208 Maria Hinojosa
“You know, it comes down to a human error, but one of massive proportions because you’re dealing with humanity and people’s lives.”
Maria is the host of Latino USA and one of the most respected journalists in the country. She also has a new memoir. It’s called Once I Was You: A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America.
Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW)
In 2019 I was the subject of a fake news story.
A conservative website took one line from an interview, re-worded it in a way that was both inaccurate and specifically designed to stoke the moral outrage of a certain population and then it was pawned off as “news”. Eventually other websites wrote their own version of the original piece and it spread, as it was designed to do because the more people clicked on it, the more advertising money the owner of the website received. I still get questions about it from people who assumed it was true because, after all, they read it on the internet.
It didn’t feel good on my end, to have my image and words twisted into a caricature for others to point to and say “This. This is what is wrong with America.” But it felt even worse when I suddenly realized how often I myself had clicked on headlines that were exaggerations or falsehoods perfectly written to stoke my liberal moral outrage and how often I assumed what I read was true, and how often it solidified my worldview so that I was sure to click on the next story and the next story — none of which were written by actual journalists.
We are in a historical moment where the truth seems up for grabs by anyone with a screen name and a wifi connection, and these cynical click-bait perversions of truth for the purpose of amassing ad revenue are destroying us.
But there are so many rigorously professional journalists who keep us informed and who do so at a personal cost that I had failed to grasp until I had the conversation you’re about to hear. So with gratitude, I give you, my guest today, renowned journalist Maria Hinojosa the host of Latino USA. And to those who tirelessly report the actual news on our behalf, I say thank you.
NBW: My guest today is Maria Hinojosa. And welcome, Maria. I am so glad that you have chosen to step into The Confessional, and I can’t wait to hear from you.
Maria Hinojosa (MH): I’m so happy to hear you and to be here. But there’s a part of me that just went like, oh, my God.
NBW: That’s normal. If you didn’t feel that way, something’s wrong. That means you’re normal. So, um. What story did you come to tell me?
MH: So this story has to do with the cost, the dangers of being a journalist in the United States of America, where we believe that we have certain kinds of freedom and also what we ask as journalists from the people who are our sources.
MH: So basically, I was the first Latina in many newsrooms. And throughout my career, it’s always been a lot of constant auditioning because I am a journalist who was born in Mexico and proudly identifies as an immigrant. I think people always perceived that I had some kind of an agenda. It existed throughout my time when I was the first Latina correspondent at NPR. And then I’m hired by CNN and that’s in 1997 and, and what ends up happening at CNN has, it’s just a part of the cable news wars. And I, as a journalist, was caught up in the middle of it, like many, like many journalists are, because they’re just working, like, we’re just trying to do our jobs that, you know, we end up working at a company like CNN that then gets bought by Time Warner that is now in a, you know, to-the-death competition with Fox News, that is, you know, biting at their heels, and with the upstart MSNBC that had just started. And I’m hired away from NPR to go work at CNN as kind of like, look at her, she’s got this different look. You know, it was not like, oh, my God, she’s Latina. It was just, like, she’s unique. She’s got a presence. She’s a storyteller.
MH: And they’re looking at this ratings warfare that they’re in, and Fox News is really going after white men, the white viewer. And CNN basically says, well, we’re going to go after that viewer. And so we’re going to rehire Lou Dobbs, who had been at the network, fizzled out. and he’s asked to anchor the evening news show on the CNN Financial Network. And he creates a segment that opens his show. and it’s called Broken Borders, and the graphic actually shows like, at that point, mostly Mexicanos and other Central Americans literally climbing over a fence, you know, to come into the United States and running across a highway like that was the graphic that started the CNN Evening News with Lou Dobbs. So, many journalists at CNN had questions about why this was happening. But the Latino journalists, actually Rose Arce, my producer, wrote a letter and asked for a meeting with the news presidents of CNN. And they basically said, we gave him free rein to say these things because we want him to go after that viewer. The show is no longer a news program, it’s labeled a commentary show. So that’s why he’s not held to the same standards. And in that meeting, I remember, I raised my hand and I said, look, there’s just this thing that I don’t understand why CNN would want to put its eggs in the basket of the demographic group that is actually not growing, because if you look at the demographic charts, the only demographic group that is growing exponentially are Latinos and Latinas into the future.
