NEW YORK—She didn’t just parachute into our television screens and blast over our radio waves out of nowhere. Petite and light on her feet, trailblazer Maria Hinojosa started with one report at a time, when she was a 19-year-old intern at NPR.
Thirty years later, today it’s easy to say—despite her quiet gate and slim figure—Hinojosa is definitely a heavyweight champion in the world of journalism. She has won numerous prestigious awards, including the Walter Cronkite Award, the Robert F. Kennedy award, the Edward R. Morrow award, the Studs Terkel award, as well as four Emmys, among many other honors.
“I don’t walk around saying: ‘Oh, I’m a leader in media,'” she said jokingly in a lower voice. “I don’t walk around like that, but I understand that because of where we are in history, I have a particular role to play now.”
There are not many Latin-Americans in mainstream news media, even today when Latinos are one of the fastest growing demographic groups in the country, second only to Asians.
Currently there are about 54 million Hispanics living in the United States, making up about 17 percent of the population. That percentage is projected to go up to about 28 percent by the year 2050, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“I feel a tremendous sense of mission because I was one of the first ‘Latinas’ in many positions,” she said. She was the first Latino correspondent for NPR, CNN, and PBS, and the first Latina to anchor “Frontline.”
It wasn’t easy to be the first. It was “a little bit lonely,” she said.
At the beginning of her career she felt like she “didn’t belong,” she “didn’t want to say anything,” she thought her ideas might be perceived as “not good enough,” and so on.
Taking part in her first editorial meetings at NPR in 1985, she said she would repeatedly force herself to speak up. At every meeting, she would say well, what about this, and what about that, because she realized she was representing a different perspective. She was the only Latina in the room.
Her schedule is very full, her life rich in purpose and meaning.
She’s the founder, president, and CEO of the Futuro Media Group, a nonprofit organization, which produces the NPR radio program “Latino USA,” the PBS documentary series “America By The Numbers,” and an internship program. She also flies to Chicago every week to teach two journalism courses as a visiting scholar at DePaul University.
“Mexicans are known to work hard. We work hard, its part of our makeup,” she said with her deep brown eyes sparkling.
While she draws great support from the closely-knit team at Futuro Media, her life is not all about work.
Her husband of 24 years, German Perez, a well-known Dominican painter, helps manage their lives. Hinojosa proudly talks about him producing a music album besides his painting, about their 19-year-old son who is studying Chinese at the University of Chicago, and about their 16-year-old daughter who likes acting in plays, and with whom she has been watching all the Oscar-nominated films.
She also loves collecting and taking care of succulents because they are hearty. “I love their shapes, I love the fact that this is a plant that is mostly from the desert, and yet I’m growing them in my apartment in New York City,” she said, then jokingly called herself by a word she coined and posted on Instagram: a “succenologist.”
Baby Mexican Immigrant
Born in Mexico, the youngest of four, she immigrated to the United States when she was a baby during the middle of the civil rights era.
Her family wasn’t necessarily seeking refuge in “the land of the free and home of the brave.”
The family moved to Chicago where her father went to the University of Chicago to do research on the inner ear. He was part of a team who invented the cochlear implant—a devise that helps provide hearing for people who are deaf.
Her mother, was very open minded, especially to the idea of participatory democracy and to what the United States represents. “I think my parents understood that was an integral part of what the United States of America offered: a free press, a free media, a serious media,” Hinojosa said.
Her nuclear family was the first, on both sides of the family, to leave Mexico.
“So we were called ‘vendidos’ [the sold ones], because in Mexico there is a very strong [sense of] nationalism. … We were the ones who left and they would make fun of us,” she said.
Not feeling fully American and no longer living in Mexico, growing up “there was always that ‘in between,'” she said. She would frequently ask herself, “Well what am I? Soy de aquí, soy de allá? [Am I from here? am I from there?] Where am I from?” In time, she developed a much broader sense of who she could be.
