© 2006 NPR, by Michael Paras
Maria Hinojosa has made great strides for the Latino population in America, dedicating over twenty years of award-winning television and radio journalism, as well as two books and numerous other writings, to bringing their voices into the mainstream media. As a Latina, her career abounds with firsts—she was the first to host a prime-time talk show; the first to be seen and heard on CNN, NPR, and PBS’s NOW; and the first to anchor an hour-long CNN documentary—but as she says, “I’m a journalist, not a TV personality. For me, it’s all about the mission of doing good journalism.” Her drive may be attributed to having overcome previous struggles. Growing up a Mexican immigrant in Chicago, she endured the hardships of discrimination, which made her feel like an “outsider” and “that [her] voice was never really important.” Her life changed when she stumbled onto NPR as a teenager. “It was a story on Latin America, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, the disc jockeys are not yelling at me. They are talking to me intelligently.’ The seeds were planted right there.” Today, she is the one talking intelligently—currently as the host of the nationally heard radio program Latino USA, senior correspondent of NOW on PBS, and host of her PBS talk show, Maria Hinojosa: One-on-One—yet she has a simple goal in mind: “In my work as a journalist and as an author I hope to give that voice back to the voiceless. All of society’s voices and perspectives are legitimate and important. We might not like what we hear but we have a responsibility to listen.”
Hinojosa was born in Mexico City to Raul, a physician, and Berta, a social worker. The family moved to the U.S. when Maria was a baby, first residing in Brookline, Massachusetts, before moving to Chicago. Despite emigrating, the Hinojosas retained a strong sense of cultural identity, visiting Mexico once every year. Although she displayed fervent pride in her cultural heritage, Maria faced her share of frustration because of it. “Growing up as a Mexican immigrant in Chicago, I always had the experience of being the ‘other.’ I was the other among my mostly white friends in the states but I was also the other when I would go back to Mexico and my young cousins would tease me about being an ‘Americana.’” When she stumbled onto National Public Radio as a teenager, she discovered that there were people who shared her experiences and were speaking out. “I was glad to hear non-commercial Latino news, seriously and professionally done...Hearing about Latinos nationally in Texas and California and the issues—I’ll never forget it.” It was an event that would surely make a lasting impression.
Hinojosa entered Barnard College in 1979, majoring in Latin American studies and political economy. There she discovered her love of broadcasting, creating a radio show called Nueva Cancion y Demas (New Music and More), which featured political Latin music and interviews with personalities from New York’s Spanish-speaking community. Reflecting on the Latino-centered nature of the show, she said, “We gave them a voice,” and recalled thinking at the time, “Maybe what I’m doing is really important. Maybe what I am doing is giving these people who are voiceless a voice.” After graduating magna cum laude from Barnard in 1984, she began work the following year as a field producer for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition in Washington, D.C. In 1986, she was hired to produce Enfoque Nacional (National Focus), a half-hour Spanish-language Latino news program emanating from San Diego. “I never thought I would be working here,” Hinojosa told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. It was one of the shows that had influenced her as a teenage NPR listener. As a twenty-five-year-old producer, Hinojosa received rave reviews for her work on Enfoque, lauded by the Los Angeles Times for her “sharp news sense, along with a cosmopolitan background…[and] an impression of endless energy held under tight control.” After a year in San Diego, she moved cross-country again to New York, where got a job producing various shows for CBS Radio, including Where We Stand (with Walter Cronkite), Newsbreak, and The Osgood File. She then moved into television as a producer and researcher for CBS This Morning, where she remained until 1989.
In 1990, Hinojosa became the first Latina correspondent at NPR, covering general assignments and urban affairs in New York. That year she produced the award-winning All Things Considered report “Crews,” in which she interviewed members of a violent Latino street gang from Queens that earlier that year had been associated with the murder of a young tourist on a subway platform. The report, which Hinojosa described as “very graphic, very harsh, very telling,” featured juveniles candidly discussing how they assaulted people to release tension and to get money. In an especially disturbing interview, one crew member told Hinojosa, “I see like a big white man…I fight and I beat him up…whatever means I have to do to use it…I beat him up, and I can look and say see—I said to him, ‘At least I’m better than you at something, even if it’s this.’” This angered some listeners, who felt that in presenting the gang members’ opinions, the program appeared to be condoning their behavior. “A lot of people said, ‘Why would you put these kids on the air?’ but I felt that whether we like it or not, we have to hear this stuff,” Hinojosa told the Chicago Tribune. “Crews” earned her a Unity Award, the Top Story of the Year Award from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ), and also inspired her first book, Crews: Gang Members Talk to Maria Hinojosa, released in 1995. Hinojosa’s other acclaimed NPR reports included her 1991 coverage of Nelson Mandela, for which she received an Associated Press Award, her 1993 story “Kids and Guns,” which garnered a New York Society of Professional Journalists Deadline Award, and “Manhood Behind Bars,” honored with a Robert F. Kennedy Award in 1995.
