In her new memoir, Once I Was You: A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America, Maria Hinojosa traces her journey from a childhood in Chicago’s South Side to a distinguished career in broadcast journalism. In this excerpt, Hinojosa’s correspondent role with public television’s NOW on PBS has ended with the show’s cancellation. Considering her next steps, Hinojosa resolves to start her own production company. (Gérman is her husband; Yurema, her daughter.)
I remembered a conversation I had with my friend Deepa in the spring of 2000. Deepa and I met when she was a budding journalist and producer who worked in Austin for Latino USA. She had then gone on to work as a TV news producer and married a tech genius and fellow Indian American, Vinay. He had made it big, so now Deepa was on her way to becoming an independent film producer and philanthropist.
I revealed to Deepa how worried I was about surviving in journalism. Back then, things were shaky at CNN. I faced so much uncertainty and the always-having-to-prove-myself thing that was my shadow.
Deepa turned to me and smiled. “Maria, you don’t need any of them. You are your own brand. You’re Maria Hinojosa!”
I looked at her and started laughing. “You can’t be serious! A brand?”
“You have a name and you have a brand. Your brand is beautiful journalism and storytelling. Latino USA is loved by thousands and you are the anchor of that,” Deepa said in a businesslike tone that she didn’t usually take with me. “You could do your own thing. You should think about that. I’ll help you.”
I was at the height of my career and on the verge of being unemployed. I had nothing to lose. I had no job, no prospects, no agent, and no job interviews set up. I barely had an updated résumé. The truth is that for most of my career I hadn’t had to look for work. I always had something cooking on the back burner even when I was a newbie freelancer.
There was only one place I ever really dreamed about: 60 Minutes. I worked my contacts and found someone who connected me to one of the senior executives at 60 Minutes via email. He asked to meet at a Starbucks. Maybe that should have been my first hint, but I was so giddy with excitement that 60 Minutes would even consider speaking with me. They saw me.
Over coffee, the executive told me I had an outstanding career. We hit it off and did the journalist banter thing, filing down the names of people we knew in common and exchanging war stories. I could tell the meeting was going so well. I told him that Ed Bradley had told me back in 2001 that he hoped I would one day become a 60 Minutes correspondent. I explained what the show had meant to me as an immigrant kid and how it taught me the role of journalism in a free society and democracy. After about twenty minutes, he said, “Maria, you are a really talented journalist and in so many ways you are just right for 60 Minutes. The right demographic with solid journalist chops and interviewing skills …”
There were fireworks going off inside of me, huge, multicolored explosions. These were the words I had dreamed of hearing. I held my breath and waited for the part where he would tell me he wanted me to come in and meet his bosses so they could find a way to bring me on. I might have a job after all! All of this was happening in my head in triple speed.
Oh no. My chest sank a tiny bit, but inside, the fireworks were extinguished, flooded by doom.
“The thing is, we have this long list of old white guys on the show. Can you wait until one of them gets sick or dies and then we can talk?” Wait. Was this a joke? I think I laughed and said okay. We wrapped things up and I gave him a quick hug, a weird expression of passive-aggressive anger and forgiveness. (I wouldn’t want him to feel awkward, now would I?) I walked to the Columbus Circle subway station in a daze, got on the A train and sat down. I cried as the break-dancers performed and rapped, tears streaming down my face, carrying years of hope that now, poof, was gone.
Things had been so tense with Gérman that when I got home I went into Yurema’s room, closed the door, and called my sister to confide how badly it had gone.
“I’m going to have to go on unemployment,” I sobbed. “I’ve never had to do that. Dad will be so disappointed. I’m so disappointed! I can’t believe this is happening.”
The kids had come home from school, so I wiped my face and dabbed on some concealer.
“¿Que pasó?” Gérman asked in his now usually stern voice. “Nada,” I mumbled back.
No one could take care of this for me. Not Gérman or my parents or my kids or my nonexistent agent. I was going to have to eat my goddamn fear.
At the NOW goodbye party, one of the assistant producers, a young Canadian Pakistani woman, practically pinned me up against a wall outside the champagne bar. She pulled out something I had never seen, a one-hit pipe, took a deep drag, and passed it to me, since we were no longer coworkers (she had never done that before because, well, we have rules, and one of them is you don’t ever smoke with a coworker).
“You need to create your own company,” she said while I took a drag. “You are that pit bull, Maria. We would all love to work with you. You should do it for you and for all of us.”
I had been smoking more pot than usual as a way to cope with my nerves, a remnant from learning how to effectively manage my 9/11 PTSD. (This also brought me guilt and shame, but mother earth was healing for me.) Over the next few days, I cried in the shower several times because I could not let my family see me so defeated and terrified. I couldn’t freak them out about money the same way my father had done with me and my siblings, counting every penny and never, absolutely never, being in a place of abundance. I was worried about how we would survive, and I was doing all of this alone because I was too prideful and sensitive to share it with my husband. Gérman came from nothing. He was a survivor. Me being upset about this would upset him even more. Couldn’t I see how privileged I was? Here I was feeling sad for myself. Ay, please, no!
