'First Latina' Maria Hinjosa on reporting for the new America
Maria Hinojosa, the founding host of public radio’s Latino USA, was the first Latina reporter at NPR, the first Latina correspondent on CNN, the first Latina to anchor PBS’s Frontline, and, in the 1980s, the first Latina to host a primetime TV talkshow, New York Hotline.
With the September debut of America by the Numbers from her new production company, Futuro Media Group, Hinojosa will be the first Latina to executive produce and anchor a public affairs program on PBS. FAIR’s Janine Jackson interviewed her on July 23.
Extra!: In these “first Latina” situations, did you see pushing for diversity as part of your job?
Maria Hinojosa: I absolutely felt that way. I felt that from the moment I walked in the doors at NPR in Washington in 1985, that it was me that was opening the door, but that I was carrying this very heavy weight of responsibility. And that was the thing that motivated me, essentially, to be fearless—because I was scared. I was like a fish out of water. There had never been any Latinas at NPR! You can imagine, I was really like a specimen. And I don’t mean that in a terribly bad way, but it was definitely strange.
That did make it easier for me to just say, you have got to open your mouth every chance you get that you’re not absolutely petrified that if you say something you’re going to lose your job. As often as you possibly can, you have to be inserting yourself and raising questions. You have a much keener sense of what you’re doing, and why, when you’re in that situation. So I think in a lot of ways it makes me a better journalist. But it is a constant rolling the ball up the hill.
If I felt the weight in 1985, I think that because I was young, that weight felt different. Now that I’m older and so much has passed and the state of our country right now, it’s not like I feel like I’m carrying a weight, I feel like I’m carrying a boulder. But I feel like it’s a historic boulder.
The thing that absolutely keeps me going, regardless of how I see myself: Being this Latina voice means that people are watching, and I don’t want to let them down! I don’t want to let them down.
E!: Would you say there’s more resistance to diversity now than back then?
MH: In 1985, it was kind of new, and I think I was in some ways really lucky. When I think about the fact that Scott Simon and I at NPR did one of the first stories about Salvadoran refugees and immigrants in detention…. There was a kind of novelty about it. If you had good journalists, they’d say, “I never heard of that story, go do it, that sounds fascinating.”
Now it’s more of a challenge, because there’s so much more at play here. This is not, “Go report on a story in a community we’ve never heard about, do it once and that’s great.” What we’re really talking about, and what Futuro Media Group really signifies, is a qualitative change that says, “We now understand that we have to take editorial control.” We are the new mainstream, and as such we have an editorial perspective. It’s not better or worse than anyone else’s; we’re saying it’s equal to, that’s all. And we are doing what I have always said I want young journalists to do, which is to own your own power.
E!: You once said you were not going to become management. Was starting Futuro a “want to” or a “need to”?
MH: It was a want and a need. I also wanted to create a space where younger journalists—whether they’re of color or not, but journalists who have a different sensibility—have a place where they can work with professional, network-level journalists and learn the tools of the trade, and help to create the next generation.
You know, PBS just had its big meeting with the television critics association in L.A. It’s a big deal for me to be on stage with Judy Woodruff, Gwen Ifill and the deputy executive producer of Frontline, who’s also a woman; that’s the fun thing. But the reality behind that, the “women of PBS,” is a lot of hard work, of negotiating. And Judy Woodruff said, “What a bold move to create your own company and be in control,” and for me to hear Judy Woodruff telling me it’s a bold move…. [laughs] I was like, “Oh, cool.”
So I think when I said that, I was firmly saying that in the context of working at CNN, I needed to stay true to being on the editorial team and out on the ground and doing reporting. I was not interested in becoming part of the CNN management team, because that would’ve killed me, killed my heart and soul and everything else.
E!: You seem to still be excited about the possibilities of journalism.
MH: I feel like we’re doing really good work, both in Latino USA as well as with this pilot, America by the Numbers [ABTN]. I’m just really proud of the content. People understand that we’re trying to do something different, and they get it.
At the TV Critics Association, we actually ended up talking a lot about race, because it’s the thing that people aren’t talking about in terms of this presidential election. I continued to bring it back to say, we have to talk about race, ethnicity and change, because it’s clearly happening all around us; to not talk about it is stupid.
But, I said, let me paint a picture of complexity for the new America, the new mainstream: [On ABTN,] we interview a family in Clarkston [Georgia] from Bhutan. They’ve been here 18, 20 years, so their kids, who were two, four, six, when they came here, they’ve basically grown up here. And they’re all newly registered voters, all five of the family.
And yet the brother who is the youngest is a hip-hop dude. He’s a Bhutanese hip-hopper from Atlanta, and he loves Ron Paul. He’s, like, 20 years old. His two older sisters love Obama, specifically because of healthcare. The mother is completely undecided. The father says: “I’m a conservative man from Bhutan; this whole thing about gay marriage and abortion, I’m not into that. But I’m not sure if I like Romney.”
That’s, like, you have a picture; you see how complex it is? That is the nuanced complexity of the new America that we are really trying to show.
And there’s a reason why we ended up going with the title America by the Numbers. My entire career I have always been criticized for having a quote-unquote “agenda.” This gets really tiring, because you’re like: I do not have an agenda; I want to tell good stories, untold stories, and I have a perspective that is unique, but that doesn’t mean that I have an “agenda.” So we decided to start our stories with a number that’s a factual number, and through the number, we tell the bigger story. A 50 percent dropout rate for Latinos; what does that mean? We have to get behind the number, but that number is real.
That’s why we went with that title, and the treatment that uses animation, which is also very rare in news reporting and public affairs. I wanted to tell certain stories that in television people say, “You can’t tell that because it’s a numbers story.”