NBW: Mm hmm.
MH: And I said it quite pleasantly, by the way, not in this tone, I was very. Because I have to, you know, I don’t want to be the angry Latina because that they would just write me off. But they wrote me off anyways. But at the end of that meeting, what I demanded. You know, I stood into my own power and I said, well, if you’re gonna keep Lou Dobbs, then I want to do a one hour documentary about the other side of immigration. And in a concession to the group, they said, okay, Hinojosa, you can anchor a documentary for the CNN Documentary Unit, and I was like, okay, fine. Like, I’ll. Yes.
NBW: Mm hmm.
MH: And so what I decided was to focus on the story that hadn’t been told back then. It was the year 2003, which was Latino and Latina immigration into the American South, specifically Atlanta, its surroundings, and northern Georgia, and how a community, a state, marriages were being ripped apart.
NBW: All right. So then what happened after that?
MH: And so they assigned me to work with a producer who has never produced an hour documentary for the unit. I don’t mean this in any way of an insult, but she was like a Barbie. She was a Southern Barbie. You know, she was a debutante. She drove a Jaguar. She had, you know, blond hair that was, you know, in a poofed-up ponytail. And I think that they thought, oh, you know, Hinojosa and Barbie here are, like, never going to get along. And it’s going to be a total, you know, shit show. It’s going to be a failure. And what ended up happening was actually the opposite. The producer and I ended up hitting it off incredibly well. We called ourselves ebony and ivory, which is kind of adorable. But there we were united as journalists and as women who had been set aside and not taken seriously by the boys. And we, you know, started to bust our ass to try to find the story to tell. And, this story involves undocumented immigrants, obviously. And we were having a hard time. We were hanging out in all of the Mexican barrios, the Latino barrios in, um, in Atlanta and talking to a lot of people. Great stories, but no one wanted to go on camera. And we went to get some tacos and the waitress was a very nice woman, very talkative, very outgoing. You know, she was a woman, maybe, let’s see, in her late 20s, early 30s. She had a great smile. You know, you’ve probably seen people like her everywhere. And I just said, let me just ask her. So I said, this is who we are. This is what we’re doing. This is a story we’re trying to tell. Do you have a story? She’s like, Oh, yeah, I have a story. And yes, I’ll go on camera because I have nothing to hide. And you need to see the faces of who we are. We are not this scary mass.
NBW: Did she have to be sort of obscured or-
NBW: -was she just, shoot it just straight on just film me.
MH: No. We talked about it. The journalists as well as her, because we did not pressure her. Not at all. This is a very delicate issue. There can be no pressure whatsoever. But she was just very adamant that she wanted people to see who we are, what we look like. And so we agreed to not say where we were filming. We agreed to not say where she lived. You know, it was someplace in Georgia. We agreed that we would not show any like, yeah, her home or where she worked and nothing that could be, like, identifiable. And so that was the story that we were trying to tell is, here’s somebody who you see, you know, may not even take two glances at her as she’s serving you your Mexican food that you’re going to talk about and and say how fabulous. But, you know, meanwhile, she’s actually just working to raise the money so that she can get her kids with her here in Georgia. And then we asked because this is what journalists say, they ask, and I and I said, well, can can we be there? Can we witness it? You know, what is this going to look like? And she was like, well, I’m hiring a coyote. It’s somebody who has been highly recommended. And you can see my kids when they get to the border, and if it’s possible, sure, you know, follow them in the car so that you can see what happens. And so we end up filming parts of this in Matamoros, Mexico, but what was agreed upon was that we could, we could be there when the grandmother met the smuggler. And we were going to be introduced as family friends, American family friends. That’s all, we were not going to ask any questions, we were not going to film anything. And the smuggler, by the way, was a woman, a Mexican woman, probably in her mid 50s.
NBW: Mm hmm. Mm hmm.
MH: And she basically said, you know, it’s nice to meet you. You know, here’s what’s gonna happen. You’re gonna follow me right now, and we’re gonna make a stop, you know, off the side of the road. And that’s where we’re gonna, you’re gonna say goodbye to your grandkids. And then they’re gonna get in a car and they’re gonna off they go. But the person they’re going with is somebody who has never been stopped is, like, of one hundred percent confianza. And the kids were going to be delivered all the way to Houston.
