The press availability in a small conference room at the University of New Haven’s Dodds Hall gets off to an awkward start as those gathered fumble over who sits where at the conference table.
The younger Anglo-American journalists, one of them a student, ask safe, standardized questions meant to elicit safe, standardized answers for an agreeable news feature on the keynote speaker for the university’s 2017 Women’s Leadership Conference.
“How did you get your start?
“Who were the people who most influenced you in your career?”
The subject of the interview is award-winning broadcast journalist María Hinojosa, who, minutes later, addressed a group of about 300 conference participants on “Raising Our Voices, Telling Our Stories; Claiming Our Power.” A five-foot tall, self-described chaparra, wearing a spotted-leopard dress and knee-high black boots with three-inch heals, she seizes the opportunity to recount her 30-year success story.
“I started in journalism as a college student at Barnard College, working in the student radio station,” she begins. “I never thought I could be a journalist because there were no Latina journalists when I was growing up. We didn’t exist,” she continues. “A career counselor at Barnard forced me to apply for an internship at National Public Radio. I didn’t think I was good enough, but she insisted.”
Hinojosa got the internship, which later grew into a permanent correspondent’s position, making her the first Latina hired at National Public Radio. NPR, it turned out, was the first of many firsts for Ms. Hinojosa. From there, she explains, she went on to become the first Latina CNN correspondent, the first Latina correspondent at PBS, and the first Latina to anchor a FRONTLINE report, a report called “Lost in Detention” that explored abuse at immigrant detention facilities. She has also done work for CBS News, WNBC-TV in New York and WGBH in Boston.
She currently heads Futuro Media Group, a non-profit company that produces her signature Peabody Award-winning show, Latino USA, which is distributed to 200 stations nationwide by NPR. She also anchors the PBS show America by the Numbers with María Hinojosa, a unique data-driven program dedicated to continually tracking the changing cultural and political trends in the United States, particularly as they pertain to Latinos.
“Did you know, that Latina women are the demographic group that American consumer companies most want to capture?” she tells her audience later. “Studies show that they are more likely to make all the purchasing decisions in their family than any other women.”
Ms. Hinojosa’s body of work has earned her four Emmys; the 2012 John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism; the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Reporting on the Disadvantaged; the Studs Terkel Community Media Award; and the Edward R. Murrow Award from the Overseas Press Club for best documentary Child Brides: Stolen Lives. She is also the author of two books, Raising Paul: Adventures Raising Myself and My Son, and Crews: Gang Members Talk with María Hinojosa.
Things get interesting when she is asked why she chose to form her own media production company after PBS canceled her program and she did not return to on air reporting.
“The buck stops with me. I wouldn’t have to pitch my story ideas to anyone else to get a yay or a nay. I wanted editorial control,” she says. Many of the stories the Futuro Media Group produces for different outlets would not have gotten on the air otherwise. “I wanted a newsroom where young people of diverse backgrounds could propose story ideas and not feel like they were the odd person out.”
Those stories include a history of the sanctuary movement in the United States; an interview with an inter-sex Latina musician; a feature on an undocumented Mexican New Yorker tattoo artist; an hour long program on the 100-year-old Fiesta de Los Vaqueros, otherwise known as the Tucson Rodeo; and stories on Latino Jews; Latino Asians; Latino Trump supporters and bodegas.
For those who haven’t guessed by now, shining a light on the ongoing racial, ethnic and cultural diversification of the United States remains central to everything that María Hinojosa is and everything her company produces. Born in Mexico City, she grew up on south side of Chicago because her father had secured a university position in the city. She lives with her husband, artist Germán Pérez, and their two children in Harlem, where her production company is located. The family also owns a hideaway cottage named Boca Chica in an undisclosed part of Connecticut.
“I am the five things that this particular U.S. president may not be all thumb-up about: I’m Mexican; I’m an immigrant; I’m a journalist; I’m a woman; and I’m flat chested,” she says.
But, above all else, Ms. Hinojosa stresses that she is a true-blue American, who meant it when she took an oath to take up arms to defend the United States at her citizenship ceremony, but who is perplexed and uncomfortable that many like her, Latinos in particular, remain a relatively invisible part of American society.
“I am a living embodiment of diversity and change in America,” she says. “It’s part of my job to say we’re here.”