Started from the Barnard
Updated: Mar 2, 2021
Maria Hinojosa on student journalism now.
Over the summer, Barnard announced that Maria Hinojosa, BC ‘84, host of popular radio program Latino USA, would return as the school’s first journalist-in-residence. With decades of journalism experience between CNN and PBS, and fresh off her fiery 2018 Convocation speech Editor-in-Chief Ufon Umanah went to her new LeFrak Center office to talk about the press and looking at the Core from both the outside and inside.
This interview conversation been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Blue and White: I want to start off with a priming question because it wasn’t always AP standard to refer to undocumented immigrants as undocumented but you started off doing so. Why was that super important early on when you were starting off your career in journalism?
Maria Hinojosa: I think whenever I would start writing the world ‘illegal immigrant’, I remember thinking there is something grammatically wrong with this. I remember just feeling that ‘illegal immigrant’ had something grammatically wrong because it’s not like you have a bike rider who is illegal or you have a baker who is illegal or a taxpayer who is illegal, it’s somebody who has committed a crime, but that person himself or herself is not illegal. So I think even though English is a second language for me I think I was always kinda of like it didn’t make any sense to me, grammatically.
B&W: How does it sound in Spanish?
MH: Un inmigrante ilegal. Now that’s a term because they translated it, so now it’s used. And in Mexico after the term illegal immigrant became widely used in the United States, in the mid 1980s there is a Mexican ranchera band called Los Tigres del Norte and they made an entire album called Los Ilegales. And they have a song about being illegal and they took the term and owned it like “Somos los Ilegales.” [Reader’s Note: there is a Dominican band called Los Ilegales, which created an album Illegales, but this isn’t in Los Tigres del Norte’s discography], which I understand is a way to empower. Like we are gonna take the term and use it for ourselves therefore taking away your power to use it. But the transformative moment for me was really when I spoke to Elie Wiesel, who survived the Holocaust, and when I asked him. And I don’t even know why I walked up to him so clearly and I was like “I need to ask this person this question,” cause I didn’t even know his thoughts on it. But something drew me to him when I saw him at the CNN bureau and I said “what do you think of this term?” and he said “there is no such thing as an illegal human being. The first thing that the Nazis did was to declare the Jews to be an illegal people.” That for me changed my life.
Illustration by Sahra Denner
B&W: It is interesting to see how that term that we as Americans colloquially use now has power internationally. It is really an American term.
MH: It has sadly spread around the world. It will have lasting damage.
B&W: I wanted to talk about Futuro U.S.A for a bit because you said in the Columbia Daily Spectator profile that it was optimal for you to create your own journalism outside of the typical editorial process. Speak a little bit to how that has been for the past 10 years you have been doing it.
MH: There came a point in my career where I just realized that it was going to be very difficult no., I mean I was 40 years old and I was like: “Do I want to continue to be pitching my stories, my ideas, to essentially white men, to have them approve my stories to air on their networks?” and I said, “I can’t keep doing this.” I know the stories I want to tell are important, I know they have value, and I am tired of having to prove to somebody else that they have value. My concern is the fact that they are not seeing my community, immigrants, women, latinos, latinas. Because they don’t understand it, and are not close to it, they can dismiss it as not important. So for me, creating my own media company, my own newsroom, was essentially saying I have a legitimate voice as an American journalist in the United States of America as part of the mainstream. So not part of outside, obviously I am independent, I am outside, but I see myself as part of trying to be within the mainstream. If you are going to continue to want to judge my stories, I am going to create my own thing so we are competing against each other.
B&W: I imagine it’s harder to start a mainstream media company than it is to start a blog, so talk about what it was like to get funding.”
MH: It was really scary. I mean there is a Barnard graduate, Fiona Druckenmiller, who became my angel donor, because its always been a non-profit, and that is how I was able to do this. I think she wanted to support me as a fellow woman media entrepreneur. Had it not been for her, I don’t know if I would have been able to do it. But yea. This is really hard. I am glad that I have done it because now other people can be like “Oh, well exactly how did you do it?” and I’d be happy to share how it’s done. It is not for the faint of heart because it really means a lot of responsibility on your shoulders. But I’ll tell you what, when I would feel conflicted or confused or overwhelmed, I would think about Frederick Douglass, who was born into slavery, became a free man, and then became a publisher and editor of his own newspaper. And I am like, “Jesus. If Frederick Douglass can do this, with every challenge that he had, then ‘you got this. You are gonna keep on doing this.’”
