Tell Me Your Story

An interview with Maria Hinojosa
Maria Hinojosa (Kevin Abosch)

Maria Hinojosa’s nearly thirty-year career as a journalist includes reporting for PBS, CNN, and NPR, as well as anchoring and producing the Peabody Award–winning radio program Latino USA. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC, and has won several awards, including four Emmys and the Edward R. Murrow Award from the Overseas Press Club. In 2010, she founded Futuro Media, an independent nonprofit whose multimedia content provides a platform for people often overlooked by mainstream journalism. Hinojosa spoke with assistant editor Regina Munch about her career in media, her recent memoir, Once I Was You, and her work informing readers and listeners about the changing cultural and political landscape in America. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. You can listen to the full episode here:

Regina Munch: You begin your memoir with the story of your encounter with a group of children who were being held in immigration detention in Texas. Could you tell us about it?

Maria Hinojosa: When I was writing the book, I called on the words of my mentor Sandra Cisneros. She said that you don’t always have to write about what you remember. You can write about what you’ve forgotten, or things that are so ugly that you want to forget them. This was a scene that came to mind: the trafficking of children.

I encountered this group of kids in the McAllen airport at 7 a.m., and they’re all wearing these really ill-fitting sweatsuits. Kids in an airport are usually happy and bouncing around, but these kids were numb. I had a moment to speak with one of these children, whom the previous president had labeled a threat to this country.

When I cover stories, I want to see people’s humanity. As an immigrant growing up in this country, I wanted people to see my humanity and I was taught to see other people’s humanity. This was an important tool to me as a journalist. If you give humanity, you’re going to get humanity back, and I think that makes for better journalism.

RM: In your memoir you write, “To me being a reporter meant seeing the humanity in everyone, especially people who are perceived as invisible, and then making it hyper-visible to others.”

MH: When you grow up feeling invisible, it has an impact on you. In my case, there was just the general invisibility of being a Mexican immigrant on the south side of Chicago. Later, it was the fact that I began to see women journalists in Mexico, but they didn’t exist in the United States. When you don’t see yourself, then you think that your story is not valid, that you don’t exist. The long-term impact could have been that I internalized that invisibility and let it shut me down. Instead, because I have privilege, I was able to understand the invisibility and make a commitment as a journalist to fight against it.

RM: What stories have you made visible that were invisible before you showed them to people?

MH: I was the first Latina correspondent hired at NPR, so of course I was going to have a different perspective. I would say, “We live in Washington D.C. Did you all know that there’s a huge Salvadoran population here?” This was in 1985 and nobody had reported about it. Salvadorans were in Washington D.C. because they were refugees in the 1980s, as they are today.

When I was an assistant producer, I produced a piece about crack, and we happened to interview somebody who was a sex worker. His name was Hawk, and when he told us his story, you understood a little bit more who he was, instead of the usual racially charged headlines. When I got to CNN many years later, they used to call me the Bronx Bureau Chief because CNN had never sent a reporter up to the Bronx to cover a story.

People know me for doing this in places like New York, but I just did this in an interview in Boise, Idaho. People have reduced Idaho to potatoes and white supremacists, but it’s much more complex. I like to go to places that are misunderstood, misrepresented, flyover, forgotten, and in those places find the most forgotten people.

I like to go to places that are misunderstood, misrepresented, flyover, forgotten, and in those places find the most forgotten people.

RM: At the beginning of the Obama presidency when you were reporting on immigration policy, conditions in detention camps weren’t really on the radar. What was happening at that time?

MH: What’s important for people to realize is that we did just live through something quite horrific together as a country: the taking of children as a form of policy punishment. But the sad thing is that this did not start in 2015 when Donald Trump began running for office and insulting Mexicans. What people need to understand is that there is a narrative about the United States of America: that we are an immigrant-loving, refugee-loving country. It’s a nice narrative, but it’s not exactly true. It’s more complicated than that. If we want to be a country that loves immigrants, everybody has to actively fight for it in the same way that people are taking on the task of being anti-racist.

And it’s not just one party. Bill Clinton started building the wall; he ran on an anti-immigrant platform. George H. W. Bush was actually really good for Central American refugees. His Republican administration significantly increased the number of refugees allowed into this country. Obama became the deporter-in-chief, and shame on him. There is a long history of this happening, and what we just witnessed was the worst example of it. We know that babies have been taken from their parents and we know that women’s uteruses have been taken from them unwillingly. I think that’s enough to say this needs to stop.

RM: What would an immigrant- and refugee-loving country look like?

MH: I like to make a joke: let’s imagine what it would look like if immigrant-friendly and POC-friendly journalists were running our news media. Imagine if the headlines were: “Mexican people are the hardest-working, sweetest people ever! You know how we all like to take vacations there? They’re coming here, and we love them!” The next day another headline: “The Somali people have the most fascinating traditions and we’re going to learn all about them. We’re going to get informed about another part of the world.” And another: “Can you imagine how many interesting and fascinating people you’re going to be able to fall in love with?”

I’m being facetious, but given all we’ve lived through, that’s kind of what it’s going to have to look like. We’ll need a national day of mourning and reconciliation for the horrors brought upon these people, people who wanted to believe in what the United States says it’s about. It’s false advertising, and it continues today. The Biden administration is announcing these wonderful executive orders, but at the same time they’re saying, “Oh, but don’t come to the United States right now, this isn’t a great time.” That is an insult to people who are refugees. That’s like saying to people escaping Nazi Germany, “Could you choose a better time?” Or to the people of Vietnam: “Can you just wait a little while? We’re not ready.” No. I don’t accept that.

