ANNA SALE: Hello, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Maria Hinojosa!
MARIA HINOJOSA: Yeah! (laughs) You're so funny.
I called up Maria Hinojosa last week, just a few days after she and her team at Futuro Media had won one of the top journalism prizes in the world, for a podcast series called Suave. It’s about a man named David Luis Gonzalez, who goes by Suave, whom Maria first met more than 25 years ago.
Suave was incarcerated at 17 with a life sentence, and the series tells the story of how he got there, what happened when he got out in his 50s, and how Maria and Suave’s relationship evolved over the years. Maria was shocked by the Pulitzer.
MH: Dude, I, I, I kind of loved the fact that I didn't even know that the team had submitted for a Pulitzer. So here I am in the middle of a meeting actually, as per usual, trying to raise money to do what we do. And, and, um, I just, my phone starts blowing up and I don't, I don't understand what's going on. You know, I, I said to the person in the meeting, I said, "Please give me one moment. Something is happening. And I don't know what. I need to look at my phone." And that's when, um, yeah, that's when I realized, and I just started screaming, uh, out of my mind. I ran into my husband. He's like, "¿Qué pasó? ¿Qué pasó?" And I’m like, "We won a Pulitzer!"
Um, and it is the first time that a Latina-run media company is recognized by the Pulitzers. I mean, by the way, I'm like in my Harlem neighborhood, people are stopping to like, congratulations! They're rolling down their car windows, they're like, "We love you, Maria!" I mean, it's just so beautiful. It's like a community win. It's like, this is a win for us.
And in celebration of this community win, we’re going to share our episode with Maria from 2020 with you again.
I’ve thought about this conversation so much in the two years since she and I spoke. A lot of what she talks about resonated: about loving your work fiercely, and how that can collide with nurturing the relationships in your life. I think you’ll find it a comforting and inspiring listen.
Also, I want to let you know that this episode includes a description of a rape. It comes up at the start of the second half, if you want to skip.
Maria Hinojosa: I don't, I don't think you can be practicing self love and being angry at everybody else. I just don't think you can do it. I don't think you can be like, oh my God. And I'm going to go and meditate, but I hate this motherfucker and fuck you and I hate you, and you and you, and I’m not forgiving, no. So this is what I'm saying, that I had to have a moment where everything would have came crumbling down except for key people in my life who said, you know these people love you, right? So, so, so what are you going to do?
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot…
...and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
For more than 25 years, journalist Maria Hinojosa has hosted the public radio show Latino USA. She's also been a correspondent for NPR, PBS, and CNN, and is the CEO of her own production company.
MH: In order to survive the world that I've been playing in, the world of media, you have to have a huge fucking ego. There ain't no other way to do it.
In most newsrooms where she’s worked, Maria was the first or only Latina. And she writes in a new memoir, called Once I Was You, she’s often felt underestimated and undermined by her white colleagues.
MH: And I talk about this a lot, by the way, to my students. Uh, most of whom are of color, most of whom are first-generation, is that as Latinos and Latinas and as women and people of color in general, we have to walk. And I actually, I, I strut for them. I get in the front of the class. Usually I'm wearing my six inch heels or something like that. So strutting is easy, and I'm strutting and I'm like, you are walking in a space like this! Your shoulders are back, you know everything about everybody. You are the shit. We have to um fluff up our own peacock feathers as we walk into any space and believe like we are the most incredible people… because we have to!
But when we talked, Maria admitted that all these decades of having to push and puff herself up, have taken a toll.
MH: You know, my marriage almost broke up because of my ego. And the, the, the ego of course stems from insecurity. It’s all insecurity. And my trusty companion is the imposter syndrome that's just right there on my shoulder.
Maria knew she wanted to be a journalist since she was a teenager growing up in Chicago. She came to New York in 1979 for college, and hosted a late-night radio show, playing Latin American protest music and interviewing activists… and throwing some legendary New York City dance parties.
MH: So there'd be like 300 people with a DJ, no air conditioning, completely sweating it up. And we’d dance until four o'clock in the morning. And then depending on whether or not we had money, we'd get on the subway and the subway was completely graffitied up. Again, no air conditioning, and we'd be rocking on the subways at four o'clock in the morning.
