This interview with the prolific, Emmy award-winning journalist, Maria Hinojosa, explores her latest book, Once I Was You: A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America and her illustrious career that includes NPR, PBS, CNN, and Futuro Media Group. This is a book that should be included in college classrooms, as it offers not only an inspirational personal story but a timely look at immigration policies with eye-opening, behind-the-scenes views of the crucial role of media. The interview is part of a series with Latino Latinx authors.
José B. González: The background on immigration policies that your book provides is impressive, not only because it provides a context for your career but also because you weave the background into your narrative in a seamless way. The result is a powerful memoir that informs at the same time that it provides inspiration. As an experienced writer, how much of that weaving comes naturally to you?
Maria Hinojosa: To be honest with you, the weaving process was not natural to me at all. I am much more of a storyteller that goes into tangents that are based kind of in my own history. But, having to do tangents and turns left and right that took me into American history were certainly not what I was used to doing. It was one of the more difficult aspects of the book, and it’s where my great editorial team was a part of that. We had a strategy in order to achieve something that was gonna be difficult–and as a result hard for me to do–which was that we wrote out a very thorough outline, and we worked off of the outline. And the outline had the weaving built in, so we knew what we had to write in terms of the history. And I would say that this is the thing that has made the book as much of a success with readers because they’re getting a lot of spinach before they get their dessert.
José B. González: The concept of bearing witness is especially relevant to journalists, yet throughout your life, as Once I Was You illustrates, you have done so much more than that. What advice would you have to young writers who might be concerned that if you become more than a witness, you might face the threat of not being taken seriously as a journalist?
Maria Hinojosa: There is a very delicate balance that writers and journalists face in terms of our involvement. I believe very strongly that being humanly and emotionally and spiritually connected to the people that you’re writing about is actually something that exists in your toolbelt as a professional, and that you draw it, as a professional, when you need it. But, you know, we are human, and so for me increasingly, I have formed deep bonds with the people that I’m reporting about. I am aware of these bonds, I therefore acknowledge them, I speak about them, I don’t hide anything, and one thing I’m very clear about is not interfering in the story. So, as a journalist, I feel that that’s something I cannot do–interfere in a story in any way, shape, or form. The fact that I’m emotionally connected to someone who’s part of the story and that I remain connected to them I think makes me a better journalist because I mean, actually, I’m developing sources. If you look at it in the coldest way, you’re developing sources. But if you look at it in the most human way, you are allowing yourself to be not only an artist and a journalist, but also a human being–which makes you a better artist and a better journalist. I do want to acknowledge that this is challenging for younger journalists, but it is not a tactic that has only been used by people of color. White men have done this historically and have never been criticized, so we should have the capacity to be able to, you know, quote-unquote “get close” to our issues and sources if we need to.
“Nobody likes to be called a racist. Nobody likes to have to call someone a racist. But you also do a disservice when you don’t label things as what they are.”Maria Hinojosa
José B. González: In your book, you mention how George Wallace, then governor of Alabama, “never called himself a racist, but he peppered his speeches with dog whistles that appealed to white southern voters who felt that civil rights were an attack on their way of life.” Can you comment on the challenges of reporting as a journalist about racist politicians and racist policies–while expected to avoid the use of the word, “racist”?
Maria Hinojosa: This is a much broader conversation about the issue of race, racism, and being a racist, and we have to have an educated conversation that, frankly, is not led by white people, because they have as it were, “skin in the game.” So it has to be a bigger conversation among journalists about what this means, because a white, straight man is going to feel very differently about issues of race than somebody who is a black man. And so, one of the things that worries me that has happened in that during this administration, you know, it’s like the emperor has no clothes. I mean, what more do we need to see from Donald Trump in order to say that he’s not a racist? That he is, as he says, the least racist person in the room? What does that even mean? So, I think we have to be smarter than this. I think we are falling into a trap that is set by the mainstream media that has a difficulty really going that deep and peeling back the levels of structural racism that we’re talking about. I understand it’s hard, but that’s what we have to talk about. Nobody likes to do this. Nobody likes to be called a racist. Nobody likes to have to call someone a racist. But you also do a disservice when you don’t label things as what they are. And again, too often the purview has been in the hands of white men. And that’s as if we are giving men who were sexual abusers, as journalists, the last word in how to report on sexual abusers–which by the way, has happened. So, we need to be smarter than that. The conversation has got to go much deeper.
I do feel that my otherness is a superpower that I have as a journalist.Maria Hinojosa
José B. González: While growing up, you felt your family was rendered invisible. Not all writers have that experience, yet ironically, it helped provide you with fortitude and perhaps an eye for so many gut-wrenching stories that otherwise would have been ignored. Would you take that further and say that while not true of everyone, journalists who have had that experience of invisibility tend to be better in their profession?
