I was born in Mexico City, the youngest of four. My mom was from Mexico City, and my dad was from a small Mexican city. My dad was born kind of geeky and nerdy, and so he just knew he wanted to be a research scientist. To make a long story short, he basically got hired by the University of Chicago to head up their research on the inner ear, and that's how we all ended up in Chicago. And as I grew up we just had kind of an assumption about American values that included the role of journalism and media, so we consumed a lot of media. It was also the middle of the civil rights era, so the television was always on, even in black and white, and we were watching the news. When the Today Show started we were watching it; we watched the evening news; we had the radio on — and throughout all of that there was never any journalist who ever looked like me.
There were never any stories about people that even remotely looked like us, yet we were pretty much trying to believe we were 100-percent American, so the notion of me becoming a journalist was really the furthest thing from my mind, ever. Fast forward to me ending up at Barnard College, where I started doing college radio, and it was other people who basically said I should really think about doing radio or doing journalism. It was a college career advisor who kind of forced me to apply for that internship at NPR, with All Things Considered. Once I dipped my toe in, I just realized this was something I had a real passion for. I was invisible once myself, and I wanted to tell stories about invisible people, because they weren't invisible to me. So that's how I ended up in journalism.
Fast forward again, and I become the first Latina at NPR, and then CNN hires me away and I'm the first Latina at CNN. And then I go to PBS. And then I decide to do something really risky but very entrepreneurial and I create my own nonprofit media company. So now I run a media company, I am a working journalist, and I am a businesswoman.
As far as we know I may be the only Latina who's running a nonprofit independent media company.
When I was younger I definitely did not start out thinking, "Oh, I'm going to be a quote-unquote trailblazer and I'm going to carve out a space for me to have a leadership voice." I just wanted to be a journalist. I just wanted to be a working journalist who was actually getting paid because I started as a waitress when I was doing journalism.
Now this many years into my career, I have to accept the fact that, regardless of how I feel about it, there are people who see me as a thought leader, and so I feel like I've had to kind of assume that responsibility — but that’s not what I set out to do. I just simply wanted to work, to be recognized, and now given the moment we're living in I just cannot walk away from the fact that there are many people, specifically women, women of color, and Latinas and immigrants, who need their stories told. It forces you to take yourself a little bit more seriously, especially in this particular role and at this particular moment in history. To not do so would be very irresponsible for me.
But I also believe humor is really an important part of the conversation, because we also can't take ourselves too seriously. It's a process I would say. First of all, I have to be very grateful. The truth is that, no matter what Ithink about it, because of the work that I've done in the entirety of my career, what happens with me right now matters in the national conversation, and so I have to take that seriously and that matters and it is important. So I have to get up and work harder.
For me it's an ongoing process and conversation. I feel like it's at this precise moment I have to be responsible and step up to the plate — and frankly just do my job. The best thing that I can I do right now is to be the best possible journalist that I can be.
I think my daughter recognizes the importance of my work too. I have to be honest, she has been — I don't want to say a victim, but she has experienced specific racism because she is a Latina in places that people would be shocked to know about. And so now she is able to kind of put that stuff into context and she is deeply thankful, deeply thankful for the experiences that she has had. But it has also been really hard for her. These issues have separated her from her mother, when I haven't been able to be there for her, when she was younger, so we talk a lot about that. But, you know, thankfully my plan worked. I did have a little plan, because I thought about my dad who worked all the time because he was a geeky, nerdy scientist and he was looking in the microscope, even on Saturdays. He was that guy. But I don't remember the times that Dad was away; I remember the times that Dad was around. So I made a concerted effort to make the time I was around special, and special could be just doing absolutely nothing, just being with my daughter or my son doing absolutely nothing. And it seems like the plan worked: They remember more the things we did together than the fact that I was away. She and I have a very powerful relationship. We work hard at it. We've done therapy together; we've spent a lot of time together; we push each other; we allow each other to take us out of our comfort zones.
But there are always challenges and adversities. I've been around for several decades now, so in terms of dealing with adversity, the things that I feared the most have happened, starting with September 11th, one of the great horrors of our time. I feel like we find out as human beings, we come to a fork in the road, and the fork in the road is you can go down this road and you're just going to die of sadness and feeling powerless — so you can go down that road, or you can go down the road of literally just putting one foot in front of the other. That kind of realization came to me around September 11th. Now I have to operate in that way, and I'm much more focused on self-care, so now I meditate every day, if not twice a day if I'm lucky, I prioritize my exercise routine, and I'm always working on it.
But right now I'm working around the clock to get more context to the story that I've been covering for the entirety of my career but all of a sudden the entire country seems to have discovered. We've been talking about family quote-unquote separation for decades, and it took getting kids in cages for people to pay attention, but this is the moment and we're jumping in.
With everything that is happening now, sometimes I feel like I'm going crazy. Seriously, sometimes I feel like I'm just going crazy, with this entire thing. So I'm just doubling down. I'm doing what a journalist does. In my view, telling people's untold stories is just part of what a journalist is supposed to do. There are a couple of things journalists are supposed to do: One is they're supposed to hold the powerful accountable; they're supposed to be the eyes and ears watchdog for the people. But the other thing they're supposed to do is to shine a light. So that’s just something that always made sense to me in terms of what the role is of an American journalist, in particular — though, granted, I really was inspired by Mexican women journalists, because there I actually could see them doing it, like Elena Poniatowska or Blanche Petrich. These are very high-level Mexican women journalists; they inspired me and actually showed me what it looked like to be a Latina journalist.