RM: We’ve seen a resurgence of Christian nationalism and how Christianity has been used to discriminate against people coming to this country, especially people of color. Is there a role that you see for religious belief or spirituality in welcoming people and fighting racism?

MH: You all have the role to play. This is your moment to lead. I was talking with a Lyft driver who said he loved Trump because Trump is motivated only by love, because he doesn’t need any money. It was around Christmastime, and the driver said something about Jesus blessing me. And I said, “Sir, I hope you understand that if Jesus came knocking on the doors of this country as a refugee—which is what he was—he and Mary and Joseph would be forced to sleep on the concrete in Mexico, in Matamoros or Juárez or Río Piedras. That’s what the policy looks like.” I spoke from the heart. And this man said, “Oh my God, I didn’t know.”

The conversation is about love—loving the one most different from you, those who have been humiliated.

Absolutely, you are on the front lines. People see me and there might be an element of distrust because I’m Mexican, I’m an immigrant, I’m a journalist. I’m not Christian, I’m no longer Catholic. I was raised Catholic, but I’m deeply spiritual. People may not trust the words coming from me. But at its base, the conversation is about love—loving the one most different from you, those who have been humiliated. That is what Jesus Christ represents to me. In my world, as a journalist, I attempt to keep my humility because the people I’m talking to often have nothing, the same way that Mary and Joseph had nothing. Those are the people that Jesus Christ identified with. You are on the front lines, and I have so much trust and hope and faith in the conversations that your communities need to be having.

RM: Where do you see humility operative today? What do we need from journalists in particular?

MH: What we need in certain parts of the profession is humility and what we need in other parts of the profession is more ego. With most of the journalism we consume, the buck ultimately stops with an older heterosexual man of privilege. We have all basically been raised to believe that they represent objectivity and fairness. When you have that kind of power, it builds up your ego and you believe that you’re right.

They need to be more humble. They need to do more listening. They need to understand history and read history from a perspective that is not a white man’s, written by the likes of Frederick Douglass, for example, my founding father as a journalist. How was he reading and interpreting this country, and doing journalism about this country? Ida B. Wells was born into slavery and becomes an investigative journalist. When she investigated lynchings, she was told by white male journalists, “Why are you reporting about lynchings? Do you have some kind of political agenda?” Today what we need are more independent journalists of color and of conscience. The field of journalism has been one of the slowest to “diversify,” which I dislike as a term. At this point, all I want to talk about is excellence in journalism. I’m done talking about equity representation, the right thing, the market value. If you do not have a newsroom that looks like America, then there is no way that you can be creating excellent journalism. Period.

RM: In your memoir, you write about a certain song that your cousin sang to you. What did it teach you about your identity?

MH: I’m going to go one step further and tell you a little bit more about my cousin. I love him very much, but he has become judgmental and exclusionary of people. He was talking with my mom, who is an American citizen but is a Mexican through and through. In a heated argument about Mexican politics, he says to her, “You’re an American citizen. You don’t have a valuable opinion about what happens in Mexico. You need to go back to the United States.” My cousin is telling my Mexican mom to go back to the United States!

I said to him, “You were the one who saw me for what I was. You would never have sent me back to the United States when I was a little girl. In those rainy afternoons in Mexico City summers, you used to sing to me ‘La Golondrina’—the swallow.” In the song, the lyrics are, “You come and you go, you come and you go, but you always come back.” The bird migrates. He would say to me, “You, my little cousin, migrate back and forth. You’re always crossing the border, but you always come back.” I reminded him of this, and I said, “That’s who you are, primo, not somebody who is going to stand in judgment of me.” It’s not fully resolved, sadly. We’re in the process, but it’s quite painful.

RM: A lot of families are feeling that right now in various ways. I wonder how you approach trying to heal those divides together—not simply to heal, but to come to the truth.

MH: It’s really hard to do via Zoom. But I don’t fear or walk away from these kinds of conversations. I don’t like to say it, but I’m just too old not to have them. I cannot wait to be able to travel to Mexico and sit with my cousin and have a thorough conversation. He was one of the last people that I saw before the pandemic put us into lockdown. And so we had a moment, and that’s when he sang me “La Golondrina.”

I don’t have the answer. It does freak me out to have to have these conversations with members of my own family, but I am committed. I’m not going to stop.

RM: As you were growing up and encountering different aspects of American culture and Mexican culture, sometimes you were made to feel not American enough and sometimes you were made to feel not Mexican enough. But in your memoir, you say that you see yourself in many stories that you’ve encountered: from Vietnamese refugees to Salvadoran immigrants. What identity ties you together with so many of these different groups?

MH: I think about that. Is it just feeling like the other? Is it that notion of invisibility? Maybe it’s the capacity to listen—it’s something that I do really well in my profession, but I think as humans, we all have to work on it.

People are asked very rarely to talk about themselves. When I’m interviewing people, they assume, “I don’t have an interesting story.” And then they start telling these stories and—wow! I find myself reacting like that to most people I meet. I love people’s stories and I wish that we would tell each other more of our stories, that people would feel prouder of these stories and less ashamed. It’s going to make us be better human beings and neighbors, the more we tell our stories authentically. That means that you have to ask people, “Tell me your story,” then you have to listen. And then you have to be prepared to tell your own.

Published in the April 2021 issue: 

Regina Munch is an assistant editor at Commonweal.

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