Journalist Maria Hinojosa Shares the Books That Helped Her Trust Her Voice

Posted by Cybil on September 28, 2020
 
Award-winning journalist Maria Hinojosa’s highly anticipated new book, Once I Was You: A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America, arrives in the U.S. on September 15. In it, the founder of the nonprofit Futuro Media shares her experience growing up Mexican American on the south side of Chicago and documenting the existential wasteland of immigration detention camps for news outlets that often challenged her work.

Here, she shares some of the books that helped form who she is as a writer and storyteller. 

The first language that I spoke in my home was Spanish and the first word that I tried to learn in English was supercalifragilisticexpialidocious from Mary Poppins. It’s no surprise then that I grew up feeling a little bit confused about language.

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The first books that I saw that were children’s books were in my classroom because my parents read only in Spanish. The first books that I was able to read were the likes of Dick and Jane, who had nothing to do with my life at all. In many ways I wanted to be them but I never thought I was good enough.

Moreover, my whole experience with reading and writing was always the perception that I was the other, that I was not from here, that English was not my first language, that we spoke Spanish at home, that I was an imposter, and that I didn’t know how to write; in fact, I was told by people that I didn’t know how to write.

Every time I sit down to write, even today, I have to convince myself that I’m good enough to do it. And now I’m able to break through those barriers and find enjoyment as I write because I’m trusting my own voice to write the way I want to write and tell the stories the way I want to tell stories and know that I’m not having to do it to satisfy anyone else.

I’ve understood and come to own my own power and my own narrative, which is why I wrote this book, and formed my own company, and do all the work that I do.

The following are the books that throughout my life have helped me believe that I too can write and tell stories. 

 
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Reading the work of Ernest Hemingway made me believe that I too could be a writer because he wrote in such a sparse and direct kind of way. His stories took me to issues of social justice in a country that I had some relationship with, Spain. There was something about the fact that I saw myself reflected as a writer in a person most unlike me—a white man, Bohemian, from the Midwest—and yet he spoke to me and that was very powerful.


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This book is a journalist’s take on the violent student uprising in 1968 that the Mexican government denied. The writing is a Spanish that was so clear and straightforward to me, especially when I was used to a much more “flowery” Spanish. Elena Poniatowska is a journalist and the daughter of Polish immigrants in Mexico, and I just thought she was such a badass for having written that book in the face of the Mexican government. She was a petite blonde woman who was clapping back to the Mexican government and I was very inspired by that. I think that laid the roots of journalism in me.


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When I got to college, reading This Bridge Called My Back and the work of Cherríe L. Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa were seminal works that allowed me to understand who I was. The fact that they formed their own publishing press named the Kitchen Table Press was also influential to me. They helped me understand that I was from multiple places and that was OK; this intersectionality made me feel visible. Also, their writing was a writing I could identify with. It spoke to me. That was a very important book to me in my college years. 


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I also read this during my college years. I had seen Las Dos Fridas when I was about 10 years old in Mexico City at the Museum of Modern Art, and was completely captivated by that painting and by this person. Frida Kahlo was not the icon that she is now, but I had seen enough of her face that when I saw this book I had to get it immediately. What I learned and loved about this book was the way it was written as a biography with a complete nod to history. Moreover, it helped me understand how you can make history real and approachable and how it gives context to an artist’s life. In the end, I think that is what I’m trying to do with Once I Was You—give history and context in meaningful ways. 


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When I read the work of Isabel Allende, not only did I find the novels all-encompassing, beautiful, fun to read, entertaining, engrossing, and creating this magical realism from a woman’s perspective, but she is also a former journalist. I was beginning to have a kind of through line of women who were journalists as well as other kinds of writers.


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This was a beautiful book for me because it wasn’t often when I saw myself reflected in a story. Sandra Cisneros grew up in Chicago, which is where I also grew up, and we both had this relationship to Mexico. It’s a story of a young Latina trying to find her way in her home country, and there is just so much of my own life that I see in it. Sandra Cisneros is such a beautiful, sparse writer and her work made me trust my own style of writing even more.


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Later in my career I read this, which was seminal for me in helping me to understand my role as a journalist of color and a conscience in the United States. I am a part of a continuum that in many ways started with Frederick Douglass through his printed newspaper, as well as journalists of color and of conscience like Jovita Idár from Texas and Ida B. Wells. I understand that I stand on their shoulders because they are journalists of color who opened the doors for someone like me to end up having this experience as an American journalist. This book just opened my eyes like none other in terms of my profession.


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I read both the adult version and young adult version of this book, and in some ways I loved the young adult version more because it is so real in terms of the language—it is conversational, nonhierarchical, nonjudgmental, approachable, and yet has heart. This book allows us to understand the history and gives us the context that we need to understand the trauma that we are living through still, many of us as immigrants, POC, Indigenous people, trans people, the excluded, the other...there is a history here. One of the biggest messages you take away from Stamped is the response from people to this kind of structural and systemic racism has always been to tell our stories, to flip the narrative and take control of it. In many ways, that’s what I’ve dedicated my life to and is certainly what I’m trying to do with my own book.


Are there books that formed who you are today? Share them with us in the comments.

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