What I learned from them is that it's about getting the facts right, really getting the facts right — because they are having to counter a government of propaganda — but it's also about bringing a real definitive sense of humanity to the work. And if you have a sense of humanity then you want to talk to the most vulnerable and invisible in society. So I've got a team of journalists who are working together and our hair is not on fire the way other cable news channels are because they haven't ever talked about this before. We've been covering this for the longest time, and when they pull away with their live trucks we're going to still be there doing this story.
What's hard now is that I've been saying so many of these things for so long, for almost two decades. The people who are being taken away from us are living this in their own skin, as we say in Mexico in Spanish, en carne propia. And yesterday I wake up and I'm seeing everyone talking about the fact that the president wants to so-called deny due process, and I'm thinking, "Guys, I've been talking about the denial of due process for years." But this is not a time for me to throw up my hands and say, "You dummies, I've been saying this for so long, but you weren't paying any attention!"
One morning recently I went for a run, and it was on that run that I realized it was because of people power actually coming together, people seeing themselves in those babies being separated, that led them to put pressure on a president that doesn't listen to anybody, who felt basically forced to reverse the exact policy that his racist administration created. So in that sense, I flipped the narrative and thought, "Recognize your power, people; you made this happen." The other side of that is to be a journalist witnessing that, having lived through the civil rights era as a young person, is kind of amazing. I just get worried about what happens when the live trucks pull out. But we're going to be there; we're not going anywhere. It's the story of my life and of many other American lives too.
In fact, I was speaking to my son — it was like six in the morning, and I was on my way to my boxing class, to get out my tension — and he said, "Mom, this is what you've been waiting for." And I said, "What do you mean, mijito?" And he said, "Everybody's talking about this now. This is everything you've been waiting for!" And I thought, "That is so horrible and terrible and true in one fell swoop."
Now, whenever people ask me about the rewarding moments of my career, I'm very hard pressed to think of just one, so I'm going to talk about the most recent thing that happened. Today, I got a call from prison. I got a call from prison from Estrella, who is a transgendered Mexican immigrant undocumented woman who was taken from a courtroom in El Paso by plainclothes ICE agents and put into an unmarked car. She was charged with fraud and basically forced to plead guilty to serve eight or nine years in prison. We did her story on Latino USA. She's a victim of intense domestic abuse, which is why she was in court asking for an order of protection, but she's also committed crimes. She was deported before; she came in without papers more than once; she committed fraud. So she's not a simple quote-unquote face of good — but she's a human being and we're telling her story exclusively. She called me from prison because I'm going to go down there to see her. I'm going to go down to Texas, two days early, get on three planes, then get into a rental car and drive two hours into the middle of nowhere Texas to go see her and speak to her, because nobody goes to see her. So here I am getting a call from prison and I'm at the Aspen Ideas Festival, surrounded by people who have paid thousands of dollars to be here, and I'm getting a call from a woman, a transgendered woman in prison, who is thanking me because she is getting her hormonal shots. And I said to her, "What does that have to do with me?" And she said, "It's because you put my story out there, Maria, and that's the reason why."
So that’s when I tell myself to keep going. Just keep going, just keep doing your thing and moving with your heart and your journalistic head and your entrepreneur's instinct … I've got to keep doing it.
One of the good things that I'm lucky enough to witness because I'm also a professor six months out of the year is that there is a whole generation of young people that, like in the Sixties, are being transformed, and we don't know what they're going to do, but it's not going to be nothing, that's for sure.
I tell young women they really need to spend some time really centering themselves and owning the power of their own story, their own narratives, and stop second-guessing themselves and stop feeling like they're impostors. And even if they do feel all of those things, to just try to force themselves to be really present in themselves in these moments that are challenging. It's the same thing that I'm doing, just kind of learning to be with my own sense of self and power in the moment.
I tell women I need them to walk around with huge egos. I need them to walk around with really huge egos as they carry themselves, but at the same time I need them to walk around with total and utter humility — and to know that part of what's going to happen is counting on not only your sisters but others who want to support you, having your team. I have my family, my husband, my two kids, who are rooting me on; I have a small tight-knit group of friends; and I have a much larger base of people out there — and actually I need all of them. So that's what I want them to do, just really own the power of their voice and their narrative and their American story and to move with power and yet with humility. And to not give up, to seriously not give up, because this is not easy.
For 25 years, Maria has helped tell America's untold stories and brought to light unsung heroes in America and abroad. In April 2010, Maria launched The Futuro Media Group with the mission to produce multi-platform, community-based journalism that gives critical voice to the voiceless by harnessing the power of independent media to tell stories that are overlooked or under-reported by traditional media. Maria has won top honors in American journalism, was named among the top 25 Latinos in Contemporary American Culture by the Huffington Post, and gave the prestigious Ware Lecture. Maria is the author of two books, including a motherhood memoir, Raising Raul: Adventures Raising Myself and My Son. She was born in Mexico City, raised in Chicago, and received her BA from Barnard College.
Narrative written by Tricia English in collaboration with Maria Hinojoa