In Once I Was You: A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America, Latina journalist Maria Hinojosa offers a searing, clear-eyed account of growing up in America after she emigrated from Mexico as an infant. Weaving her own life story with key milestones in U.S. immigration history, she produces a brave examination of the United States’ shortcomings.
Written in Latina journalist Maria Hinojosa’s honest, passionate voice, Once I Was You is, quite simply, beautiful.
Hinojosa’s family traveled to the U.S. so her father could work as a researcher at the University of Chicago. When she was a child, they would drive from their home in Hyde Park into Chicago to see the big city, where Hinojosa would gaze at public housing developments, “massive brown cement towers, twenty floors of fencing around balconies and doors. No windows. I wondered why they had no windows even though they were built overlooking this beautiful lake. It seemed like a purposeful punishment.” It was an early glimpse into the inequities of racism to which Hinojosa would devote her journalistic career.
Hinojosa moved to New York City to study at Barnard College, where she found her voice as a radio host at the college station, cementing her career path. She took jobs at NPR, CNN, CBS and PBS, where she produced pieces that celebrated diversity and shone a light on immigration issues, including a groundbreaking report on “Frontline” about the immigration industrial complex and physical and sexual abuse at detention centers. She developed PTSD from the countless interviews she conducted with detainees, who told her stories of their horrific treatment.
As Hinojosa reported these stories, she maintained the objectivity that’s so crucial to journalists’ credibility, but she also kept close her own immigrant experience and her belief that America is long overdue for a reckoning. “My husband [the artist German Pérez] says that the reason this is so hard for me is because I believed in the promise of this country,” Hinojosa writes. “I bought into the exceptionalism. It’s hard to accept how ornery and normal and mediocre this country really is. I thought we were better than this. But we aren’t.”
Once I Was You is, quite simply, beautiful. Written in Hinojosa’s honest, passionate voice, this memoir takes readers on a journey through one immigrant’s experience. Hinojosa was able to realize the American dream, but she urges us not to look away from all the others for whom America is a nightmare.