Written by Emily Mullins
With her demanding schedule, Maria Hinojosa simply can't accept invitations or requests from every group that approaches her. In addition to being an author, lecturer and television correspondent, the Emmy-award-winning journalist keeps busy anchoring two weekly radio news programs through which she artfully tells the stories of those with voices not often heard. But when the United Church of Christ asked Hinojosa to be a keynote speaker at General Synod 2013, she replied with an enthusiastic "yes." After all, like Hinojosa, the UCC also works to lift up the voices not often heard.
"This one definitely made a lot of sense," she said of the UCC's invitation. "It was not just another request. It actually has special meaning to me."
Hinojosa will lead General Synod's morning plenary session June 29 with a keynote highlighting immigration. For the past 25 years, Hinojosa has reported on important social issues, such as women's rights and economic inequality, and is often cited as one of the most influential Hispanics in the U.S. for her journalistic excellence. Although immigration is one of her topics of expertise, Hinojosa is admittedly discouraged that immigration reform is still an issue that needs to be discussed. She feels that the country has been stonewalled for decades when it comes to immigration reform, and has even taken steps backward since events like the Sept. 11 attacks.
"This is the first story I reported on as a budding journalist," she recalls. "Frankly, I would have hoped we would be way beyond this in our country and that we would be ready to move on to whatever is next."
But immigration reform is indeed a timely issue once again, as President Obama and Congress work on a bipartisan plan to be introduced as early as March that should offer a pathway to citizenship for the country's 11 million undocumented migrants. While Hinojosa says the current momentum toward change is positive, she refers to the issue of immigration in this country as the "U.S. Mambo" – where we consistently take three steps forward and three steps back. And despite the recent progress, she is deeply concerned about the country's deportation system that is not being addressed under the new legislation and still leaves immigrants vulnerable to deportation anytime, anywhere.
"I am not an advocate, I am simply a journalist, working with the facts of what I've seen and witnessed," she said. "And I'm sad to say, I don't see anything new, fresh or different. I see this as everyone jumping in to respond to the political reality that Latinos came out to vote [in the November elections] and wielded a tremendous amount of power."
But Hinojosa's keynote is not going to be bogged down by politics and bad news – she's going use a more personal approach. While she is confident the UCC audience has awareness and an open mind about the plight of the immigrant, she also thinks few may have the direct experience needed to fully relate to it. Without that personal connection, it can be difficult to realize how a topic like immigration impacts someone who seems far removed from it, Hinojosa said. But she believes that the way a country treats its immigrants is a direct reflection on the country as a whole and the dignity of its justice system and, therefore, impacts everyone.
"I want the audience to begin to see themselves in the person most unlike them," she said about her keynote. "It's about drawing the commonality of a theme among people who may think, ‘It's an interesting topic, but it doesn't have anything to do with me,' and making them realize that, yes, it's an interesting topic and it has everything to do with you."
Hinojosa grew up in a devout Catholic, Mexican immigrant family on the south side of Chicago. Her father was a doctor and the family's only legal U.S. citizen. Despite that, Hinojosa and her family were "American" in every sense of the word. She remembers consuming popular culture and media. Her mother wanted her children to understand their country – the good aspects and the bad – and would take them out of school to witness civil rights protests and made watching 60 Minutes a family activity. But with all of her social awareness aside, at the end of the day Hinojosa often felt invisible, never really seeing any faces that looked like hers. She never imagined that she could be the one in front of the camera, telling the stories of others. But that's exactly where she ended up and has been paving the way for people like her ever since.
"I ended up in so many ways being committed to telling the stories of the invisible Americans and putting that in the mainstream," she said. "There is a sense of motivation to do this because I never saw it growing up, and I guess in the back of my mind, I think there will be a young person who consumes the media I produce and, in consuming it, their lives become transformed.
"The beauty of it is that I actually know it has happened," Hinojosa continues. "It comes to fruition, this dream that I had. Because it's never been just about my own success, but understanding that part of my success is opening the door for many others."
See Hinojosa's full bio here.