LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Maria Hinojosa is a trailblazer whose dedication to telling the stories of Latinos and others that the media has ignored has meant that she has been given too many awards to list. The longtime host of Latino USA on NPR is now telling her own story in a raw, personal memoir called "Once I Was You: A Memoir Of Love And Hate In A Torn America." As a very young child, Hinojosa came to this country from Mexico, when her father was invited here as a medical scholar. She spent a lifetime trying to bridge together a life across borders, reporting on the United States from within and without and now building a media company that reflects America. The one and only Maria Hinojosa joins me now.
MARIA HINOJOSA, BYLINE: Hola, Lulu. It's great to be with you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hola. It's such a pleasure. It is such a pleasure to have you on and to read this book. Let's talk about your road to becoming a journalist. That road led through NPR. In fact, my colleague Scott Simon hired you. An executive told you back then that you were rare - a well-educated, well-traveled Latina. You came into the business when it was whiter and even more male than it was now.
HINOJOSA: (Laughter) You know, when I think back to those moments, it was just life. I think what happened to me is that I understood privilege. You know, my dad was a medical doctor. I mean, we were not wealthy at all because he was a research doctor. I went to public school, but then I went to the University of Chicago high school. I ended up at Barnard College. I get this job at NPR. I'm the first Latina. I mean, I know it. Like, there had been no other Latinas at NPR who were not cleaning the offices. I was the first one in the newsroom, and it was terrifying, you know? It was really terrifying.
I remember another famous NPR personality once said to me, after now I had been around the block a long time and I was doing reporting, you know, in gritty communities when this person said to me, weren't you terrified to be in the South Bronx doing that reporting? And I - then I was like, no. But this person would've never thought to ask me if I was terrified the first day I stepped foot at NPR as the first Latina. And I was like, that's what I'm talking about. Like, we all see the world from different perspectives, and that's why we need so much representation across the media. That's what it's about.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is that what drove you? - because you faced the same thing at CNN. I mean, you faced it throughout your career. You were always dedicated in telling stories about people of color, about how they live their full lives, their complex lives. You know, you were a pioneer in this work.
HINOJOSA: People were not saying nice things to me. They would say, oh, you have an agenda. We know your Latino agenda. We know you have an immigrant agenda. You know, why do you say your name like that? Why do you say it in Spanish? I mean, they would write hate letters to NPR. At CNN, they were criticizing the way I looked. I mean, I don't really like this saying - you just kind of buckle up and do it - but basically, that's what we had.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk about something that is in the book very early on - what happened one summer when you were a teenager. You were raped. What is the responsibility, do you feel, to talk about that publicly as a public figure and as a journalist?
HINOJOSA: Yeah. No. That was hard. I mean, I have to say I went through a really, really difficult thing that I did not understand. We certainly didn't have vocabulary for being raped by somebody who you knew. The reason why I decided to write about it honestly was because of what happened with Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh.
And the reason why I want to talk about it is because I held on to this. I didn't realize how much it was impacting - just like Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Everybody was looking at her like, yo, girl, come on. This happened to you when you were 15. Come on, you know? And that's easy for people to say until you realize what happens when it happens to you.
And so I wanted to write about it also because Latinas - we don't often talk about this very publicly. You know, this happened in Mexico. I mean, my mom didn't know. I had to tell her. The good news, Lulu, is that after you write about it and you cry about it and you do therapy, there is healing on the other side.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk about this political moment because among your many hats is TV analyst. So much of the book talks about the history of immigration in this country. And you make the point that the erasure of Latinos goes back to the so-called discovery of this country by Europeans. You know, we hear about the Pilgrims here but not about the first colonial settlement by the Spanish in Florida - that it goes back to the very founding of this country how, you know, Latinos' contributions have been ignored.
HINOJOSA: Spanish was spoken on this land before English. First, all respect - right? - to the Indigenous languages, but then it was the Spaniards' arrival in Southern Florida. That was the first contact. Part of what I'm trying to do with the book is, yeah, I'm talking about my life, but I'm also trying to understand the history of this country and how we're taught it. And you're always taught about this perspective from, frankly, white men because they're the ones who are writing the history books. The Indigenous people could have looked at the Pilgrims and said, hey, you don't have any permission. Who gave you papers? Who gave you a right to be here?
So part of what we tried to do is to reframe history. I think that is the moment that we're living through right now where people are asking questions, and in that sense, this is a beautiful time.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This does bring us to today because this is the most anti-immigrant government in recent American history. Asylum has stopped now. Legal immigration has stopped because of the pandemic, supposedly. And we are at a moment when immigration is at the very crux of the country that America imagines itself to be. And there is a huge portion of this country that does not want this to be a nation of immigrants, and many things have been done in the service of that vision by this administration.
And I'm wondering, as we sit on the cusp of an election, where you think that vision is at because you use the word hate in the title of this book. After the El Paso shooting, we have certainly seen hate of immigrants, but is it more than that?
HINOJOSA: Well, the reason why there is this continual hate is because there's this continual repetitive narrative about immigrants. So this notion that this country is, like, welcoming immigrants and so open - the numbers are very small. I mean, now, as you say, it's zero. It's not new. And then we have to talk about this ugly thing, which is white supremacy and why does it exist. The story of this anti-immigrant hatred is intimately tied to the hatred of Black bodies, to the hatred of Indigenous bodies.
And so we have to make those connections, but we all have to work at making the immigrant story much more public because this narrative has been constructed not over the past four years. What was hard about this book was really having to come to terms with the fact that it's both the Republicans and the Democrats that have been really, really problematic for immigrants across the board and historically.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You are the only Latina who heads a nonprofit news organization - Futuro Media, which makes Latino USA. And I know you get asked this all the time, but I'm going to ask it again 'cause I think it's important. What advice do you have for those coming up in this business but really any business - for Latinos, for people of color right now in this moment?
HINOJOSA: Don't give up. Don't give up. Oh, my God. I helped to create the newsroom that I envisioned. When I first stepped into NPR and I was like, wait; this doesn't look like the newsroom. Wait. This is, like - it's frankly too white. And so we need you. We need you to power through the invisibility that you feel. Own your power. Own your voice. Get quiet. Connect with your ancestral power the way I had to to write this book 'cause we all have it. And we need you, so don't give up.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Maria Hinojosa of Latino USA - her book is "Once I Was You: A Memoir Of Love And Hate In A Torn America."
HINOJOSA: (Speaking Spanish), Lulu. Thank you so much.
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