The rock bottom wasn’t going to budge. I was the one who was going to have to move and take action.
Okay, fuck you, rock bottom. Now that 60 Minutes is gone, what is your craziest dream?
Without thinking, the words tumbled out of my mouth in a whisper: “I want to have my own company.”
I had often told people I wanted to have my own company, but I never took myself seriously when I said that. In my mind, I was like, Girl, please. It had simply been a beautiful illusion. More Mars fantasies. But hitting this breaking point changed everything.
I’m not going to wait for someone to get sick or die. I’m hitting rock bottom and, guess what, motherfuckers? I’m coming back up for air, cabrones.
That’s how I started talking to myself. The very first person I told about this new dream was my daughter, Yurema. That weekend she had asked me to take to her to Boca Chica, our cottage in Connecticut, just she and I. Spring was beginning to say, Wassup, with tiny little buds sprouting like green beans on the branches of trees and yellow chirping chickadees excited about the full bird feeders. Yurema must have instinctively known that one way to deal with the dark tension clouds swirling over our heads in our apartment was to get the heck out of Dodge and separate me from Gérman to give us a breather.
“Go for it, Mom. I support you. I know you can do this,” my lovely brown-eyed girl said to me and squeezed my hand as we walked one of our favorite trails in the hills of Connecticut.
I didn’t think this big dream of mine would go over well with Gérman, so I prepared myself to do it without my honey, mi joni, a mi lado. I had asked for a lot of sacrifice from him in the years I spent climbing the ladder for my career and he had always been patient. Now I was going to say, “Hey, guess what? I’m building my own ladder from scratch and I need your help and patience again.”
I told him the day we officially incorporated the company. He was happy and relieved I wouldn’t have another boss. He was proud of me, but there was a distance between us now, a by-product of my overwhelming anxiety. About a job. I couldn’t see that I should have been more worried about my marriage.
A colleague from Latino USA offered to figure out the basics for launching a nonprofit media company. I had decided to create a nonprofit because that’s what I mistakenly thought John Siceloff had done for NOW. I had also come to understand that foundations and philanthropists like to give money to nonprofits, especially because their donations are tax deductible. I was so basic at this.
In allowing myself to dream my wildest dreams, though, I thought about who could support me immediately with funding and I started making a series of connections.
When I needed thirty thousand dollars to finish my PBS films on women, power, and politics, including covering the expense of flying my team to interview the first female president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, I had turned to Fiona, my Reiki healer. Fiona did so many things: investment banker, mom of three, healer, entrepreneur, and she was also a philanthropist who funded media. “Name it and claim it and it will be yours,” Sandy always said to me. When I finally got Fiona on the phone, we spoke for nearly two hours and I explained my detailed plan for my dream company. And in that phone call, it turned out Fiona needed me to listen to her as much as I needed her to listen to me. She was hurting and needed counsel. I heard her and understood. She heard me and understood. And then she said yes.
In April of 2010, we sent out our first-ever paychecks from Futuro Media. I purposefully gave my company a bilingual name and something forward-looking that did not have my name in it. Even though I had come face-to-face with the power of my own voice and vision, this was a bigger venture than just me. The creation of Futuro Media validated me and everything I represented in a way I never could have imagined. I would have a job with a salary and benefits. I had an angel and her name was Fiona. Years before, she had taught me to trust my heart and be patient and loving, primarily with myself. Fiona was letting me live out my dream. Ask for things. Be open. Be truthful. Be humble, she was saying, but also be a badass, a pit bull, a fearless woman who isn’t afraid to take on a challenge.
The first official offices of Futuro were underneath a slanted stairwell in a converted firehouse in Chinatown rented to us by DCTV, another community-based media company. Our desks were made of glass, the kind you would buy for a high school student, compact and teen friendly, but that was what we could afford. I now understood what start-up meant and gave thanks for the term that an entire generation embraced and of which I was now a part.
It was in these cramped offices that I found out we had gotten our first grant as a nonprofit. Soon after I had formed Futuro, I called Luz Vega-Marquis, the first and only Latina president of a major national foundation, the Marguerite Casey Foundation based in Seattle. I had met Luz at NOW and had helped get a substantial multiyear grant for NOW ’s beat on women and families that I established. She put me in contact with a program officer, and by then I had taken some of the money Fiona had contributed and used it to hire someone to write grants. After weeks and weeks of concern, I could finally exhale. For a second.
At home Gérman softened a bit. He tried to hide it, but I think it was a major turn-on for him to see me become a fearless, self-starting woman. It made him fall in love with me again, and now no boss was sending me away from my family. I was the boss, la jefa. I couldn’t believe it, but it was true.
From ONCE I WAS YOU by Maria Hinojosa. Copyright © 2020 by The Hinojosa Corporation. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
A truly inspiring story from a much-admired professional. Hope other would-be entrepreneurs will take heart from her experiences and “toughing it out.”