The Bookshelf

Maria Hinojosa liberates vocabularies with YA-friendly version of ‘Once I Was You’

Last month, SFR gave y’all our annual Back to School Reading List for Grown-ups—now here’s something for the kids.

Emmy- and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Maria Hinojosa has adapted her memoir, Once I Was You: A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America, for young adults, and if I had my way, it’d be on every reading list around, whether you’re 8 or 80. Once I Was You: Finding My Voice and Passing the Mic (Simon & Schuster, Aug. 30) is the story of Hinojosa’s family’s life in Mexico, their immigration to the United States when she was a baby and the experiences through which she found her own identity and her path as a journalist.

But it’s also the story of how Hinojosa learned new vocabularies that ultimately allowed her to embody her own voice. In addition to becoming bilingual, Hinojosa built from the cultural vocabulary she was born into in Mexico, to those she encountered growing up as a young Latina in Chicago, to vocabularies of feminism, gender identity and political positionality she learned along the way.

“In many ways, I think that is the essence of the book,” Hinojosa tells SFR. “As a child, I was trying to find these vocabularies—because of being bilingual, language was literally an issue. But then there was the larger context—a highly politicized environment I didn’t have the vocabulary to understand.”

She writes about seeing police beat protesters in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and seeing news of the killings of Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Robert F. Kennedy on TV. At the time, though, she didn’t have the words to call them what they were: political assassinations.

“In my era, it was the civil rights battle,” Hinojosa says. “Now, it’s Black Lives Matter and Brown Lives Matter.”

The difference between her experience growing up and the experiences of kids today, she says, is that kids now have more access to evolving vocabularies largely thanks to the internet and social media. The important thing is that kids come to understand the context of those vocabularies, and the power they hold.

“As Latinos, Latinas, children of immigrants; Black kids—you in particular have to understand your role and responsibility in the historical context of this place,” Hinojosa says. “You do have the vocabulary—realize it.”

Adapting her memoir for a young audience was deceptively difficult, Hinojosa adds. She “became a child,” describing the process as not so much writing, but talking and recording stories.

Hinjosa’s journey to owning her language and culture was fueled by a deep curiosity about—and sensitivity to—the socio-political injustices she saw around her growing up. Becoming a journalist forced her to confront questions about her own identity and how she presents it every day. A defining moment, she writes, was when, during an internship at NPR, she faced a choice: use the Americanized version of her name, or the Spanish pronunciation? (You’ll have to read the book to find out!) Of course, owning your identity isn’t always easy. In Once I Was You, Hinojosa describes an event Columbia and Barnard put on during her college orientation, a version of the 1970s TV show, The Dating Game. Students were heckling one young woman, calling her a “dog,” and Hinojosa joined in—and immediately regretted it.

“Sometimes when you’re in the process of finding your voice, you have to hear yourself say the wrong thing in order to realize it doesn’t sound right coming out of your mouth,” she writes.

And that doesn’t just stop when you graduate from college, or get a job. For Hinojosa, it’s a continual process.

“I’m still learning, and I’m not afraid to excise words from my vocabulary,” she says. “Very early on, I rejected the term ‘Hispanic’ because it came to be under the Nixon, Ronald Reagan era of Republican desire to codify Latinos and Latinas, and it does not address our Indigenous or Afro roots.”

Hinojosa also recalls interviewing Jewish author Elie Wiesel, who survived the Holocaust and penned the 1956 classic Night.

“The first question I asked him is, ‘They want me to use the term ‘illegal immigrant’ in my reporting, and I don’t think it’s correct. What do you have to say?’”

Wiesel responded: “Never use the term ‘illegal.’ That’s how the Holocaust started—they declared the Jews to be an illegal people.”

She speaks of the Biden administration’s order that US immigration enforcement agencies stop using the term “illegal alien” as “a small, yet significant move because of the power of language and vocabulary.”

“We have to work back from the fact that people now use the term ‘illegal immigrant’ as if they were saying ‘The sky is blue,’” Hinojosa explains. “You may have committed a crime, but that does not make you an illegal human being.”

Language like that, she says, is a big part of the reason immigrants are treated as less than human.

“The real life consequences are all around us,” she says, “and I believe that with American kids, the next generation has gotta be smarter than this one.”

Reaching kids when they’re still open to shifting their vocabularies is key, Hinojosa says.

“They’re able to challenge their imposter syndrome and really own their power in their voice. That’s incredibly exciting because if they engage in democracy, then our democracy is safe,” she concludes. “But if Latino and Latina kids disengage from democracy, goodbye democracy.”

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