That sense probably also speaks to her ability to easily empathize with people who are very different from her, whether they are victims of youth violence, the CEO of a major Fortune 500 company, or an Aryan Nation member.
Giving Voice to the Voiceless
“I’m drawn toward people who might be on the outside. I think that is a strength because in the world of journalism we want to give voice to the voiceless—something that I feel strongly about,” she said.
In the early 1990s she interviewed a skinhead, who had Adolf Hitler tattooed on the side of his neck. “He was no joke,” she said, “but I liked him, because he was honest about who he was and how he felt, and he looked at me straight in the eye.”
At the end of the interview the man told her that he liked her too and that “as a friend” he would advise her to leave the country, because he would want to protect her from a “future race riot.”
That kind of empathy may be a problem for some journalists, Hinojosa said, but for her it is the core. “If you give of yourself people will give of themselves,” she said, adding that she loves it when her own preconceptions about people break apart.
Like her father, perhaps Hinojosa as a journalist is also helping others to listen better. By carefully listening to the people she interviews, by trying “to see the world through their eyes,” telling stories that otherwise would not be told, she is probably helping her audience understand better the complexities of this country. And like her mother, perhaps she is helping others live up to protecting our civil liberties.
The Numbers Speak
Empathy seems to be Hinojosa’s key ingredient, not only for breaking preconceptions, but also for getting to the facts. The numbers she has been keeping track of show how changing demographics are altering the fabric of the United States—and apparently, very quickly.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in just 28 years minority ethnic groups will become the majority in the United States—which means that people of Anglo-Saxon or of other white-European decent will become just one of many other ethnic or racial groups.
The U.S. South used to be composed mainly of blacks and whites. “It has been increasingly becoming Latino over the past 15 years, and the Asian population is booming as well. So the whole South is going ‘What?!’ Now everything is changing,” Hinojosa emphasized.
Once one of the whitest places in the country, Clarkston, Ga.—which Hinojosa covered in “America By The Numbers”—now has a majority population of refugees from 40 different countries.
Another example, while many people consider Asians a model minority and the best-educated ethnic group, Hinojosa covered how Cambodian high-school students have a very high dropout rate. “We have to understand the complexities and we actually have to make them visual for you,” she said of her work.
It’s as if the country is going through an identity crisis that people need to realize, come to terms with, and adjust to within just a few decades.
Beyond the Immigration Issue?
“People have said, ‘Oh Maria you have some kind of political agenda because you report about immigrants and Latinos and women and the disadvantaged.’ I don’t see that as a political agenda, I see that as what journalists do. When you are able to put things [in perspective] with cold data, then it’s not so much about the sentimental,” she said.
Hinojosa is keen on reporting on the changing demographic fabric of the United States, but she admitted she finds any divisive rhetoric about immigration “tiring.”
She has been covering immigration from the very start of her career in the mid-80s. “I’m one who never gets bored, but this conversation about immigration is old, it’s boring … let’s move on,” she said.
It might take more time for the rest of the country to catch up with Hinojosa, so the issue of immigration is still very relevant. But in the meantime she is worried about how some people’s lives have been put on hold.
“It worries me that right now immigrants are the fastest growing group of people being detained. It worries me that due process may not be afforded to everyone in our country. … So in the big picture, I think I would like to be a part of helping us become better educated, so that we can be a better country,” she said.
Hinojosa pointed out that, although it may sound cheesy, the person who loves his or her country the most can also be the one who criticizes that country the most, referencing Frederick Douglas—the former slave and statesman who published the first abolitionist newspaper. “You don’t want to divide people. I want the children of immigrants who are growing up here to be patriotic in the best sense, and not disconnected,” Hinojosa said.
She remembers watching Walter Cronkite on television as a child. Looking back she said, “I never had an image that it could be me.”
Now it is her.
“I need to help this country understand part of what’s happening. … The numbers say it all,” she said.
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