Maria Hinojosa Reflects On 20 Years Covering Latinos

Aug 21, 2013
Originally published on August 20, 2013 5:13 pm

Amid the continuing debate over immigration reform, one person who has been looking past the headlines is Maria Hinojosa.

She’s host and executive producer of the nationally syndicated public radio program “Latino USA,” which has been telling the stories of immigrants and Latinos for the past 20 years.

“The original impetus for this show was that Latino news was not being covered by the mainstream across the board,” Hinojosa told Here & Now. “We are central characters … These are basically American stories. So it doesn’t just matter to Latinos, it matters to everyone.”

Covering these stories for 20 years, it’s kind of sad that in many ways we are talking about the same things.
–Maria Hinojosa

Twenty years on, Hinojosa says the way Latinos are covered in the media continues to be problematic.

Latinos in the media

“It would be great to be able to say there’s been total and utter progress, but in fact, covering these stories for 20 years, it’s kind of sad that in many ways we are talking about the same things,” Hinojosa said.

She calls America’s relationship to Latinos the “U.S. Mambo,” meaning Latinos take one step forward but two steps back.

“On the one hand we have huge stars in the mainstream — everybody knows them — big success stories,” Hinojosa said. “[But] Latinos have the fastest growing prison population, and the fastest growing population detained in immigrant detention centers, and a spike in hate crimes against Latinos.”

These “mixed messages,” as Hinojosa calls them, are most apparent in the national conversation about immigration.

Immigration reform

Immigration policy under discussion is currently based on securing the border, but it does not focus on the 11 million people living in the United States without documents, Hinojosa said.

“Even with immigration reform, those numbers of 400,000 people being deported every year will continue, if not increase,” she said. “That insecurity people are living with, and think might go away with immigration reform, will not. And it could get worse.”

Hinojosa says the way the United States treats undocumented immigrants says more about its values than the immigrants who come here.

“For our country that has based itself as an immigrant country, what does this mean about who we are?”


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Well, there are a couple of weeks left until Congress comes back to Washington, and it appears that the earful members of Congress are getting from constituents at home has more to do with the Affordable Care Act than immigration reform. In fact since the August recess began, several House Republicans have come out in favor of a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants here illegally.

There will be a race to get something passed when lawmakers return before the focus on Washington shifts to the 2014 elections. Now we've heard from many different voices on this program about the prospects for immigration reform, but our next guest has spent the last 20 years telling the stories of Hispanics in America. She is Maria Hinojosa, the host and executive producer of the weekly NPR show, LATINO USA, which looks at issues through the lens of Latinos in America.

Maria, thank you for joining us, and tell us first how the big issues have changed for Latinos in the last 20 years.

MARIA HINOJOSA, BYLINE: Whoa, well, in 20 years of covering Latinos in the United States, well, a lot has changed, and a lot hasn't. And that's really the sad part about it, Jeremy, because, you know, it would be great to be able to say oh, there's been total and utter progress, but in fact, covering these stories for 20 years, it's kind of sad that in many ways we are talking about the same things.

I mean, what I can tell you is that we have a huge fan base, dedicated because they know that we've been telling these stories that were often seen as Latino stories, and people I think now, after listening to our show for 20 years, have understood that yeah, we are, in fact, part and parcel of the American reality.

Big number for us in the last decade, 43 percent is the, you know, the last census report of the population growth of Latinos across the United States. That's huge. But at the same time among Latinos, you know, there is a sense that we're still, our story, our perspective, our - what we're living through, we're not so visible, which is kind of crazy because the original impetus for this show was that Latino news was not being covered by the mainstream across the board and not being covered within public media.

And that's why LATINO USA was born, but you still go out into the community, and there is this sense of, you know what, our stories are still not being told. So that's kind of 20 years in 30 seconds.

HOBSON: Well, there is one thing that is for sure, and that is there are a lot more Latinos in the U.S. now than there were 20 years ago. And yet you use the term the U.S. mambo when describing the way that politicians talk and deal with Latinos. Tell us what you mean by that.

HINOJOSA: Well, U.S. mambo, three steps forward, two steps back, (Spanish spoken) in Spanish. Yeah, it's - and it's not just politicians. It's in general. So what do I mean by this U.S. mambo? Well, we're a trillion-dollar market, you know, huge economic potential, buying power. More Latinos have been deported in the past 15 years than - you know, 10 years - than ever before.

On the one hand we have huge stars in the main stream, everybody knows them, big success stories. Latinos have the fastest growing prison population and the fastest growing population detained in immigrant detention centers, and a spike in hate crimes against Latinos.

So it's a sense of we're visible, we're kind of everywhere, and yet we're not. And among Latinos, it's funny, Jeremy. Sometimes when I'm out there, I'm talking to people, and it's like I'll say do you get this sense that, you know, it's like everybody loves Latinos, and at the same time everybody kind of wants them to just go away. And I know that it sounds flip, but there is this dynamic of a mixed message for Latinos.

