Journalist Maria Hinojosa has written two books in one: her own deeply personal story of coming to the United States from Mexico as a baby, and the long history of U.S. rejection and oppression of immigrants just like her.
By any measure, the award-winning Hinojosa has earned professional success, despite the obstacles facing the rare Latina in mostly White (and male) newsrooms, but she can’t stop seeing—and pointing out to the rest of us—the many other immigrants who are discriminated against, detained, deported, and almost worst of all: invisible.
Even with a roomful of journalism prizes, Hinojosa tells her own immigrant success story filled with doubts about her professional abilities and competence. “The possibility of failure hounded me constantly,” she writes in Once I Was You: A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America (Atria Books, 2020). She has debilitating doubts about herself as a journalist, as a woman, a mother, and a wife.
Many successful people suffer from “imposter syndrome,” that feeling you aren’t really worthy, but few describe the feeling so openly. Hinojosa’s doubts never really went away, even as she climbed the ladders of top U.S. media companies such as CNN and NPR and built her own business, but she pushed through the doubts with smarts, guts, determination, burning ambition, a grueling work ethic, and talent.
She also comes across as lovable, if at times exasperating, with a network of good friends, colleagues who back her up, a man who adores her, and as a person of great empathy and self-awareness. I’ve yet to meet her, but I listened to her audiobook during a long drive from Washington, DC, to Chicago, where we both grew up, which was especially enjoyable because it was as if Maria were riding along with me.
Her middle-class family (her father was a medical doctor) moved from Mexico City to Chicago in 1962, a year after Maria was born. Hinojosa’s personal story of growing up and finding journalism is moving, funny, heartbreaking, and inspiring. You don’t have to be an immigrant to appreciate the story, but there are a few amusing details that reminded me of my wife’s Mexican family.
Some of the personal and professional challenges she describes are unique to being an immigrant: prejudice and discrimination, the sense of not belonging to either Mexico or the United States, and different cultural expectations for how a woman should behave.
Other challenges do not belong exclusively to immigrants: overcoming a teenage trauma, balancing a stressful career and a family, and choosing between a high-salary, big-title job that destroys your soul, or meaningful work that pays more in personal satisfaction than in cash.
If Maria were editing this review, I’m guessing she would want me to write less about her and more about the less-famous immigrants she describes in the book. Her outrage about the treatment of immigrants is well researched, and she takes us through the founding of the United States, the conflicting attitudes toward immigrants throughout U.S. history, and the cruel policies of both Democratic and Republican administrations.
She reveals people living below the radar, keeping their heads down because they don’t have permission to be here, but who simply want to work and raise their families. She describes what happens when they are found out and become trapped in the system, a system that has grown harsher with for-profit detention camps and family separation.
Hinojosa started out as a college radical and activist but then chose journalism as the best way to make a difference. She was raised both on the U.S. news program 60 Minutes, which her family watched together while she was growing up in Chicago, and on the authoritative female broadcasters of educational television and radio in Mexico that she enjoyed on summer vacations.
A colleague at NPR once accused her of still being an activist and not a real journalist, saying everybody knew about her “Latino agenda.” She shot back that if she was biased, he must have a “white-male agenda.” He did not understand what she meant, proving her point.
Hinojosa is a real journalist, and comes from a long tradition of muckrakers and troublemakers in U.S journalism who expose wrongdoing with facts, not opinions. She does have opinions, of course, but what she really has is expertise and a point of view that sees immigrants everywhere, which is, in fact, where they are.
Her expertise about immigration is no different than a science reporter who becomes an expert on virology to cover the pandemic, or the economics reporter who gets an MBA to better understand business. Those reporters are not accused of having an “agenda.”
Hinojosa’s focus on immigrants is so intense that it might change your focus, and help you see the people she sees. In the book’s introduction she writes about meeting a frightened young girl who had just crossed the border into Texas. Hinojosa wants the girl to know she is not alone and that she is welcome in the United States.
“I see you,” Hinojosa says, “because once I was you.”
(Peter Copeland is a journalist and author, most recently of Finding the News: Adventures of a Young Reporter.
Peter Copeland is a former foreign correspondent and Washington bureau chief. His most recent book is Finding the News: Adventures of a Young Reporter.