Anna Sale: I want to go back to when you first arrived in New York City, and you had grown up in, in a Mexican family in Chicago, you were the youngest of your siblings. You arrive in New York City. When you think about the, the community that you built. what did it look like? And how did you find them?
MH: Um, thank you for taking me back to this. Ah, I love this part of my life. I swear I was so much fun and it was so much fun. Oh my god, it was so much fun. It was New York City, early 1980s. By the way, there were no Mexicans in New York. Couldn't find tortillas anywhere. Nowhere.
AS: In New York City?
MH: Couldn’t find my—nowhere in New York City could you find tortillas.
MH: Nowhere. Nowhere. Had to start having them sent to me in a box from Chicago. Um, so, so you know what it felt like, it felt like I would walk out and I'd be like, oye me, soy Mexicana, and then would be like, y que?
MH: You're Mexican and so what? And what that allowed me to do, and for some Mexicans, this is controversial, but for me, it allowed me to walk away from my Mexican nationalism, because I, I really don’t, I think nationalism any, in any way, shape or form is, well, hello, we're living through it. And so I was glad to be able to walk away from my Mexican nationalism, my Mexican-centric experience in Chicago, and just be like, bro, wait, wait, yo soy Latino Americana. I'm Latin American, yo, I got, I got my Argentinian people over here. I got my Salvadoreans. I'm eating pupusas, I'm dancing salsa. Celia Cruz is now a part of my life. You know, everything exploded for me. And I felt like I was part of a continent.
AS: I love that! I'm part of a continent. Is that something you actually said out loud? Like there was—
AS: Yeah, I, huh.
MH: Oh, absolutely. Also, because this was the 1980s in Latin America, and we were very conscious about, uh, a unified Latin America. This was a time of, of a lot of activism. And I was, to be, to be clear, among Latinos and Latinas, this is an interesting and necessary conversation, but there were people who were like, óyeme Maria, why do you, why do you identify as a Latina? You're Mexican. And I'm like, Latina is all of us. Yeah, but you know, you're not Puerto Rican. I'm like, no, I'm not. And so I always, again, opened up the conversation as like, can we see our humanity in each other? And that was, I mean, that was the best experience in New York was just like, oh my God. And then there were, like, this whole Bohemian thing that was going on. There were artists everywhere.
One of those artists was German Perez, who would eventually become Maria’s husband. She met him a few years after graduating from college.
MH: He's like, you got to come and see my artwork. And I'm like, oh boy. And so I went to his house and I saw his paintings and I kind of, th, th, that's it. Like, I was like, you painted this? And it was Taino Indians in an arrieito, in a moon dance that he had captured with all the colors, and the palm trees growing out of their heads. And I was like, ahhh! And then, it could have been a one night stand. But he was like, hey, I'm just letting you know, I'm not playing. I'm looking to form, I’m I'm looking to form a clan. And I was like a clan, a clan? What are you a bear? And he was like, I want my family to be the most important thing in my life. I want to protect my family. And I want a family that we are going to see, we are going to understand that we have to protect and take care of each other. That's what I want to do.
Maria and German married in 1991, and started their family while Maria was also building her career as a journalist. Maria was the primary breadwinner, first as a reporter at NPR, then at CNN starting in 1997. But balancing work, and her time with her husband and their two kids, wasn’t easy.
MH: Doing live television is a drug. It becomes an addiction. It becomes an addiction like an adrenaline addiction. Um, but it can also, you know, it can ruin your life. So, so coming home from work could look like, shit, I was just gone for three days reporting on the beheading of a man in, in, in Iraq. And I was at his parents' home doing live shots, 18 hours a day, and now I'm walking home, and I'm walking into my house, and I have to basically stand at my front door. I learned this from a, from a woman named Marianna who had HIV, and then AIDS. And she would say, when I come home, she was from the Bronx, Puerto Rican. And she, when I come home, AIDS stays outside the door! AIDS do not come inside the door with me! And I was like, what do you mean? She’s like, I stand outside the door. Me hago la limpia. Me limpio. I clean myself. I cleanse, literally, you know, you've seen that, you wipe it off, you wipe it off your face. And you shake your hands, you wipe it off your legs, and that's what I would do. And then I'd walk in the front door and I'd be like, hey! Hola! What's up? And the kids would come running and I'd be like, what's up? Hey Mama. Um, and oftentimes my husband might or might not be happy, you know? Cause he just got stuck with being with the kids for three or four days. So I, it was hard, you know, I mean, it was a real stress. You can’t do that with a partner, um, who is gonna, who's going to give you shit all the time, and we didn't have the kind of salaries to be hiring full time nanny kind of thing.