Maria Hinojosa: I don’t want to be in a position to say that one journalist is better than the other, because I think as journalists we’re like artists. We have different strengths, you know? There’s some journalists for whom data analysis becomes really important and good and we learn a lot from that journalism, or investigative journalism, that is, looking at numbers and data or long storylines. You know, I do feel that my otherness is a superpower that I have as a journalist. I absolutely believe that, but I also believe that, you know, you can try to do this, right? I mean, I try to put myself in the shoes of everybody who I’m interviewing–that is part of my job, that’s what I see is part of my job. So I think it’s possible, a stellar journalist who comes from a place of privilege. That privilege often affords you access to privilege. But I do think that we should be celebrating the capacity of other journalists who do not have privilege, and recognize that their otherness is in fact what gives them, in my view, a superpower.
José B. González: Whether at CNN or NPR, there have been times that you not only felt alone, but were alone. Is it fair to say that one of the goals of your book was to help ensure that any readers who have had that sense of solitude find that they are not alone and that they can be successful?
Maria Hinojosa: I absolutely want to make sure that people understand these sentiments of feeling very lonely in the world of journalism or as a writer the Impostor Syndrome–this notion of not feeling good enough or fitting in. You know, I found it very interesting that people are like, “well, why would you reveal that about yourself when you’re so successful?” and I guess I just feel like that’s part of my responsibility to reveal that I have struggled and I continue to struggle. You don’t get to a Nirvana, and I have learned that by asking this question of many very successful people. I mean, Rita Moreno, who has an EGOT plus a Peabody, you know, when I asked her if she still gets nervous in her eighties she was like, “Of course!” So you realize that this kind of Imposter Syndrome, otherness, it can take us down. It is the dangerous thing that can destroy us and take us down, but it is also something that can be a strength when you recognize the privilege that you have, and so I’m very much about recognizing this and discussing it and making sure that people understand that if you find that loneliness in one sector of your professional life, you know, you’ve got to match it by finding family or friends or meditation or something, because we need you in this profession. I mean, that’s the bottom line. We need you in this profession.
José B. González: In describing yourself in New York in the early 80s, you say you were, “Pan-Latin American, feminist, artist, political activist, radio show host, influencer, community creator, intellectual but also anti-intellectual.” After readers complete your book, which, if any of those words would you want them to use to describe you?
Maria Hinojosa: They can use all of those terms, except for political activist. I was an activist. I know what it takes, it takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of meetings. It takes a lot of strategy. It takes a lot of planning. It takes a lot of intentionality. I’m very intentional in my work as a journalist, so I’m not a political activist, I’m a political commentator. I’m a political nerd, I’m a democracy junkie obsessed with politics, but not from an activist perspective. Rather, somebody who is a public figure and a journalist who covers politics because it matters to people of color, because when we’re talking about policies, were talking about our lives. So I love all of those terms, but now at my age, I have so many more that I can add. You know; long-time wife, mother of adult children–mother of of adults, dog-owner, plant lover, succulent-ologist, boxer, runner, spiritual goddess in search of other spiritual goddesses, indigenous, Spanish, Harlemite, New Yorker, Survivor of COVID in the pandemic, and a friend of mine labeled me queen of never giving up.
As the Anchor and Executive Producer of the Peabody Award-winning show Latino USA, as well as Co-Host, with Julio Varela, of In The Thick, the Futuro Media’s new political podcast, Maria Hinojosa has informed millions about the changing cultural and political landscape in America and abroad. Hinojosa is also Anchor and Executive Producer of the PBS show America By The Numbers, the first national television series to examine our country’s dramatic demographic shifts, and Humanizing America, a digital video series that deconstructs stereotypes about the American electorate. She is also a new contributor to the long-running, award-winning news program CBS Sunday Morning and a frequent guest on MSNBC.
Hinojosa’s nearly 30-year career as an award-winning journalist includes reporting for PBS, CBS, WNBC, CNN, NPR, and anchoring the Emmy Award winning talk show Maria Hinojosa: One-on-One. She is the author of two books and has won dozens of awards, including: four Emmys, the John Chancellor Award, the Studs Terkel Community Media Award, two Robert F. Kennedy Awards, the Edward R. Murrow Award, and the Ruben Salazar Lifetime Achievement Award. Hinojosa was the first Latina to anchor a PBS FRONTLINE report: “Lost in Detention” which aired in October 2011 and explored abuse at immigrant detention facilities, garnering attention from Capitol Hill as well as both the mainstream and Spanish-language media.