NBW: What’s that word mean?
MH: Confianza means of trust, somebody you can trust.
MH: So we get in separate cars, and we follow the grandmother and the smuggler in one car with the kids. And we pull off to the side and the grandmother said goodbye to the kids, hugged them. The first smuggler takes them, walks them into another car that was parked in front of us, puts them into that car where there is another woman who I never met, never saw, you know, and there were other kids in the car. That’s all we saw. There were like two or three other kids. And now the Rosa’s children, an 11-year-old and a 12-year-old.
MH: And off they go.
NBW: How long of a journey is it for them between there and when they cross the U.S. border?
MH: Five minutes.
NBW: Oh, gosh. OK. Oh, so it’s right there.
MH: Yeah, And now I’m driving and my cameraman is filming. It’s just me and my cameraman. I’m following the car where the kids are. I can see the smuggler who is driving and who keeps on playing with her ponytail. And I’m like, she’s a young mom, like she’s just playing with her ponytail, driving, you know, five kids. You know, she probably said to the kids, you know, these are your names. This is your new name, and that’s all if they ask you, that’s who you are.
MH: They pulled up. There was a car after them. And then we were right after that car. So I was witnessing everything. And I just kept saying to myself, they’re going to make it. This woman has never been pulled over. They’re going to make it. These kids are gonna make it. Oh, my God. These kids are gonna make it. And. And then they don’t make it. Then the Border Patrol officer walks outside of his little toll booth and walks next to the car and walks with the car to where it’s, they’re sent, it’s called secondary inspection And that means if you have nothing on you, no problem. But if you have anything that’s not right, it’s not good.
MH: My. God, I just remember my heart sank. I just was like, oh, my God. Oh, my God. They didn’t make it. Oh, my God. They didn’t make it. Oh, my God. They didn’t make it. Oh, my God, they didn’t make it. Oh no. You know, and then I had to pull up and act as if nothing had happened.
NBW: Oh, my God.
MH: Hello, officer. How are you doing? How are you tonight?
NBW: How in the world?
MH: Fine, officer. And what’s your citizenship? American. American. I saw your passport, yep. Yes, sir. All right, have a good night now. Have a good night, sir. And we did like a turn, met up with our producer who was on the other side of the border. And it was now almost 11 o’clock at night. I’m with two cameramen now with big CNN cameras. I’m with my producer and myself. And we’re walking into a secondary border patrol inspection area on a night where it’s, you know, the guys are getting ready to close down shop and suddenly you’ve got CNN cameramen, producers, reporters walking in.
NBW: OK, so you get through, you give them your passport, you got your heart’s beating, and then you circle back. Tell me about the decision to go into the secondary inspection now, as journalists.
MH: Well, now as journalists, the story that we had to tell was, what is going to happen to those kids tonight?
MH: And the man in charge came out and said, Who are you? And I said, Hi, I’m Maria Hinojosa. This is my producer, Kimberly, and we are here from CNN. And the man looked at me like, what are you doing here? [I] said, sir, we just have one question, what are you going to do with those children tonight? And this person got really angry and became quite threatening and said you’re going to have to leave the premises, you don’t have any right to be here. I need to talk to our headquarters. So he’s talking about Department of Homeland Security headquarters in Washington, D.C. The CNN lawyers got on the phone because it was like a standoff. Shouldn’t we stay there until we see to the end of this? And ultimately, they were like, you’re on federal property. Our offices close at midnight, if you’re not off the property, we’re going to escort you off. And he said, you know. I know who you are. And I said, sir? He’s like, I know, I know who you are. I know what you’re trying to do here. And I said, oh, I said, well, sir, if you know my work, then you know that the only thing that I’m trying to do here is to find out what’s going to happen to those children tonight. He’s like, well goodnight, get out of my office. You know. Our executive producer called us back next morning. We are told to immediately stop following this story and we drive back the next morning all the way from McCallan to Houston, which is like eight hours of driving through Texas. And we meet up with Rosa, who wants to kill us because we basically are the last people who saw her kids, you know, and she’s just devastated. She’s like, I can’t believe that, you know, you were supposed to be shooting my reunion with my kids right here in this hotel. And instead, you’re telling me that they’re not here. How did this happen? You know, how is that?
