Brenda Illescas’ passion for radio and her Guatemalan heritage

In honor of Latinx Heritage Month, we’re featuring interviews with and profiles of members of our Latinx community. For this interview, we caught up with Brenda Illescas, a senior associate and data analyst in Development & Alumni Relations at Haas.

Brenda Illescas at KPFA doing her radio showOn most Tuesday evenings, you’ll find Brenda Illescas at the microphone at KPFA’s Berkeley studio, co-hosting a weekly radio show called “La Raza Chronicles/Cronicas de la Raza.”

Illescas focuses on public affairs in the Bay Area Latinx community and beyond, sharing music between interviews, too. “We interview all types of people—poets, painters, activists, community organizers, and musicians, and promote events happening in the Bay Area,” says Illescas, whose parents were born in Guatemala, and raised her in Los Angeles.

Illescas, who has been on-air at KPFA for more than four years, got involved because a friend of a friend was searching for a co-host, and she’d wanted to return to radio since her college days.

We asked Illescas about her radio show, her family’s history in Guatemala, and her passion for music.

How did you get involved with radio shows for the Latinx community?

I started doing radio shows as an undergrad at KDVS, the UC Davis campus station.  My show was called Sin Fronteras Without Borders, and aired weekly for over five years.  I played music and interviewed bands and musicians across the Latinx diaspora . My husband and I met at the station when we were both juniors and immediately connected over our passion for music of all genres. Our vinyl collection consists mostly of Latin, African, jazz, soul, electronic, and hip hop.  Together we have about 1,500 records and always jump at an opportunity to dig for more.

Brenda Illescas with her husband and daughter
Brenda, a senior associate and data analyst in Development & Alumni Relations at Haas, with her husband, Dave Severy, and daughter, Camila.

Tell us a bit about your Latinx heritage?

Both my parents were born in Guatemala on opposite sides of the country. When my mom was in her teens, she worked in my grandmother’s tortilla shop in Guatemala City, where she met my dad. He was serving in the military, and would regularly come into the store not just to eat, but to see my mom. As the violence of the civil war escalated in the 80s, they decided to leave everything behind in search of a better life. They migrated to America, settling in Los Angeles, and started their family. My grandparents were all born in Guatemala, and some of my great-grandparents were born in Spain, which is the origin of my last names, Illescas, and Aragon. I still have immediate and extended family who live in Guatemala. I love to visit my parents’ homeland, seeing all the places they grew up going to, and eating all the yummy dishes from my culture.

Brenda at age two with her parents.
Two-year-old Brenda, who grew up in LA, at a house party with her parents, Luis Illescas and Ana Barrios.

How do you believe that your heritage shapes your cultural values?

My cultural values stem from my family being really close. Family comes first, period. Pretty much all of my aunts and uncles moved to LA and had kids, so I have over 30 immediate cousins and many more second cousins. My parents were the first among their siblings to buy a house, so we always hosted everyone for the holidays and cooked lots of food together. I also spent lots of weekends going to birthdays, baptisms, quinceañeras, weddings, graduations, and other reunions.  My parents still visit their extended families in Guatemala once a year, and have instilled in me the importance of staying connected to family.

Brenda with her husband and son at the beach.
Brenda (holding two-year-old Camila) met her husband, Dave Severy, at their college radio station at UC Davis.

Is there an aspect of your cultural heritage that you enjoy sharing with others?

People know that I love anything related to food…talking, eating, cooking, etc. My mom is known as the best cook in our extended family. She can cook anything. She loves cooking for anyone who comes to our house—she’s one of those moms who keeps feeding you and feeding you even when you’re full. You just can’t get enough of her food. I remember my friends in middle school would make requests for my mom’s sandwiches every week.

Also music! We would always play music, dance, and sing at parties. My family really encouraged me to listen to their records and CDs, and fostered my passion for seeing live music and hosting radio shows. One of my favorite photos was when I was two years old playing with my dad’s old record player and his 1960s/70s rock and oldies collection. LA is such a nexus for Latinx music and culture, and I was fortunate to be exposed to so much of it growing up and still today when I visit.

Brenda as a baby playing some tunes on her parents' stereo
Brenda at age three in her parents’ LA apartment, where she loved playing oldies and rock albums on her dad’s record player.