And I think one, one little statistic that shows what the sense is that Latina teenagers, you know, these young women in their prime of adolescence, have the highest rate of attempted suicide in our country. So there is a wrath of depression, of sadness around identity and our role in this country that even that story we've covered on Latino USA, but it's not like it's a big story in the mainstream.

So it is, it's (Spanish spoken).

HOBSON: Well, one big test of this, of course, is going to be what happens with immigration reform. There's been a lot of hoopla saying that it's going to happen, it's got to get done this year, but we don't know. And I want to bring you back to a conversation that you had on the show in 2006 with Barack Obama when he was still the senator from Illinois. Let's take a listen.


SENATOR BARACK OBAMA: I think it's easy to say, in theory, we're going to deport 11 million people. I think it's much harder to expect police officers to grab fathers from their children and unilaterally send them across the border.

HOBSON: A position that he still holds, but Maria, is there a chance, do you think, that immigration is going to get through? It's made it through the Senate, but the House looks like an uphill climb.

HINOJOSA: Well, it depends on what day you're asking me and kind of whether I woke up on what side of the bed. I mean, if I want to look at it, the glass half-full, there's a possibility that it could still happen. Glass half-empty is that, you know, critics are calling this, even if it does pass, immigration reform light.

It is heavily based on security, precisely along the border, where border crossings are basically at zero. So it is still a conversation, again like this U.S. mambo, which is on the one hand saying we need to do something about these, you know, 11 million undocumented immigrants living in our country everywhere, but we're really just going to focus right now on what's happening on that border and building that wall.


HINOJOSA: And it's like, you know, there's so much laws - forget the human element of this. What's worrisome, and many economists are saying this, is what this is doing to our economy. If people had papers, they'd be buying houses, they'd be buying cars, they'd be sending their kids off to college. They'd be being more integral in the American economy.

And unfortunately, the truth is is that while then-Senator Obama said this precise thing, which it would be hard to expect police officers to grab fathers from their children and send them across the border, that is exactly the politic that this president has overseen, which was I think a big surprise for many people. And the fact that even with immigration reform, those numbers of 400,000 people being deported every year will continue, if not increase.

It's quite a bait and switch, which is that that insecurity that people are living with and think might go away with immigration reform will not, and it could get worse

HOBSON: We're talking with Maria Hinojosa, anchor and executive producer of Latino USA. We will continue our conversation after a break.


And Jeremy, it's interesting how she talks about the American mambo in terms of relations between Latinos and the country.


HINOJOSA: So listeners, let us know what you think about that. Do you agree that there is an American mambo regarding Latinos in America? Let us know at Back in a minute, HERE AND NOW.


HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW, and let's get back to our conversation with Maria Hinojosa, anchor and executive producer of LATINO USA; that's NPR's weekly show that looks at the news from a Latino point of view. Maria, we were talking about immigration reform. You have been covering the stories of immigrants coming to this country over the last 20 years. How have those stories changed, and is there one that sticks out to you?

HINOJOSA: Well, I think what's happening is - you know, again, if you look at it glass half-full, American democracy is being reinvigorated, and a democracy not just by people who can vote but people who are engaged with our society, right? So one of the things that's happened is that young people, the DREAMers, these are young people who were brought here as children, who dream of going to school or serving in the military but can't because they're undocumented, they become increasingly more active.

And so one of the stories that we broke is a piece we call "Infiltrating Broward," and this is the Broward Detention Center in South Florida. And the piece that we did actually got in on the ground floor, when young DREAMers decided to challenge the detention of low-priority cases, in other words people who are not criminals.

And they decided to get themselves detained, even though they were all undocumented immigrants. So this is putting their lives on the line. And we drop into this story. Mohammed Abdullahi(ph) is prepping Viridiana Martinez just before she's going to get herself purposely detained, and let's take a listen.


MOHAMMED ABDULLAHI: Hey, on the legal side of things, don't (unintelligible) under any conditions.


ABDULLAHI: And if you think things are going south, then I don't know, I'm reconsidering, I want to talk to my (unintelligible), I want to talk to my (unintelligible), whatever, whatever, whatever, and then call me.


ABDULLAHI: You good?

MARTINEZ: Yeah, I'm gonna cry, so...

HOBSON: And Maria, when was this? What year was this?

HINOJOSA: It was 2012, as a matter of fact, just right around the corner. What's interesting to me, Jeremy, is, you know, there's a lot of talk, especially now as we're getting to the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, so much talk about where is civil rights, the movement in our country.

In fact, we, LATINO USA, believe that there is a civil rights movement that is taking place right now, and for many people like on "Mad Men," it's kind of just on the background, you know, you see it on the evening news, and maybe you know about it, maybe you don't, in fact it's a movement that is alive, and it's changing all of us, because any time that you have an engagement with the civil rights conversation or the human rights conversation, it applies to all of us who live in this country.