NBW: How did, what did that feel like on your end?
MH: It was terrible. It was terrible, you know. It’s like you’re delivering the word it’s the worst it’s the worst possible outcome. You know, take a situation. You’re like, oh my God, the worst thing that could happen would be this. This was the worst possible thing that could happen, and so that was like the culmination of this story is that it’s about the will of a parent of a mother. And we’re not going to have that now. You know, instead, we have a dejected mother. She just was like, I don’t even want to. I just I’ve had it, I’m done, and she got in her car and they started driving off back to Atlanta, which was gonna be an all-night drive, I think, for them, she was so upset and we did the opposite. We had a plane reservation for, I had a reservation for seven o’clock in the morning out of Houston to New York. And the second I walk into my apartment, my phone rings and it’s my producer. And if we had thought that all hell had already broken loose, it was like, okay, what’s the next worst thing that can happen? And that’s what happened then.
NBW: Okay, Maria, so before the break you were telling me about a documentary you were making at CNN about immigration and Rosa, this woman was trying to bring her kids to live with her in the US. So what happened next?
MH: My belief is that the border patrol officer who accused me, who said, I know what you’re doing here.
NBW: Yeah. Yeah.
MH: He called up the local television station, and he fed them a story that said, CNN pays smuggler to smuggle children across the border. And my producer is telling me, you are being accused of having paid to smuggle these children. And I’m like, oh, my God. We immediately got on with CNN lawyers. CNN lawyers immediately called that station, which, by the way, was an affiliate of CNN, so they were read the riot act and said, how dare you print something that has no basis and you never got a response from us. You didn’t even call CNN. You didn’t verify. You didn’t call the journalist. You just wrote something that some border patrol officer told you. So that was pulled-
NBW: Mm hmm.
MH: -you know, 90 minutes after it went up, but already my reputation was damaged.
NBW: Mm hmm.
MH: And then I get a phone call from the president of CNN. So, yeah, that it gets even worse. Where he basically says, look, I just got to ask because I just have to ask, you didn’t pay the smuggler, did you? I’m like, I said, you know, no, I didn’t. By the way, I’ll give you access to my bank accounts because I certainly don’t have five thousand dollars laying around. But I said I, you know, would you ask, you know, and I named, you know, Wolf Blitzer. You know, would you ask him the same question? So. Basically, the documentary airs. The title is “Immigrant Nation, Divided Country.”
NBW: OK. And the year it was, it came out?
NBW: Got it.
MH: It was a beautiful hour of television, had great ratings, great audience interaction. I mean, Latinos and Latinas who watch CNN were like, finally, you know, it was the perfect response to Lou Dobbs. He would not interview me about it. I wanted to get on his, you know, show, you know, cause. So it was all a success. It was like, you know, I thought, well, maybe after all, it didn’t break me.
NBW: It sounds like this was really difficult, but also like everything you wanted it would be. I’m guessing that’s not the part of this story that brings you into The Confessional.
MH: Yeah, so basically, we had ruffled some feathers at ICE, the Border Patrol, Department of Homeland Security. But we had done a human story that really connected people to Rosa’s story. In the end, we found out that Rosa had actually gone and gotten her children by herself.
NBW: Mm hmm.
MH: That’s the thing about Mexican Latina women. Like, you know, we’re also these bad asses, like, well, I’m going down to get my kids. And she went and got them.
MH: Brought them back. And so it was like, oh, my God, you know, November, the documentary it aired in October. It was just before Thanksgiving, and we had gotten the news that they were all together, Her boyfriend was there. You know, she had now found a wonderful relationship. And it was like, wow, okay, great. Except that it wasn’t. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and Kimberly was calling me, and she said, we have terrible news. And I said, what happened? She said, immigration agents have just shown up at Rosa’s boyfriend’s house and they have taken her and the kids and the boyfriend. They are all being detained because they’re all undocumented. They came after my sources. So this whole notion of like the First Amendment and we protect our sources and we don’t reveal that there’s a respect level. People don’t go after sources. You know, it’s like killing a witness. You know, that just doesn’t happen, well it happened. And I just remember the next thing that happened was that the boyfriend called me and said, we hate you.
NBW: Oh, Maria.