B&W: Speaking to that, in the environment that Frederick Douglass was in, as a former slave and in an environment that still wanted Black people to be slaves, have you felt every time that people in your staff have given you the respect as the editor-in-chief or as the mainstream media company that you deserve? Or that you would be given as a white man?
MH: I have to be honest with you, there is just so much love and appreciation for being in a newsroom where they are seen, where they are visible, where they are predominantly journalists of color and women, immigrants, many of them bilingual, where they feel like this is a newsroom that sees them. So many of them are making the decision to stay in that newsroom and not leave for more high profile newsrooms organizations like The New York Times because they appreciate the kind of recognition that we give them. I do that on purpose and the reason why is because it makes them into better journalists.
BW: I want to speak about the rest of mainstream media, because there was a big thing that involved this mantra: Sticking to sports, which is not only a media thing. I remember the first time hearing about this was when Colin Kapernick was protesting the American flag, and everyone was telling him “Stick to sports or we’ll burn your jersey.” Is there a sense that “oh, you should stick to your specialty or stay out of politics.” Or, “You are making this about identity, don’t make it about identity.” Do you get that sense from your competitors?
MH: Our competitors frankly are looking at us and trying to figure out how come we are winning. They are looking at us and saying “How is it possible that a small, little independent company based in Harlem is able to produce a national show that has a growing audience within public radio, when all other public radio programs are just doing okay?” And our audience is exploding. So, I think that those are the questions that they have for us. How is it that we are able to do that? Why is it that we are able to do that? And I point to some of the things that I raised. When you create a newsroom that is intentionally about saying to people to bring their entire selves into the newsroom, you get better journalism. And when people feel respected and represented, they will stop and listen. I wish I could tell you why our audience is growing. I think it is because our journalists love what they do and they do it with a lot of authenticity.
B&W: I was looking at the news and wondering “Why is Deadspin doing this? Why is it destroying its own staff by having this marginalization?” It just seems so self-destructive. In your experience having to pitch to these people, is this very common?
MH: We are, all of us, witnessing a challenging moment for American media. And the reason why we are being tested is because we have an authoritarian regime in the White House. Most of the mainstream will have a hard time saying that there is an authoritarian regime in the White House right now. But if you look at the definition of authoritarianism, we are basically there. How journalists manage working with an authoritarian leader is very different and unique from other times of quote unquote normalcy. I read The New York Times and The Washington Post, I love them, I watch cable news, I have great respect for my fellow journalists, but the way they are reporting on Donald Trump is so clearly tied to the way they carry themselves, not only in their newsrooms, but in the world.
The majority of America’s newsrooms today continue to be run by white men of privilege. Some of them are my best friends, from Columbia by the way! My buddies from Columbia from when I was here. But, if you run all of America’s newsrooms, then the very specific way in which you are encountering and taking in and reporting on Donald Trump, I would posit, and they aren’t going to like this, but it is influenced by their own bias. They are white men, they are covering a white man, who is doing frankly, in terms of democracy, abhorrent things. But they are looking at him and they are like “Today, Donald Trump said so and so. Today the president of the United States said blah blah blah.” And I just keep thinking what would these same journalists be saying if the person who was running this white house was a Black man, or a woman, or a Muslim, or a Latino person, or a queer person? The headlines would be “President Commits yet another Criminal Act,” “Today the President Breaks another Law”, “Today the President Breaking with Tradition of Government."
B&W: And we see this with Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren on her campaign.
MH: You have to be extraordinarily self-aware to be able to say “Damn. Wow. Our own privilege is influencing how we are covering this presidency.” And the people who are actually suffering the real life consequences of policies, our lives, our perspectives, are seen as less than, or we are perceived as angry or upset. We are trying to tell you that the policies are bad policies because they are impacting our lives. Like we are dying right here. And they are saying, “Well from our perspective up here, this is just another policy decision.” This is the kind of angst that is being worked out in our journalism as we speak. Also because journalists of color are not being quiet. We are challenging. We are saying “hold on.” That is frankly a beautiful moment that is happening today.