AS: You talked about being on television feeling addictive. Um, and it's a very competitive environment. You are, at that point already, a very experienced veteran um journalist, uh, do, do you feel like looking back that your time with cable news distorted your values?
MH: Well, that's exactly what my husband would say.
AS: What would he say?
MH: That’s exactly—I, no, no, no. I mean, uh woo, no, I mean, he was like, look, you understand, what's going to happen. You're going to end up on The Tonight Show being made fun of because what CNN is asking you to do. And you are going to suffer the consequences of their ratings game. You are, you know, you need to be very careful because, and I think that, um, I think what actually set him off was… I mean, he, he could see it kind of coming. He was able to see, we could all see it. CNN was suddenly getting flashier. I mean, CNN basically was asking us to, in a ratings battle to be more, um, in Spanish we say amarillista, uh, you know, yellow journalism. You know, you may remember a CNN reporter getting tasered live on camera. And we were all just like, holy shit. And it's like, okay, great, and so now that's, what's expected of us. Like I'm going to have to get tasered in order to be taken seriously by the new president of CNN US. I have to, like, do you understand? Like everything was getting warped.
MH: And German fell in love with me because he saw the journalist in me. He saw the woman who was fighting for the first amendment. So, for German to say, you're, you're teetering here. Like it could happen any moment. And I knew it could. Yeah, it was, it was hard.
MH: The problem is, is that, like, I was rejecting a part of my Mexican Latina mother self, because I didn't want to become my mother and subservient to my husband, but I was kind of throwing out the baby with the bath water, which was like, y'all can take care of yourselves, I'll see you later. I gotta go do this. Cause I got to, I got to build up my ego and I got to keep this job going. And I got to keep on getting to yes, and yes, and yes.
AS: How, what, do you remember the moment you realized, oh, this marriage and family, this, this is not guaranteed to me, I might, I might lose this?
MH: It, it could have happened during those CNN moments, but I think I, um, I just maneuvered out of it really quickly. I was able to get another job, I left CNN, I was hired at NOW on PBS and life changed in different ways, but the moment where that happened and it was very clear was, um, it was 2016.
MH: And, and, and yeah, it was, it was recent. And that was a moment when we, we almost separated. The marriage almost did not make it.
Coming up, the revelation that happened leading up to that crisis point and how Maria had to take a hard look at herself, and her priorities… to preserve her marriage.
MH: I did make a choice. My, my therapist said, you know, Maria, your children, they're going to see what this looks like. They're going to see what this choice looks like. And that's an incredible lesson because he loves you. This man loves you. And honestly, I gotta be very honest with you, the idea of having sex with another person totally freaked me out.
At the beginning of 2022, we asked those of you who teach in a classroom for a living how you were doing. And we heard from many of you… that things were really hard. The Omicron surge, masking, students that were behind academically and out of practice socially. Some of you weren’t sure you wanted to keep at this work, like Lindsay, who teaches in Queens, New York.
LINDSAY: For me, I just feel like all the fun of teaching has gone. I don't know if it'll come back, I'm tempted to just walk away from it all. And, I don't know if it's because the pandemic has changed me, or if it just made me realize that this ain't it.
On our next episode, we check back in with some of the teachers we heard from, about how they’re feeling now that the end of this school year is in sight:
TAMIKA: I'm going to have to just like, you know, work with adults. Working with grown-ups! For like eight hours! I can't break out into song randomly wherever I end up. That's only okay in a classroom.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
In her book, Once I Was You, Maria Hinojosa writes frankly about desire and sex, and also, about how, when she was 16 years old and on a date, she was raped. But it took her years before she could call it that.
