our words make worlds

BBC Mundo: Reporting on the Latin American World from London

Written by Natalia Davies

BBC Mundo was set up in 1938, in an expansion of the service to challenge European forms of fascism and project political views maintained by the British in the years preceding the Second World War. Today, it is a branch of the BBC World Service, yet BBC Mundo operates with a high degree of independence. The fact that Spanish is so widely spoken allows for BBC Mundo to have its own global outlook, which is culturally different to the umbrella BBC World Service, whose ties to British history derive more broadly from the history of the Commonwealth.

At the heart of the BBC's 'Core Values' are 'independence, impartiality, honesty, creativity and audiences'. Up until 1999, BBC Mundo was purely a radio service. The radio voice of the BBC World Service is traditionally British, imbuing 'impartiality' with a sense of British identity, observant of cultures that come into contact with the service. In 1999, the BBC Mundo website was set up as a forum for debate. Online debate provides a form of impartiality that lacks voice and cultural connotations this medium carries. Welsch articulated this in 1995, stating that 'the global networking of communications technology makes all kinds of information identically available from every point in space’.[1] The digital space is thus devoid of the power structures present in radio. Journalism has changed with technological developments and has now become a feed of constant almost real-time updates, which arguably transforms the media into a service of entertainment above investigative journalism. BBC Mundo is set apart from mainstream media in that it still possesses a high degree of investigative journalism, with articles reflective of how the past relates to the present, in particular in assessing how modern Latin America is constantly in a process of redefinition, through culture as well as political news.

All of the journalists at BBC Mundo have personal ties to Latin American countries; however, the headquarters are in London and Miami. In the BBC London headquarters, BBC Mundo shares it floor with the branches of the BBC World Service, on the fifth floor. The movement of journalists to London to seek journalism work on Latin America highlights how a British place, whether cultural or purely physical, still grounds the organisation. In 2005, the BBC Latin American Service acquired its current name, BBC Mundo. The transition from an English name to a Spanish one underlines the shift of ownership from the greater umbrella service of the BBC to an entity that possesses its own branch, with a unifying language apart from English. Parallel to this, BBC Mundo has re-centred its ideological focus from a form of media that serves audiences, to a form of media that engages with audiences. BBC Mundo channels the BBC’s core values of creativity, audiences and independence.  In abandoning the notion of an Anglo-centric authority via its renaming, this highlights the relativity of impartiality (a core value of the BBC) and instead embraces ownership of a diverse set of cultures which make up the Spanish speaking world. 

Distinguishing BBC Mundo from other Latin American news outlets is its emphasis on contextualisation and the cultural adaptation of news stories. A journalist at BBC Mundo who we interviewed at the London headquarters explained how articles are adapted to meet the horizon of expectations of readers in Latin America. Journalists at BBC Mundo are very conscious of this varied horizon of expectations, as the Spanish language is so varied across different countries in Latin American. In interviews we conducted, journalists at the organisation revealed that word selection is a constant process of judgement within the team. If there are various words to signify the same thing, the journalists choose the word that would have the widest recognition, which in case of BBC Mundo’s audience density, is usually Mexico. In some cases, journalists include more than one version of the word to engage with broader audiences. There is a style guide to consult how to make selections of the Spanish language, however team negotiation is often a go-to solution to make the most apt choice. 

In recent years, journalists at BBC Mundo have developed an interest in creating platforms for exhibition and debate on the Latin American literary 'Hay Festival', held in Querétaro, Mexico. The journalists explore how languages, and specific words, have travelled in and out of popular spheres of knowledge. Digital media can preserve and revive cultures or words from the past. BBC Mundo’s work in collaboration with Hay Festival shows an intense interest on reporting on Latin American culture through the lens of language and world making, in that journalists’ reports on language across time reveal a geospatial formation of identity across the continent. In this sense, journalists at BBC Mundo are successful in capturing a form of journalism that is ‘outside of the informational’.[2] Journalists at the organisation preserve a sense of ideology and methodology when consulting news stories, are critical of implicit power structures, rather simply providing a live news feed as has become more usual in news platforms today.