B&W: How do we teach that? I as a student talk to people who seem, to put it respectfully, quite deaf to those concerns and especially for a university like Columbia or Harvard or the J School in particular, if there is an importance to teach this thing, but do we have a guide to it? The closest we have gotten to trying to teach it is to have an affirmative action policy that is designed to create a diverse environment for you to learn in. And people just stay in their own circles and don’t benefit from that diversity. So, how do we teach this?
MH: I don’t know if you can teach it. You have to talk about it so you raise awareness, so that you have journalists who are mostly smart people, right? It’s not like I want them walking around with the imposter syndrome, cause imposter syndrome is no fun. But, I do want them to be thinking outside of their body, looking at the situation and saying “Am I bringing my privilege here?” You have to have a level of self-awareness where you can just say, “Oh my God, what am I doing here? What am I bringing into this?” I mean that is why I am not sure if you can teach self-awareness. You can teach about these conversations and these dialogues. We have to. Will they incorporate it? It’s hard because they have to want to, and that means they have to be prepared to question their own power.
B&W: I wanted to ask in specific, because the Harvard Crimson recently covered a protest of Donald Trump’s policies, ICE in particular, and the Harvard Crimson spoke out to ICE for comment. There’s been a lot of discourse about how activists felt that the Harvard Crimson put them in an unsafe situation by doing that, there is a lot of sites saying, “well, you protested ICE, they have to comment, ask for their office to be disbanded. What are you going to do?” How do we address that while staying to core journalism values.
MH: My immediate reaction to this was pretty basic journalistically. Like, if you are doing a straight news report and you are covering a protest then yea, I understand that. I understand that it is normal protocol. I also understand the reaction of the students, which is like “What are you doing? You are exposing us.” ICE knows that there are undocumented students on the Harvard campus, they know there are undocumented students here at Barnard and Columbia. So if they wanted to come and start taking people they could attempt to do that. I don’t think quoting them in the Harvard Crimson is gonna be the thing that is going to make that thing happen.
What I wanted to do with this moment was create a space for dialogue. What I would like to have done, and I think it is very difficult to do this publicly, but I would have, and I am not a Harvard grad which means it is a little difficult for me to insert myself, but I would have had a conversation with, for example, esteemed African-American journalists of conscience. So journalists who are African-American who understand their role as observers and storytellers and reporters around issues of social justice, you know, which, if you’re black in America, there’s a lot there. And I would have brought in some of the immigrant leaders from immigrant communities, and other journalists, like myself or Julio Ricardo Varela, who’s actually on my staff and graduated from Harvard, wrote for the Crimson. I would have loved to seen this used as a way to do something productive. So while I can still journalistically understand that okay, they’re covering a protest, they need to get that response, I get that.
But I would take that one step further, and say, okay, we’re going to create a space for undocumented students to always have their voice heard––like a column in the Crimson, once a month or every two weeks, that will always be from an undocumented student’s perspective. An active encouragement and recruitment of immigrant students, undocumented students, Latinx students to be part of the Crimson. Do you see how you take a situation that was really quite terrible and everyone feels bad about it, and turn it into a learning experience? But that requires a lot of work and effort.
B&W: I could imagine. I could also imagine, in certain circumstances, that is obviously a very high profile thing. But to speak to something that happened on campus, there was a speaker here, because speakers get invited here all the time, there was a speaker who spoke about gay issues in a negative way, and Bwog wanted our publication to say, we’re not going to cover this straight, we’re going to have a discussion about gay rights instead, because we believe this is not worth reporting
MH: Interesting—so you decided not to do straight journalism?
B&W: I don’t work for Bwog, but that’s what they decided to do. I was at the event itself, and I was like, I can’t disagree. It was an interesting way to handle it, and I wonder if trying to create the dialogue between Libertarians and gay groups, to basically say, what is the point of having this speaker? And then with campus publications, is there a point to covering this event? Because this happens all the time.