MH: We never want to see you again. You’re a terrible human being. Why did we ever speak to you? And I just was, I mean, I had never received a call like that. And I understood, like, I understood their anger. I was like, how did this happen? How did this happen? How how how how?! Were they following us? How? And so I went back and I watched the documentary again. And there was one mistake. Just one. Just one. And this is what I’m apologizing for was that when the car, when Rosa and her boyfriend pulled away in their car from the Houston hotel after we had said good night to them, giving them the bad news that the kids weren’t there and they pulled away, we got a shot of the car from behind pulling away. And we didn’t blur out their license plate number. And when I saw that, I was like, that’s it.
NBW: What did your body feel like when you’re like going, what happened? What happened? And you’re going through this footage that you’ve gone. I mean, you know you know, every single frame of it. And then there was this part that you didn’t catch. What was happening inside of you when you saw that?
MH: You know, your heart breaks because. So. The thing is, is that as a journalist, you know, you know, we have a Hippocratic Oath. We actually do. When you study ethics in journalism, the Hippocratic Oath is do no harm. So this you know, I failed. I failed. We did harm. We did harm because I did not see that. And that’s why I have to assume responsibility. And it was a huge mistake. And it is the breaking of that ethical commitment of do no harm. And so it it destroys you.
NBW: Tell me more about that. I mean, why why would you use those words? It destroys you.
MH: It’s like, how do you recuperate from something like that? How do you make it up to somebody?
MH: I can’t. I can never make that up to Rosa or her kids or her boyfriend. I could never ever make it up. So. So, you know, that’s so you have to live with that. And, you know, at some point, you know, I think that’s why I decided to tell this story. Because in order to, in order to you know, you have to you know, the whole thing about meditation, it’s like you have to learn how to forgive yourself, right? Well, the way that you were able to forgive yourself is by asking for public forgiveness. Yeah. You know, by telling the truth. I just like, look, I totally screwed up. You know, it comes down to a human error. Right. But a one of massive proportions because you’re dealing with humanity and people’s lives.
NBW: So what do you see as your responsibility in all this, looking back?
MH: Yes, I assume responsibility as a journalist.
MH: And I made a mistake, and that’s why I’m talking about it. Right. I want to apologize to Rosa wherever she is because I can never be in, I mean, I don’t know. She broke off all contact. And there’s another ending of this story, which I’m about to tell you. We were in the right to trust that the Department of Homeland Security would not come after a source because that is what we understand the laws of the free press to be. And here’s the clincher of it, because when this happened, I was like, boom, there you go. Now, we have another side of this story. And I want to go on Lou Dobbs. And I want to say this. I want to go on Lou Dobbs and I want to say so answer me this, Lou Dobbs, you are saying we’re being overrun. You talk to me about what they’re putting their efforts into, to tracing down Rosa. That’s what they’re doing instead of going after the, what you’re saying is, quote unquote, invading the country, the drug dealers. Your ICE, your Border Patrol, your Department of Homeland Security is coming after Rosa. I want to talk about that.
NBW: Which he spent all these hours on TV sort of writing a hagiography for these institutions
MH: Exactly. So.
NBW: What happened? Did you, did they?
MH: So immediately when this happened, when I got the call, the devastation, the broken heart, the tears then I was like, oh, I need to talk about this. This needs to become public. This is a huge story. This is the story now. Now they’re coming after journalists and our sources. This is, there’s a next level to this story. Let’s go. And what I was told by my executive producer was, you are never to speak about this. to anyone. Lou Dobbs is not going to put you on his show. You will not be discussing this with him or any other journalist. You are not talking about this ever again.
NBW: Did you ever?
MH: Talk about it?
MH: No, this is my first time.
NBW: Oh, my God. OK, so there’s obviously so many layers to this. And one is like how disturbing it is that federal institutions would target the sources for journalists. That’s appalling. But I just have to confess, I feel like I’ve never taken the time to consider what the emotional cost is to people who have chosen to do journalistic work on my behalf and on behalf of society to to inform us of what’s happening and that, I guess I just I feel a little ashamed that I never really have thought about it outside of maybe war correspondents. But I guess from what you’re saying, like, there’s you have to still go to bed at night and know the complexity of these things and the things you couldn’t do that you wish you could. And I just imagine that has an emotional cost for you.