In an article from 2016, a BBC Mundo journalist explores the changes in the uses of ‘tú’ and ‘usted’ over time in Spanish speaking regions.  The writer explains how the Spanish language extended through Latin America since the conquest 500 years ago. The author writes, ‘la culpa la tiene España’ (‘Spain is to blame’).[3] This reveals a perspective in which the origins of the Spanish language are attributed to the European nation-state. However, as the writer acknowledges, transcultural agents- individuals at the meeting points of language and culture- have shaped the language to reveal its differences across different countries today, even if it did have a more singular origin attributable to a nation. This investigation underlines a move away from addressing politics and culture through the lens of the nation, but rather via the perspective of language, which has shaped, underwritten and transcended the politics of nation making.

On articles in collaboration with Hay Festival Querétaro 2015 and 2017, articles on Mexico range from how the world of narcotrafficking has shaped the language of the country, to ten ways of saying ‘I love you’, to how a sexual dictionary was created to improve the sexual health of Zapoteca communities.[4] Journalists therefore explore how language can be political in that it can be an intimate code but also a means of education, and a means of normalising political violence as with narcotrafficking in Mexico.[5] In the article on Mexico, the journalist explores how the language has entered the popular consciousness, the media and also academic institutions. In this way, the journalist is engaging with the channel of media as a means to inform and engage audiences, and to pursue the core value of impartiality in a way that subverts the political norms that have been created within a country. This shows how journalists at BBC Mundo seek to serve the interests of audiences. Indeed, the Journalist quotes a linguist and academic working on this new Spanish Dictionary of Mexico, who commented: “The rapid growth of drug addiction in Mexico has produced a new vocabulary of crime and it is our obligation is to include it” (in translation).[6] Therefore, the journalist is engaging the readers to question the role of language making, rather than solely reporting on a clearly visible political event. Thus, journalists at BBC Mundo pursue a form of reporting that is “outside” of the informational and transcends the “vitalization of power” which is often consolidated through live news reports often normalising hegemonic forms of politics and violence.[7] As Assmann posits, all news stories are inherently political in their selection and representation by journalists; journalists at BBC Mundo are successful in interpreting the ideal of impartial journalism to report political structures through an analysis of language and longer-term political processes taking place in a country like Mexico. [8] Assmann also suggests that ‘dialogic memory’ might be possible through incorporating the voices of victims into national histories.[9] The changing language of Mexican narcotrafficking is a lucid example of how BBC Mundo Journalists posit how language is a political and cultural force, and moreover a selection process of voices to include.

The interest of BBC Mundo in local and transcultural dictionaries reveals a deep commitment to revealing the diversity of the Spanish language. These articles in collaboration with Hay Festival show a reconsideration of language through the local cultures which use it, and the meeting point between these localised ways of viewing the world and Westernised interventions of language in order to improve sexual health and educate. Another BBC Mundo article shows how linguists created the ‘Palabras Íntimas o Diidx xgáatz en zapoteco’, a dictionary to improve the knowledge of Zapoteca community on topics of sexual health. This dictionary improves understanding of the body and reproductive organs, to help preventative measures for illnesses, and also to demystify cultural taboos surrounding a woman’s body. This work can be considered transcultural in that it inscribes the concept of female sexual organs into Zapoteca language, through anatomical illustrations. The definitions for such terms are based in Zapoteca ideologies, for example the womb is described as “the baby’s house” and ovaries are defined as “where the woman’s seed is born”.[10] Journalists at BBC Mundo are further reinterpret the BBC’s Core Values of impartiality, in that they do not attempt to pursue one impartial language, but rather are conscience of language choices, through the language of the articles or through topic selection for reports.

From interviewing Journalists at BBC Mundo at the London headquarters, we discovered that there is a correlation between the words they discover through their work and the revision of Spanish dictionaries. The style manual at BBC Mundo is constantly changing, to specify:

“… Before we addressed people with ‘usted’, and now we use ‘tú’. There are some words that we used before and just don’t anymore. Beforehand, the Real Academia was the main source of authority, but we’ve started to realise that it’s first and foremost a Spanish institution, and doesn’t accept many terms that we use in Latin America. Now we use Fundéu more, as it’s more open” (in translation). Words come to light at BBC Mundo, as they increasingly interact with audiences through social media and comments left on the webpage. There is a fluid relationship between readers, writers and linguistic authorities such as the RAE, or more pertinently, Fundéu.