MH: I think that’s super smart, frankly. That’s the kind of thought process we need more of in our newsrooms. Wait a second, we don’t have to cover it. For example, in the Harvard Crimson, they could have said, hold on, we actually want to approach this in a different way. They can, they should, and that’s what we hope actually. We hope that having a newsroom that’s super diverse would result in people saying, hang on, let’s not cover it that way. Let’s do it this way. Instead of perceiving, oh, but no, that makes us less of a straight journalistic newspaper because we’re covering it in this way, it actually makes you very forward-thinking, it makes you creative, it makes you go beyond what’s expected. It’s also, to put myself in the position in the young African-American woman who’s the editor-in-chief at the Crimson, it’s also for her creating a tremendous sense of vulnerability, worrying about people coming back at her and saying, you see why we can’t trust black women to run the Crimson? She would have had to have a lot of training and a lot allies to sit in the room and say, no, I’m going to do this because this is what Ida B. Wells would have done, this is what Frederick Douglas would have done. It’s very tough, it’s very lonely, it can feel like you’re out there on your own. You are suddenly responsible for an entire institution like the Crimson or Spectator, and it’s like, how did this happen? More and more dialogue is what we need.
B&W: Because I’m about to leave my editor-in-chief role at The Blue and White, thinking about what resources I have, it doesn’t escape me that both the Harvard Crimson and Northwestern’s paper, which was also criticized for its coverage, it does not escape me that both of those papers were run by black people.
MH: Oh really? I didn’t know that about the Medill one.
B&W: You know you want to do well by your paper, but you know there’s a bigger spotlight on you.
MH: But I would argue that what we need, without showing any disrespect, because I understand how hard it is to be at a mainstream media institution, but when I say that we have to bring our whole selves into the newsroom, this is what I’m talking about. Can you bring your whole self into that newsroom? This is really hard. I’m also taking some liberties here. I’m taking a lot of liberties, but I kinda like what I said, in that, if you are an African-American woman, can you look to Ida B. Wells and say, what would she be doing? How would she handle this? And then use that to feel like you have the capacity and the responsibility to not do it the same way as everybody else. That’s what I tried to do with my company. I said, yeah, I’m not going to do it like everybody else. It’s been the best thing we could have done.
B&W: Right, I did want to talk about that. Today, there was a shooting in California.
MH: I know, I’m just seeing about that.
B&W: Last week, there was a panel talking about covering trauma from the schema of the Parkland students, some of whom are still in high school, some of whom are in college right now, but there was a lot of discussion about how journalists could train to cover that story. There was a moment where an NBC reporter actually retweeted someone who was in an active mass shooting situation to say, are you free for an interview right now? And this student said, I’m literally unsafe right now. I get it to a certain extent, because you want to provide an up-to-date, detailed report of what’s going on, but you also don’t want to retraumatize people or put them at risk of suicide. Do you have any insight on that difficulty?
MH: I think that we have to recognize that part of what happens is that we are in a highly competitive media world. People feel like they’ve got to do these things in order to be first, to get the story. Journalists are competitive by nature, I get it, but being competitive just so you can prove that you’ve done well for your business is not what I look for in terms of success as a journalist. On the other hand, look, we’re very competitive, we want that story. But what you have to think about is, what’s our hippocratic oath? Journalists don’t often talk about our own hippocratic oath. The oath is, do no harm. That is part of our oath. We don’t have an oath, because it’s just too difficult, could we even agree? But part of the way I move in the world is to try not to do harm. But again, you have to be hyper self-aware.
B&W: I guess especially because of what people in Parkland had to go through, or people in this high school have to go through—
MH: There is something that happens. I’m not talking about exposure in an immediate situation of trauma, which I’ve been through, and it’s very challenging. I’m talking, post-trauma, there is something that can happen in interviews where the interview becomes a part of the healing. I found that after 9/11, for example, there were people who were so glad that I called and that I wanted to hear their story, and they took the interviews as part of their way of understanding what happened. There were other people I called who would say, how dare you? How dare you call me up in this moment? And then of course there were others who said, thank you for calling, how soon can you get here?
B&W: It’s hard because no one can speak for everyone, but there were reactions from people who said that when you ask for specific details from the shooting, it can put them back into that moment, and it can helpful, yes, but it can be unhelpful at times.