Since 1993, Hinojosa has been the host of Latino USA, a half-hour radio program created from a partnership between the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Mexican American Studies and the school’s KUT-FM radio station. Dubbed “the radio journal of news and culture,” Latino USA was launched with the mission to provide audiences with multiple perspectives on issues affecting Latinos, to foster cross-cultural understanding, to enhance relationships among Latino communities, and to illuminate the richness of Latino cultural and artistic expression. To date, it is the only national, English-language radio program produced from a Latino perspective. A typical show features news reports with an ear toward the Latino community, as well as special-interest stories and interviews with such Latino cultural icons as Mexican singer-songwriter Ely Guerra and jazz legend Eddie Palmieri. Today Latino USA is heard on more than 200 radio stations in 34 states and Puerto Rico. Hinojosa produces and reports from New York (the show airs from Austin), and often goes to remote locations to report the stories that go under the radar in the mainstream press. “It’s opened up the doors for the rest of America to learn about us, and it’s also allowed Latinos to learn about other Latinos,” she said of Latino USA. “If they happen to be Mexicans in Los Angeles, they’re learning about Dominicans in New York. If they’re Puerto Ricans in New York, they’re learning about the Cuban-American community in Miami. Or they’re learning about the fact there are Latinos in Arkansas, Nebraska, and Iowa.”
In addition to her radio work, Hinojosa has established herself as one of the country’s foremost television journalists. In 1991, while still a correspondent for NPR, she made television history, becoming the first Latina to host a live New York television talk show in prime time when she was hired for New York Hotline, a call-in public affairs show. Two years later, she took the hosting job at WNBC-TV’s Visiones, a similar public affairs program with an ear toward Latin America. In 1997, she left her correspondent’s job at NPR to join CNN, where she would cover urban affairs exclusively for the next eight years. During her tenure in cable news, she covered a variety of stories and events, including the Amadou Diallo case, the September 11 terrorist attacks, the New York City blackout of 2003, the struggle of Kosovar Albanians in the United States, and many others related to immigration. Hinojosa earned an Emmy nomination in 2002 for her coverage of the 9/11 attacks. In 2005, she anchored CNN’s acclaimed documentary Immigrant Nation: Divided Country. The film earned her the television documentary award from the NAHJ and made her the first Latina to anchor an hour-long documentary for CNN.
In 2005, citing frustration from the corporate demands of cable news, Hinojosa left her high-profile correspondent’s job at CNN to join PBS’s weekly newsmagazine NOW as a senior correspondent. In an interview with the Austin American Statesman, she echoed her frustrations, stating, “When you’re working in corporate media, the pressure is consistently the ratings. The bottom line is making money. When I was hired by CNN, it was an independent network (owned by Ted Turner). Then it was bought by Time Warner, and I witnessed firsthand what those pressures do to journalism…I made the decision to leave and fight for journalism on PBS.” Since joining NOW, Hinojosa has covered high-profile issues, with in-depth reports on global climate change, immigration, Hurricane Katrina, and U.S.-Iranian relations. She fearlessly reported from Baghdad in 2007, speaking with Iraqi refugees and others affected by the war, and has interviewed such luminaries as Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal.
In addition to her first book, Crews: Gang Members Talk to Maria Hinojosa, she penned a memoir in 1999 entitled Raising Raul: Adventures Raising Myself and My Son. Acclaimed by the Houston Chronicle as “a high-energy sprint across sometimes rocky personal and cultural ground,” the book discusses her experiences with pregnancy, new motherhood, and issues of her cultural identity. She has also contributed essays to the 2004 book Borderline Personalities: A New Generation of Latinas Dish on Sex, Sass and Cultural Shifting, and most recently to the 2006 book Why I Stay Married.
Throughout her career, Hinojosa has garnered several awards and honors. Three times since 1995, Hispanic Business magazine has named her one of the 100 most influential Latinos in the United States. In 1999, she was honored with the Ruben Salazar Award from the National Council of La Raza, an award that recognizes a journalist’s outstanding body of work. She subsequently earned the 2005 HOLA Award for Excellence in English-Language Media from the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors.
As she continues to bring her culture into the public eye through Latino USA and NOW, Hinojosa has also become highly sought after as a lecturer on the issues of immigration and the empowerment of women and Latinos. In one especially rousing speech at Millersville University, she extended the message that her life’s work has embodied since she was inspired to go on the air: “Find your voice and trust it—that’s the first step of empowerment. Find a place where you can build those bridges...Don’t limit yourselves to your ethnic background. We need commonality of experience, commonality of vision. One hand extended to one another will ultimately save this country.”