At the heart of the BBC’s Core Values are independence, impartiality, honesty, creativity and audiences; the values of BBC Mundo have been shaped by the Latin American journalists who make up the service and who have migrated to Miami or London. Not only has the service replanted the BBC’s core values in a purely digital space, but also in a space where its creative team report on Latin America through a reflective perspective, rather than an imperial voice coming into contact with another continent for the purpose of political or ideological communication. We might question whether language is inherently cultural, political and contextual. The journalists at BBC Mundo are not afraid to explore these implications of language. In placing the BBC’s core values at the centre of a service open to re-interpreting the impact of colonial histories and identities within the modern world of Latin America, a diversity of voices emerge. Writers at BBC Mundo are in dialogue with their readers, offering a fluid window of interaction, and a transcultural meeting point for reporting on worldviews that are made and understood via diversity of audiences who use BBC Mundo.

Quotes to include on the web portal, from our interviews in London at the BBC (in translation):

  •     “At BBC Mundo I find a lot of words… perhaps something which I’ve heard somewhere…It’s part of the richness of language. Sometimes people write to us saying the words we use are strange, yet of course, they may be strange for some people but not for others. There’s something lucid and wonderful about that. They’re trivial debates, but they remind you that when you choose one word, you leave behind another.”

  •    “The more you know your audience, the more you respect them, and the more you realise that people have a greater appetite for learning than you might assume…People want to understand the world”.

  •     “It is important to us that we use a sort of Latin American Spanish, this is what we choose to use, not the pure Castilian of Spain.”

  •    “I find the possibility of listening to audiences really interesting. Before, with printed newspapers, the only numbers available were how many papers sold each day, but not how many articles were read. Now we have the possibility of understanding better our audiences, although at the end of day journalism is still communication. It is still about the way we communicate, not just what there is to tell.”

  • “When working with so many people from Latin America, you realise there are many things that unite us, but also so little that we know about one another or our different countries. To take advantage of this and to make it a window into the world for readers is what we want to do, so that Latin American countries know more about one another and become more interested in the region.”



Assmann, A., ‘Transnational Memories’, European Review: 2014, (22. 4, 546-556)

Hajek A., Lohmeier C., and Pentzold C., (Eds.), Memory in a Mediated World: Remembrance and Reconstruction, (UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)

Welsch, W.,  ‘Transcultural Place: the Puzzling Form of Cultures Today: City, Nation, World’ (1995), in Featherstone M., and Lash Scott.,  Spaces of Culture: City, Nation, World (London: Sage, 1999)

BBC Mundo web-page, ¿Por qué algunos países de América Latina usan el 'vos' en vez del 'tú'?, 30 August 2016 (Accessed 23 June 2018)

BBC Mundo web-page, 6 September 2017, Tacha", "buchón", "encobijado": cómo el mundo de los narcos se ha infiltrado en el español de México (Accessed 23 June 2018)

BBC Mundo web-page, 12 June 2015, El diccionario sexual que fue necesario escribir para los zapotecas en México, (Accessed 23 June 2018)

[1] Welsch, W.,  ‘Transcultural Place: the Puzzling Form of Cultures Today: City, Nation, World’ (1995), in Featherstone M., and Lash Scott.,  Spaces of Culture: City, Nation, World (London: Sage, 1999).

[2] Hajek A., Lohmeier C., and Pentzold C., (Eds.), Memory in a Mediated World: Remembrance and Reconstruction, (UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

[3] BBC Mundo web-page, ¿Por qué algunos países de América Latina usan el 'vos' en vez del 'tú'?, 30 August 2016 (Accessed 23 June 2018).


[4] BBC Mundo web-page, 6 September 2017, Tacha", "buchón", "encobijado": cómo el mundo de los narcos se ha infiltrado en el español de México; BBC Mundo web page, 12 June 2015, El diccionario sexual que fue necesario escribir para los zapotecas en México, (both accessed 23 June 2018).

[5] BBC Mundo, "buchón", "encobijado": cómo el mundo de los narcos se ha infiltrado en el español de México.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Hajek and Pentzold, Memory in a Mediated World.

[8] Assmann, A., ‘Transnational Memories’, European Review: 2014, (22. 4, 546-556), 547.

[9] Assmann, ‘Transnational Memories’, 553.

[10] BBC Mundo web page, El diccionario sexual que fue necesario escribir para los zapotecas en México.  

 Read the commented bibliography for this project here