is your role model?
I admire many people for different reasons. I had some time to think on this, and the Apostle Paul came to mind. He said: "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ."
Each of us is so flawed and, most of the time, selfish and self-centered. Paul knew this, and he encouraged others to follow Christ. He also said to the Galatians: "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:20).
It is so hard to die to yourself, but Paul, by doing so, found the peace, joy and security for which all of us yearn. He was able to state: "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through Him who gives me strength" (Philippians 4:12-13).
I like that! I want to live for Christ as well.
Share a personal reflection on how the pandemic has affected you.
My wife, our four children and I have been safe from the virus, but others around us have not. My brother-in-law's father died from COVID-19 in Mexico. Many of our church families have had the virus, and some members have been hospitalized.
The first case of COVID that I knew personally was my co-worker from our sister radio station. He was in the hospital for months. At the station, I hear so many stories of loss and people making difficult decisions during the pandemic.
This is one of those times in history that will impact us for generations. Trials can build our character and make us stronger and more compassionate. Moments that force us to stop and think about how we are using our short time in this world are, for many, a saving grace. Our priorities have been questioned and hopefully reordered as we realize what is truly important.
John 16:33 says: "I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
The government has no solution. The scientists have no immediate answer. Our systems in the world have little to offer during times like these. Philippians 4:6-7 says: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
I don't know – and no one knows – what will happen next. Tribulations are a part of this world, but we can give God our anxiety in exchange for his peace.