MH: Oh, I’ve been on both sides of that. Just when you mentioned that, I went right back to this time where I was interviewing a woman who was a 9-1-1 operator on September 11. She was the one who got many of the phone calls of people who were taking their lives. She was the last person they spoke to. She had never spoken to anyone about any of this. She didn’t want to speak to us, she was about to basically be like, no way, but I said, please come with me just for a second. I took her out of the office and we went to the East River to just kind of look for a minute, and then she agreed to speak with me. A couple of months later, her husband got in touch and said, thank you so much. It was only after her interview with you that she finally started sleeping through the night. She was resistant to talking about it, she didn’t want to talk about the trauma. I didn’t give up, I wasn’t pushy, per se, but I was a little persistent, and that helped her. I mean, I’m just glad.
B&W: The semester is almost over. I know you’ve taught at Barnard before, but what was it like teaching a class at Barnard, being on the other side of the classroom and thinking, oh, now I have to grade students?
MH: First of all, as I have told my students, both my Barnard and Columbia students, they are wicked smart, and they are great writers, and I am so proud of them. What I am trying to do is I am actively trying to create a space on campus that doesn’t feel like most other spaces on this campus. I feel like I’ve been able to do that. In my morning class we’ve been talking about writing and trauma, which is very difficult to do, especially from an immigrant perspective. In my afternoon class, we’re talking about covering immigration as journalists, and how to report and understand the issue. I am so pleased with my students. I am really pleased, so kudos to Columbia and to Barnard for bringing a really diverse class into my classrooms. I don’t know about the rest of the campus, but what I’m seeing in my classes is extraordinary diversity of every sort. From ethnicity, their own experience in terms of immigration, in terms of being members of the LGBTQ community, being trans, being survivors, being undocumented. All of those things are part and parcel of our classes. I’m really happy that I’m seeing that kind of diversity. I feel like my students are really surprised and kind of pleasantly so to know that there’s a professor––as I’m asking them to do things, I’m bringing my entire self into the classroom. I do believe in creating a safe space. I do believe in creating a space where students are able to talk about their whole lives and their whole selves, and also, we’re highly professional. We are writers, or budding journalists or medical doctors or lawyers. So even though we’re being very connected to our emotions, these are also young people who are prepared to go out into the world. I don’t want people to think that because we bring emotion into our classroom that we’re any less serious or less professional. I say we are more so.
B&W: I did want to talk about one thing, about people who see themselves as private figures, who see themselves as out of the limelight, how they can become the story in a way. I’m sure you’ve dealt with it. For instance, if you win the lottery, or if you happen to take a small political action that gets covered in the regional press and then the national press, and it then becomes a story that’s widely discussed. Have you talked with people right before they bear the brunt of that story, telling them what’s going to happen, what it’s going to be like?
MH: You mean, if something if they do gets covered? No we haven’t talked about that at all. All I’ve told my students is that after going viral, I can just tell them that life stays the same. Nothing really changes.
B&W: With social media being so widespread, it’s so much more common to have one bad thing done by a campaign that’s just talked about ad nauseum.
MH: Or one good thing. One bad thing is much harder to deal with. I went viral on something I consider good. No, we haven’t really talked about them being the center of the story. No, it’s more that I want them to understand that they have agency in this conversation around immigration, storytelling and reporting on the immigrant story. They have agency, and we need their voices.
B&W: Your Columbia friends and students have to deal with the Core. There’s a new banner project that has been up since October. There’s the always relevant conversation about diversity in the Core. What does the Core mean to you as someone who doesn’t go through the Core but interact with people who go through the Core?
MH: Because I was a Barnard student, and I have a lot of friends at Columbia — this was before Columbia accepted women, — we talked about the Core a lot. And mostly I would hear complaints about the Core. But I was actually very intrigued, because we didn’t have the Core at Barnard. I’m one of those students that took CC. I crossed and I took CC for a year and for me, it was one of the transformational classes in my entire life. I happen to be taught by one of the most amazing human being, who was battling cancer as he was teaching us. He was an existential Marxist, if you could imagine. Our class was just the most beautiful class, and I was the only woman in the class. And I have to be honest with you, there was a part of me that looked at the Columbia Core many many years ago and was, in a way, kind of jealous.
The fact that the men were being socialized to be able to go out into the world of men, educated men, and to talk about educated things like philosophy and classical music and to be able to have these conversations out on the golf range. And I was like, “Why aren’t we getting that.” Back then, obviously, we were like, “Wow, they aren’t reading any women whatsoever.” But the thought of putting up the banner, we weren’t even thinking that way. I hope there is a very animated conversation that is being had in terms of the Core to understand the privilege they have been teaching this core for centuries. This is a major academic institution, which means things are being analyzed and rethought and criticized.