So - and then these young people are doing actions like what happened in Broward a couple of years ago, as well as what happened just a couple of weeks ago, when nine DREAMers again were purposefully detained in order to challenge the detention of immigrants now. They were released and their cases are pending for political asylum.

HOBSON: I went to South Florida and interviewed an immigrant who had just come here, who was still looking for that American dream. She had come from Venezuela. I wonder what your experience has been with new immigrants to this country in 2013, for example, compared with back 20 years ago.

HINOJOSA: Well, it depends what kind of immigrant. If they're an undocumented immigrant and they are new to this country and it's their first time, they're probably going to be in a rural or suburban part of the United States. That is very different than 20 years ago. Twenty years ago they were mostly coming to major urban centers. Twenty years ago the fact that Latinos, actually that Mexicanos were coming to New York was a big story. I covered that when I worked at NPR.

Now Mexicanos and Latinos are everywhere. They're in Wyoming, they're in Nebraska, they're in North Carolina, they're in Alaska, they're in Hawaii, they are everywhere. But if they're a new immigrant, the other thing that's different is that 20 years ago they were not looking over their shoulder at every moment expecting to be stopped by police and asked to present papers, and they were not being rounded up and deported and put in detention centers the way they're being rounded up now.

So a different dynamic, and again, for our country that's based itself as an immigrant country, what does this really mean about who we are, not those people who are coming but who we are and how we treat them as they come to our country?

HOBSON: Now, on a much different note, LATINO USA did a piece in 1993, 20 years ago, about the Latino characters on "Sesame Street." Tell us about that.

HINOJOSA: So almost everybody in our country knows about the married couple on "Sesame Street," Maria and Luis. In fact, they are the couple that people in real life happen to think that they are actually a couple, but they're not, they're just actors. And Maria from "Sesame Street" is an actress. Her name is Sonia Manzano, and she's actually a very prolific actress and writer.

And so we wanted to give this different perspective about Maria, who everybody knows as, you know, the mom on "Sesame Street," and we wanted her to tell us about the fact that she not only acts on "Sesame Street" but actually writes for "Sesame Street," and this was a segment that she had just written for the show.


SONIA MANZANO: I had the opportunity to write a show where Maria's family comes to visit, and I wanted everyone in Maria's family to be a different skin color because that occurs in a lot of Hispanic families, Puerto Rican especially, and actually have a puppet say, wow, but he's darker than you, how could he be related?

HOBSON: So a very different side of this mainstream show that we all know and love.

HINOJOSA: Exactly. We want to give that perspective. And in essence, again, this notion of Latinos are everywhere, we are central characters, whether it's "Sesame Street" or whether it's, you know, somebody who's running for office in your state, we are central characters, and at LATINO USA we make Latinos the central characters of our reporting. And again, these are basically American stories.

So it doesn't just matter to Latinos. It matters to everyone.

HOBSON: Maria Hinojosa is the anchor and executive producer of LATINO USA and president of the Futuro Media Group, 20 years of LATINO USA, and it's about to become an hour-long program, right?

HINOJOSA: We are so excited. Starting September 6, LATINO USA grows from being a half-an-hour show every week to an hour show. So look for it on your schedules. We're really excited. It's big news for us.

HOBSON: Maria Hinojosa, thanks so much.

HINOJOSA: Oh, my pleasure.

CHAKRABARTI: And before the break, there's an update on a story we brought you yesterday about the prison hunger strike in California. A federal judge has approved a request from prison officials to force-feed, if necessary, inmates who are striking. Officials say they are worried about inmates' health, but prisoner advocates say force-feeding would only further their suffering.

The strike is now in its seventh week, and people have been talking about it on following our segment yesterday. That's when we heard from two people with very different views. Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, defended the Security Housing Units, which some call solitary confinement, that the prisoners are protesting against.

TERRY THORNTON: Certain inmates are housed in Security Housing Units because their conduct endangers the safety of others or the security of the prison.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, one of those inmates is Ronnie Dewberry, the brother of Marie Levin, who we also heard from.

MARIE LEVIN: I don't want him to die, but if him continuing in this fight for some kind of relief for himself and the other prisoners that are suffering under the same conditions, if that means that he needs to go forth and continue on, then I'm with him.

HOBSON: Well Meghna, we heard from a lot of listeners about this at One wrote: These men are not in solitary confinement because they stole a tricycle. They are hardened criminals who, due to their behavior, have been removed from society and for their further actions removed even from the other men in the prison. Their own behavior has dictated their confinement.

CHAKRABARTI: But Nick78 disagrees. When the U.S. has more prisoners than the gulags of Russia during the heyday of the USSR, things are definitely not right in the system, Nick78 writes. We'd love to hear your thoughts on this story or any other. Go to

HOBSON: You can also go to We're also on Twitter, @hereandnow. I am @jeremyhobson.

CHAKRABARTI: And I'm #meghnawbur. Latest news is next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.