Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Review: Maria Hinojosa. Once I Was You A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America.

Review: Maria Hinojosa. Once I Was You A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America. 

NY: Atria, 2020.

Michael Sedano


In recent months I struggled with the mechanics of reading electronic books on my computer screen. I kept getting lost and, unable to locate my place, found myself reading through again until finding where I’d left off. I enjoyed the search capabilities of ebooks; I used search to find my spot. But reading shouldn’t involve a bunch of typing and mouse clicks, reading should be effortless fun. Reading an ebook was a chore. Mechanics had defeated my desire to sit down and read.


My ebook error lay in habits built from a lifetime of real books. Reading on the computer is not analogous to reading on paper and there’s my flaw. I figured out I’m not supposed to read the words but scroll the page. 


Now, rather than move my eyes along a page and getting lost, my axis of vision remains more or less fixed in place while text scrolls past with the touch of a space bar or a mousepad. I don’t know that I want to keep reading electronic books, but my discovery--plus magnifying my screen to make big lletters--added to my enjoyment of Maria Hinojosa’s Once I Was You A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America.


Hinojosa takes her title from a chance airport encounter. The seasoned radio and television reporter happens across a child in ICE custody. They converse in Spanish, the scared child herded alone into the unknown by strangers, the helpless reporter who witnesses the child disappear. Up to a point, Hinojosa is the little girl. 


As a toddler, the reporter migrates to the United States from Mexico. When a border agent decides the baby has to be quarantined, Hinojosa’s mother’s uncharacteristic outrage cowers the anglo and Maria Hinojosa begins comfortable life as the child of an immigrant academic. 


That border crossing must have been a family story oft-retold. Hinojosa reports it as if she witnessed her mother refusing to let the Texan seize her baby, quoting the confrontation as well as, in Spanish, her mother’s inner thoughts. English-only readers will be happy the author translates every word of Spanish. That’s not the only liberty Once I Was You, takes in the author’s service of creative non-fiction memoir. 


Once I Was You practices good journalism while it’s practicing interesting memoir. The journalist gets into and under the stories everyone knows while offering new ways to think about what we thought we knew. At the same time, the memoirist strips away the disinterested passionless ethos of reportage and tells what she really thinks about the materials and the work that earned her national media recognition.


The result offers a hybrid text that touches upon political science, working motherhood, and news media back office chisme. Once I Was You also tells women’s stories, relationships with men, lovers, rape stories, owning one’s sexuality, a marriage saved.


What the journalist really thinks about national immigration policy she expresses in the title, “hate.” She exposes the hate that motivates U.S. immigration behaviors. She points the finger of accountability at the people responsible for that little girl in 2019 being shuffled off to somewhere by a Latina ICE who’s just doing her job.


Back in 1996, Bill Clinton criminalized immigration. Next, Bush the First and the GOP cohort enthusiastically pursue punitive immigration policies. Then Obama gets tougher than Republicans on immigrants, sending fear through students of being rounded up and summarily deported, like any other illegal.


Hinojosa loves her gente. A career in NPR LatinoUSA and in television journalism illustrates her ability to turn personal concern—love—into professional coverage of the heroism of students sitting-in at an Obama campaign office. Had it not been for that sit-in, Obama would never have created DACA. 


While Obama gets the credit for DACA, Hinojosa shows what Obama really created: a government-sponsored torture camp in Willacy Texas. The horror springs into existence within hours of a budget signed off. Local jobs for minimum wage latinos, hired to guard poor raza, making sweet profit of a company who will not leave any money on the table so long as the government keeps sending bodies to fill the bed capacity. Overnight, Obama fills the tents. 


As a journalist, Maria Hinojosa plays a prominent role among fellow news professionals. As a raza journalist, Hinojosa’s a giant. As a woman and raza professional, the person expresses self-doubt while surviving incredible stress. The men in control of who gets stories on the air, and the men she works with in the field, offer discouraging words and misogyny. Women survive in the face of it. In one triumphant instance, an executive assigns a dumb blonde rookie to produce a major segment on raza in Georgia. Set up for failure, two women triumph, finding a fearless woman and a stone racist to tell the story of invisible Georgia Mexicans.


In an unexpected revelation, readers learn that the fearless woman got her ass tracked down by ICE and deported. As unexpected, the male jerks on her crew begin treating Hinojosa decently when she works pregnant.


The journalist is the sole income in the family. With the jerks at the top of her news networks, Hinojosa lives with constant stress that losing her job means her family doesn’t eat. Stress atop stress-- the news she reports dismays her to her core—needs release. Her husband offers a supportive ear—he wants her to quit that job, and she chafes at “the idea of a man telling me what to do." 


It’s not contradiction that the journalist relies upon her husband to provide reference points. She’s willing to consider doing a segment on a sex toys party hosted for born-again Christians; he wants her to take that job and shove it, sole breadwinner or not.


The torture camp at Willacy, Texas shocks her soul profoundly. Husband identifies her pain: her Mexican immigrant self has completely bought into the mythos of “American exceptionalism.”


American guards in immigrant concentration camps are exceptionally cruel. Keep your children with you or we’ll take them, the guards threaten. Talk back, we’ll take your children. A woman wakes from deep sleep and her child is gone. For hours she screams cries pleads irritates the guards who are making a point: obey or we’ll take your kids like we did to that illegal alien.


Reading the horror stories from the nation’s immigration cash cow turn any reader’s stomach. The seasoned journalist voice comes at you relentlessly, not from some America-hating atavism, but from artistic purpose: Sandra Cisneros advised Hinojosa that a writer’s job is to write stuff she wants to forget.


“Write about the things you wish you could forget, not the things you remember. But the things you try but can’t forget about.”


In a large sense, Once I Was You is this author’s way of freeing herself from any notion of national exceptionalism in exchange for personal accountability, the I, the You. 


Some readers, if they have eyes, can see themselves in those Willacy or Florida guards, as Hinojosa sees herself in that little immigrant detainee. Trapped now, but not forever. Look over here, soma pa’ca. Once I was you.

 Maria Hinojosa. Once I Was You A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America. NY: Atria, 2020.


Anonymous said...

Love this review EM Sedano. Best compliment...makes one want to read the book. Like you, not an ebook fan, though. Nicki De Neco

Daniel Cano said...

I agree with Nicki, nice to-the-point description of perfectly chosen incidents in the book, and a provided touch of immigration history, reminding us Democrats have little room to criticize Republicans for the state of immigration today.

Concepcion said...

Gracias, Michael, for this beautiful review of a very painful, insightful memoire.