That’s the nature of academia: thought, criticism, dialectical materialism, moving things forward. There needs to be a serious conversation about the Core. But here’s the thing. In some ways you have to start from a place that people will immediately get very upset. So I’m going to tell you something that’s very upsetting. In the thought of how we teach American history, what would people think if we were now teaching that the first illegal aliens in this country, a term I don’t use, were the Pilgrims. What if we were to say “They came; they didn’t have permission.” What they ended up erasing was actually all of these songs, all of these stories, all of these traditions that were ancient, and those disappeared. What if the Core suddenly said, “My god, what we really have to do is we have to go back and research what were the first sounds that were being played in this land and try to listen to them. What were the sounds that were being brought by the people being trafficked into this country by a government that said it was of honorable men, but they were trafficking human beings?”
What an opportunity for the Core to not feel threatened but rather to say “Will we read those new authors from that new banner and see them as legitimate?” I think it’s a major philosophical question for the men of Columbia University who designed that Core.
BW: Sometimes I wonder if there’s a perverse lack of curiosity. Because people think “The Core is designed to be Western, that’s how we built our ideas as a country, that’s why the Core is designed that way.” Is that lack of curiosity harmful in terms of trying to develop a Core that is reflective of a global institution, one that is more inclusive of what all of America is?
MH: Shouldn’t academia be reflective. Or does academia believe it’s on the tower on the hill. We don’t have to be reflective. But if you’re an educated person, you can’t put your head in the sand, which is the way white men have been doing because privilege is a great thing. Having a big ego and not being questioned? Whoo, fun! The part of the United States that isn’t white, the half of the population that are women, we don’t live from a place of privilege, we live from a place of constantly questioning ourselves.
B&W: How has it been in terms of being on Barnard’s staff as someone who has a lot of experience teaching at many schools, but there’s an academic tenure track that some professors went through, you did not.
MH: I have not gotten that vibe from many of my colleagues. For me this career, what I’ve done, the hard work of several decades is not the equivalent of a PhD, and that’s why the first thing I do when I teach my classes is I make it very clear I do not have a PhD. I have several honorary degrees, six if I’m not mistaken. But I’m very clear that I want my students to understand out of respect for those professors who have PhDs — that is not who I am. So, you’re going to be experiencing something very different in this classroom. And I am so appreciative of the fact that my colleagues have opened up to me with open arms, because I think that they see the value of what I’m bringing here. Somebody just reached out and they said “It’s so wonderful to see a Barnard alum come back to teach” and this is not an alum, the person who said this. If you are a professor at Barnard and you’re teaching students, it is really cool to see one of them suddenly come back. That’s means they took that to heart, what they learned here.
B&W: There’s a lot of talk over the years about how Barnard/Columbia and a lot of schools treat adjunct and contingent faculty and how we develop that academic track. Do you feel that Barnard is improving or do you feel, if you have been following it at all, that there are places Barnard can improve in that process.
MH: I don’t know enough to comment. I know it’s a big issue, and I feel for my adjunct professors. Adjunct professors need to be able to make a living. Period. Dot. End of story. They should be paid a living wage.
B&W: If there had to be one book that over winter break, that week before Martin Luther King Jr. Day because we have such a long break, that your students or anyone who’s interested in supplementing their Core studies, what would you recommend?
MH: I would recommend anything written by Thich Nhat Hanh, who is a Buddhist monk from Vietnam. He’s written books that include things like how to sit, how to read, how to walk. And also the Canadian Buddhist monk [Pema Chödrön], who’s a white woman. Both of these authors are Buddhist monks, I’m not a Buddhist by the way, I’m spiritual but I don’t follow any tradition. Both of these authors are teaching patience, they’re teaching the capacity to break down your own ego. They’re teaching love for our fellow human beings. They’re teaching self-awareness and self-critique. And they teach us how to make it through the most challenging times in our lives, and I feel that as a country right now, we are at one of the most challenging times in our history, so we are going to need patience and calm, strength and fortitude to make it through what’s coming.