MH: I didn't really, I didn't call it a rape.
AS: Uh huh.
MH: You know, uh, it was not, I was definitely not even dealing with it or thinking about it. I grew up on the South side of Chicago. So I understand I was always wary of streets and being alone and being a woman. And, you know, a rape is a man you know with a knife to your neck, uh, in, in, in an alley. I'mma, I'm going to be honest with you. Here's what I used to call it. It was a "baby rape."
AS: Oh, you would say that. Why—
MH: Can you imagine?
AS: Why would you say that?
MH: Because I was like, wait, it wasn't a real rape. It was like a "baby rape." I can't horr, how horrible.
AS: Why, why did "baby rape" feel like a more comfortable way to describe it than to just say rape? What, what did it do? Why was that helpful?
MH: Because it, well one, because I participated, I got in the car. I said, yes, I saw him walking out to go buy rubber, rubbers, condoms. Um, you know, and I didn't get out of the car. I didn't tell him when I realized he was an asshole after all, like, I should have said, take me back home. I don't want to go. And I didn't. And I thought that because I was, I did say no, that I always knew. I always said, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. I said no the whole time. But maybe it was that kind of a no. So was it a screaming no? You know, so I guess that means that it wasn't a real rape. I wasn't screaming... no! The thing about rape and sexual assault with women is that we, it’s, were convinced we, we, we made this happen. We were at fault, there was something wrong with us. Like this is, you know, that's the trajectory. And of course that is deeply ingrained. So it changed when my therapist, we were doing deep therapy on this. and that that was, that was like 2015.
AS: So you were in your fifties, you were in your fifties before you used the word rape for what happened to you as a teenager?
MH: Oh yeah. I was feeling really, I, I, I was admitting in the, in the therapy. I was like, — es que? Why did I do that? Why did I go with him? I mean, like I understood, like why, why, why did I do that? Like I could tell he was an asshole. Like, sure he was cute, but he was nothing special. Like why? And then she said, Maria, you were a 16 year old girl. You had every right to be hot and horny and want him, cause that's what you feel when you're 16. And also, I, I thought I hadn't fought back. You, I mean, now of course, when you do therapy, that's what happens. You're like, oh, shit! It’s that he held me down. That's why I didn't fight back. That's why I hadn't been able to fight back. Once I was able to understand what was going on, it just really just comes all uh vomiting out. I just always was like, why am I, I, I, I said to my therapist, I remember, by now I had been seeing her for 10 years, I, I just like, I don't even know how to start sex. Like, how did—? And she's like, oh really? God, girl, I just walk into the kitchen and I start taking off my bra and I'm just like, I could never, I’m like I could never, you know, just like I could never... thank, thank God that my husband never gave up. Honestly.
As Maria was processing all of this, she was also at a professional high point. After years of working for some of the country’s biggest news organizations, and winning numerous journalism awards along the way, she’d founded her own production company, Futuro Media Group, in 2010.
But the demands of being an executive, while still hosting and reporting, intensified the pressures on her marriage.
MH: I was busy working, and German would be like, sweetie, you know, you're missing all kinds of stuff. And I'd be like, yeah, yeah, yeah. I just got this story to do like, okay, yeah yeah, I just got to do this other thing. Okay. I'll just, I'll be right back. I gotta go do this. I gotta go write this book. I’ll just— You know? It was always, and that's the complaint, you know, is that it was always, there was always something else until it came to a breaking point and then it was like, they're not going to be around. Like, they really are tired of you.
AS: I want to make sure I understand, you say, you know, you, it sounds like you've had a, um, a few different points with your family and with your husband where you've realized you need to make adjustments, but you said the hardest moment was in 2016. What, what happened then?
