María Hinojosa knows that storytelling is political. She often writes that she wants to tell human stories, stories featuring the lives and struggles of real people. And that’s exactly what she’s done: over the course of a prolific career, she has given voice to the most marginalized among us, especially Latinx Americans. At NPR, CNN, and her own nonprofit news organization, Futuro Media, she has continually fought to tell the stories of immigrants, while facing discrimination and backlash herself. In Once I Was You, however, it is her own story—as an immigrant, a survivor, and a Latina—that is on full display.
Hinojosa’s memoir covers a broad swath of her life, from her journey to the United States from Mexico at three years old to her current reporting on the border crisis. Her personal story is interspersed with cutaways to U.S. immigration history. Although it often reads as a blow-by-blow of her life—her first (white) boyfriend, move-in day at Barnard College, fights with her husband—what is most compelling about Hinojosa’s story is her own struggle to tell it.
While Hinojosa is a prolific and talented woman who has hustled throughout her life, balancing jobs and stories with kids and family, she recounts facing pushback at every stage in her career as a journalist. At the same time she was winning awards for her coverage of Latinx life in America with CNN, she was belittled and pushed off air in favor of younger, prettier, whiter anchors. While she was gaining national recognition for her groundbreaking radio show, Latino USA, NPR consistently tried to cancel it, and silence her voice, in favor of “less niche” shows.
Her story is a stark reminder that even those who uplift and amplify the voices of the marginalized are not exempt from a culture that devalues women, people of color, and immigrants. For Hinojosa, preserving her journalistic voice meant founding her own news organization to ensure Latino USA‘s future when major media outlets refused to renew it.
However, this much-needed narrative is lost in many parts of the book. Storylines about Hinojosa’s father and family, reporting on the border crisis, and strained marriage trail off or pop in seemingly out of nowhere. U.S. immigration history, too, makes an appearance every once in a while, choppily occupying the last ten or fifteen pages of a chapter that was otherwise deeply focused on Hinojosa’s personal life. The book’s title, Once I Was You, also falls a little flat: while Hinojosa positions herself in parallel to the young children detained at the border, her position as the daughter of a college professor, a documented immigrant, and a member of the middle class ensured her privileges that were never available to many of those kids.
Despite its flaws, Once I Was You is required reading for anyone interested in the behind-the-scenes of intersectional, human-focused storytelling. It’s the memoir of a living legend and a trailblazer in her field. Go read it.
While it’s being swept under the rug during the COVID-19 pandemic and the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, family separations are still happening at the border. Children and adults alike are being housed in inhumane conditions, simply for being immigrants. If you have the time to read this post and leave a comment, you have the time to call or email your representative and urge them to end family separation at the border.
I was honored to receive an advance review copy courtesy of the publisher, Atria Books. I am also a student at Columbia College, the sibling school of Barnard College, where Prof. Hinojosa teaches. Neither of these factors has affected my opinion of the book. Once I Was You will be released on September 15, 2020.