Maria Hinojosa discusses how her childhood trauma shaped her immigration reporting
Maria Hinojosa has a confession: She didn’t really want to write a big, meaty book when she started “Once I Was You: A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America.” But then, she never imagined she’d learn something about her personal history that resonated with her work — reporting on immigration — as never before.
The Emmy Award-winning journalist and anchor of NPR’s “Latino USA” had set out to publish a short pocket book — “the kind that you would pick up in the airport” — a long-form essay, titled “Illegal Is Not a Noun,” that would explain why human beings cannot be against the law. But when she queried agents on the idea, they all wanted more.
“That’s how ‘Once I Was You’ was born,” she said in a video chat on Friday. “It became not just my life, but my life in this period of time where I’m understanding my role as an American woman, as an immigrant woman, as a Latina, my professional life as a journalist during the civil rights era .... And surprisingly, I wrote about being a survivor, because it turns out that’s an important part of my story.”
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During the virtual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on Friday, Hinojosa joined Laila Lalami, the award-winning novelist and author of the new nonfiction book “Conditional Citizens,” for a conversation about immigration and what it means to be American, with Times Column One editor Steve Padilla moderating. In our one-on-one chat before the panel, Hinojosa touched on immigration reform, diversity in media, her life story and what it means to be a chingona.
Hinojosa, who has reported extensively on immigration issues for nearly 30 years, reflected on how the stories she’s written about immigrants and family separation made her rediscover hidden facets of her own past. It turns out that the stories of children being torn from their parents hit very close to home with Hinojosa in a way that took her completely by surprise.
Hinojosa was a toddler in 1962 when she and her family arrived in Dallas from Mexico, green cards in hand. She had an allergic rash on her skin that a customs agent thought was German measles. “They tried to take me,” she said. They threatened to quarantine her.
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When she learned about it from her mother while working on the memoir, she thought: “Now I understand why as a journalist this has been an issue that I’ve never been able to let go of; not that I’ve wanted to. The story of reporting on immigration is hugely important to this country and to understanding who we are, but I definitely thought like ‘Wow, this is what trauma looks like.’
“And I think that that impacted me in every story that I’ve done that has to do with immigrants,” she said. “I just feel like I am them. I mean, I still am, I was born in Mexico, so I try to see myself in the people that I’m reporting, and certainly in this story, I am one of those kids.”
Watch the entire panel below featuring Hinojosa, Lalami and Padilla.
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