MH: Um, what happened then was the thing that was always kind of hanging over me, that my best friend Sandy had told me, you need to be careful. You can't keep putting your husband at the bottom of the list of things that are important. You need to write that list of things that matter. Is he in the top, is he number one? Number two? You can’t, you gotta be careful. That moment arrived. When he said sabes que, I'm out. I think it was my ego, it was my bossing people around, it was my telling everybody what to do. You know, it was my inability to slow down and just like, coño, be with people. And, um, and actually in his case, to just look at him, give him time, respect, you know, I learned about the five love languages. You know, he needs time. I don’t. You know, I need other things. German wrote a nine page letter by hand to my therapist, so that my therapist could understand what was going on. Um, cause he was like, I don't even want to, I'm, I’m done like doing the therapy thing, but he wrote this letter and… and he said, but you should read it. And I was so angry, I was so angry. I was like, you know, I was like, okay you want to leave? We want to separate? Okay, fine. You know, as soon as the daughter goes off to school, you know, you'll move out or I'll move out. Anger, anger, anger. And then I was actually coming back from uh, I don't know what trip I was, and I read the letter and it was German’s heart. And suddenly I was able to see me from his perspective. Like his narrative was very different than my narrative, which is what my therapist was saying. She was like, there are multiple narratives. You have to be able to, come on, you know, this. You have a narrative, he has a narrative. And I was able to understand and then see his heart and it broke my heart to see somebody who I loved feeling unloved. And so I just said, well, shit. No, no, no, no, no, no. I love you. I do. I love you. I love you. I love, there are things that I can’t stand about you, but I love you. And I'm going to forgive all of the things that have built up in a marriage, but they do, and I'm letting them go. And I started to do deep meditation, meditation all the time, forgiveness, letting go, the anger, letting go. Um, and again, the therapy, um and coming to terms, very clearly making choices about love. I am choosing, you know, and then I'd be with my therapist. But what about when he! And then he, and then he said! And then he! And she's like, Maria, what are you going to do? And of course, you know, one of the, when you start doing a little bit of meditation, it's like, well do you want to be, right? Or do you want to be happy? You want to be right, or do you want to be happy? Do you want to keep on fighting that battle? Okay. Okay.
AS: Do you still have that letter, Maria?
MH: Oh, yes.
AS: Where is it?
MH: Um, it's at the bottom of a drawer underneath some clothing that's in a kind of, uh, another little box. Um, but I have thought I should probably put it someplace that's a little bit safer.
AS: There's so much that you're saying, um, that I'm relating to in marriage. Uh, and I think, uh, particularly for, for someone for whom work is really important and essential to you. to uh, to be in a marriage to a man when a man is telling you he wants you to do something differently, that can like rub up against the sort of like feminist reaction.
MH: Oof! Hoo!
AS: I don't know about you. That's how I, uh, experience it.
MH: You're exactly right. I was like, how, no, you can't. And the thing is, is that I, I guess what I'm trying to say is at a certain point, and it's very delicate, is that as women, we also have to be able to separate our position from our gender. And we just have to be able to hear it as a human being. Like, this is a human being saying this to another human being. You're seeing it as a man, who's your husband, who's your partner, who's telling you what to do. As opposed to, is there a piece of advice that I really need to hear here? Is there something that he is seeing? And you know I'm a very good listener, but sometimes, us listeners don't do so well when we have to listen to our families.
That is journalist, media executive, and Pulitzer Prize winner Maria Hinojosa. Her book, Once I Was You, is out in paperback. And if you haven’t, do listen to Suave. It’s a seven-part podcast series. We put a link to it in our show notes.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. Afi Yellow-Duke and Anabel Bacon produced this episode. The rest of our team includes Julia Furlan, Zoe Azulay, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I’m on Twitter @annasale, the show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
And I want to say thank you to the many listeners who joined in and signed up to becoming new sustaining members while we’ve been fundraising this month. Thank you for adding your small monthly contribution to the funds that keep us going. We depend it and we appreciate you, truly. If you haven’t yet joined in, please do go to deathsexmoney.org/donate.
Maria told me back in 2020 that for her, the early pandemic meant that she was working from home, and her kids had both recently moved back in. She loved getting to spend a lot of quality time with them, though she admitted it came with tradeoffs…
MH: It's not great for your sex life. [laughing] But other than that...
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.