‘Once I Was You,’ a conversation with Latina trailblazer Maria Hinojosa
The Emmy-winning journalist spoke with AL DÍA about the journey behind her memoir and a number of issues surrounding the U.S. Latino community today.
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Pulitzer winner, and pioneering Latina Journalist Maria Hinojosa is a role model for anyone trying to carve out a career in media, but more so for Latino youth all over the U.S. Millions of them are currently in the same circumstances she once was as a Mexican-American who immigrated to the U.S. with her parents and siblings.
Hinojosa channeled it and became one of the most successful and leading Latina journalists in the news business at a time when that was unheard of.
Hence the title of her memoir, Once I Was You, which was recently adapted for young readers. It’s the story of her life, family, and early career, where she, like the rest of us had to do at a young age, figured out her voice, her role, and purpose in life.
In a phone conversation with AL DÍA, Hinojosa spoke more in depth about the stories inside the book, as well as the current state of the Latino community in the U.S.
Latinos are known for their large extended families, where it is normal to grow up with not only their immediate family, but their tias (aunts), tios (uncles), and primas (cousins) as well. That experience is what informed Hinojosa when she became the first Latina to found a national independent nonprofit newsroom in the U.S., called Futuro Media. It’s existed for more than a decade now, and when you look at her company, it resembles a huge Latino family.
She said that strong family dynamic informed how she approached her professional life and career, and said she always knew that she wanted to have colleagues where deep respect for each other existed without fear of one another while adding healthy competition to the mix.
“What we've had to understand is that we want our company to feel like a family, but we want to be very clear we're actually colleagues,” said Hinojosa. “That adds an added element to it I really appreciate. We were very intentional about that. I do feel making people feel at home is a part of the Latino/Latina culture.”
In its early days, many saw the fledgling news org as a major risk set up to only last three or five years. Now, Futuro is going on 11 years and Latino USA — her flagship podcast that started on NPR — is going on more than 30 years. In many ways, Futuro and Latino USA’s staying power is a testament to Latino power across the country. For Hinojosa, it has roots in lines that pay homage to Lin Manuel Miranda, writer of In the Heights and Hamilton: “Immigrants, they get the job done.”
“This notion of retiring even for my father was foreign. I am on a mission. and it is tied to helping this country to be the great democracy that it says it is. I have every intention to keep on working, and I'm inspired by people who had nothing but dreams. I want to make sure that this democracy grows and thrives. Given that Latinos and Latinas are the youngest, and fastest growing demographic group in the country. We need to be 100% connected to democracy,” Hinojosa said.
A U.S. shift on the world stage
In Once I Was You, Hinojosa writes of her father’s initial hesitancy to leave his homeland after being offered and later accepting a researcher position at the University of Chicago and accomplish his dream of giving hearing back to the deaf. While many Latinos across the America’s have come to the states in hopes of a better life, Hinojosa was asked if the U.S. still has that allure or if it has lost its flair in recent times. She said it’s much more of a mixed bag these days.
“People are much clearer that the U.S. is not necessarily a Mecca, that it's a country that, at times, appears like it has no heart,” said Hinojosa. “The U.S. has had a long history of being involved in Latin America, and oftentimes not for the good. On the other hand, for many people in Latin America, the U.S. still represents that possibility of hope, and having a dream. That's what keeps this country alive is those new immigrants, new arrivals who come here.”
Introduction to media in its many forms
When it comes to the news industry, one of Hinojosa’s first introductions came when she and her mother first heard the news of the assassination of former President John F. Kennedy from famous anchor Walter Cronkite. It was the first time she witnessed a journalist tell world-altering news, and it helped her see the power of the profession.
Cronkite was long considered the standard bearer for his neutral style of telling the news, but for Hinojosa, it was still biased in its own way, much like many consider the news industry today.
“There were only men telling the news,” said Hinojosa of the time. “Right now, the U.S. news media is in a fight for their lives. The country didn't understand how important independent journalism is and was. We took it for granted. You now have an active part of society that is trying to discredit all journalists. I don't think there's a problem of too much media but rather that it's not representative enough.”
Beyond JFK’s assassination, Hinojosa also experienced her own share of major world-shaping events and dark times that came with the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War.
Her older sister and even mother were politically active at the time, and were the ones to take Hinojosa to her first political rally. There, she saw what the youth at the time were willing to fight and even die for in some unfortunate cases. It’s similar to what she sees of youth today fighting for equality.
“I feel it’s a similar time. There's a tremendous amount of activism. We're living through a strange time where we're just trying to understand how to manage a pandemic that is still here,” said Hinojosa. “That has everything to do with what happened in terms of the activism, but I still hold on to the hope of activism as part of what can save this country and its democracy.”
Beyond Cronkite, Hinojosa also watched 60 Minutes and CBS Sunday Morning as if it were church alongside her family. The work also inspired her own career in the field.
“You never know when something you do as a kid, because it’s fun or you find it interesting, will plant the seed for what you’re going to do when you grow up,” she said.
That same approach is what she tells every young person she encounters when offering career advice.
“The answer is to trust your gut and that all of us know what happens when you get really quiet, and you listen to your inner voice,” said Hinojosa. “It's about trusting what you're hearing from your inner voice and giving yourself the time and the patience to develop and listen to that voice.”
Latino political power in 2022
That can be hard given the political climate the U.S. currently experiencing, but it’s one Latinos will continue to play a bigger role.
With the upcoming midterm elections, the Latino community seems to be the key swing demographic. The community has come to the point where they now hold the fate of the country’s political trajectory in its hands. Hinojosa said she was proud of how far the Latino community has come since she was a young girl.
“I always knew that this was going to happen. The demographics were right in front of us,” said Hinojosa. “I think the question now is, ‘What kind of voter will make Latinas and Latinos be? How do they see themselves in the American political system? What do they see that they can add?’”
Addressing Latino anti-Blackness
But with the good of having more political power also comes the bad, like the racist scandal to rock Los Angeles Council in the previous month. The leaked recording of a closed-door redistricting hearing put Latino racism on display for the whole country, and accountability demands that continue to this day.
Hinojosa’s reaction was comparable to many major Latino figures, who condemned the statements from Council President Nury Martínez.
“That was definitely a low point for Latino politics, period. I'm disgusted and I'm horrified. But it doesn't surprise me. I'm not surprised by deep racism, anti-Blackness, and anti-indigeneity in the Latino community,” she said.
But also like others AL DÍA has interviewed about the scandal, the moment was one Hinojosa said the Latino community can use to finally address the long-overlooked issue of anti-Blackness among Latinos.
“I think that those of us who are part of this community absolutely understand that it's a moment to dive deeper into and to have more conversations,” she said. “I'm seeing it as an opportunity, but it is absolutely a low point. It's not entirely new. It's happened in the past. We have to address it.”
Hinojosa’s adapted memoir for young readers, Once I Was You, is available anywhere books are sold, and is also available in audiobook form on Audible.