MH: Oh, yeah. Of course. Because I approached my journalism actually with, I hope, with like my heart, but, you know, journalists, this is what we do. This is what we do. And it is more than a profession. It is a mission.
NBW: It’s a calling.
MH: It’s a calling. And so I will forever feel terrible about what happened with Rosa. But, you know, I have also, on the other hand, so many lasting deep connections with, again, many of my sources who right now, even as I was being interviewed by you, I’m getting a phone call from a refugee from Tegucigalpa. I have WhatsApp messages from, you know, the Honduran refugee who’s stuck in Mexico trying to get across. I just got a call from prison from a transwoman in a maximum security men’s prison. So something that is the hallmark of my journalistic experience is actually forming long-standing professional and personal relationships with people who I’ve reported on.
NBW: Of course. And I have to say it, it, I, anybody who can admit, I made a mistake. I just esteem them so much higher. I mean, you’ve had an extraordinary career. I mean, your batting average is pretty good. But for you to be able to go, and there’s this thing that I have this sorrow about because I didn’t catch something and it had a, and it had a really horrible effect on a source, and I loved them. There’s something that makes me have even more respect for you than I already did going into the conversation. And I’m so grateful. And is there anything that you wanted to say about this story before we wrap up?
MH: Yeah, I mean, I, in many ways, I think my work is about holding this entire country accountable. Because it’s my adopted country. I wasn’t born here. And so I feel like everything is about, wait a second, but you advertised this, you advertised freedom of the press, you know, the Constitution and, you know, due process. And so I feel like it’s about holding my country accountable. And so for me, there is the personal side of it with Rosa, you know, wherever she is. But there’s the other side of the part about the country. That’s the sad part about the fact that what ends up getting quashed is actually the story that needed to be told.
NBW: Well, there’s a reason why. There’s a reason why in the Hebrew Bible, God’s like, I will judge you, Israel, according to how you treat certain populations. Right. That, your report card is going to be how you treat the foreigner among you and the widows and orphans. And so, there is a sense in which it feels like there are only certain populations that really get to tell America how we’re doing with what we say we value and what we say we’re about.
MH: Yep, that’s it. Wow, how am I going to get any work done today?
NBW: I’m so sorry, I know! Well, it’s been a real honor to have a conversation with you. I respect your work so much. And, um, and I wish you well. And I’m so glad you do what you do. And and, I mean, I, I feel like, you know, we owe you a lot.
MH: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much. It was a beautiful, powerful in-. Most people, I make people cry. So you’re one of the few, you know, so you get the chalk that one up.
NBW: Oh, thanks. I really appreciate it. All right. Have a great day.
MH: Take care.
NBW: A blessing for Maria.
In the parable of the Lost Coin, the kingdom of God is like a woman who has 10 coins and when she loses just one, lights a lamp and sweeps her house until it is found.
Maria, when you said that the story of what happened to Rosa will always haunt you. You reminded me of that woman who keeps on searching, leaving no corner unswept.
So I bless your compassion which is so holy, it sees the value of those who the world might not notice, but whose stories are precious.
I bless your tenderness which treasures the people who our country disregards, but who God herself would light a lamp for and sweep the floor of this world until they were found.
I bless your sorrow which is also holy, and that despite decades of loving and protecting your sources, still seeks redemption for the one that you lost.
I bless you, Maria for being a confianza storyteller. Trusted. Believed. Loved.
May you find the glimmering coin of self forgiveness in even the dustiest corners of your own heart.
NBW: Listeners, this is the final episode of season 2 and I just want to express my gratitude to everyone who made this little corner of the podcasting universe possible – I have the best partners imaginable in this work – PRX, The Moth and the fine folks at House of Pod here in Denver, especially my producer Paul Karolyi. Thank you to Antwan Banks Williams for our original music, the Emery Agency for our web design and Kerlin Richter for help editing my scripts. And thank you listeners for subscribing and writing lovely reviews on iTunes and sharing The Confessional with your friends and supporting our sponsors. It would help me out if you continued to do so while we take a hiatus to work on season 3. And thank you for being people who support a space of truth and compassion and blessing and grace where no one is reduced to just the worst thing they’ve ever done. More than anything, thank you to my guests for opening your hearts and your stories to us and letting us all heal a little, forgive a little and move on a little. Thank you.