Maria Hinojosa had a problem: CNN wanted her to use a word that just didn’t feel right: Illegal. Not right on the tip of the tongue, not right when it swirled around in the gut. So she sought advice from a man “who couldn’t be more unlike me:” Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize.
His answer was clear. “Never use that term. There is no such thing as an illegal human being.”
She brought that lesson not just to her journalistic practice, but also to New Haven, where she spoke Thursday evening on the topic of “Being Latino in the U.S.” to a crowd of close to 300. The event was a product of the Progreso Latino Fund’s (PLF) annual community forum and the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven’s (CFGNH) Convening series, intended to “identify and examine ideas that will build a stronger community in the Greater New Haven region.”
As founder, president and CEO of The Futuro Media Group, Hinojosa produces NPR’s program Latino USA and has now created a TV series for PBS called By The Numbers With Maria Hinojosa. She spoke at the Omni Hotel ballroom.
At a welcome reception before the forum, Fernando Muñiz, co-chair of the PLF advisory committee, described his hopes for the evening. “I want people to hear a positive message about what Latinos contribute to greater New Haven and to the state, to get a better understanding of how big the community is and how much it’s growing.”
“Maria speaks about optimism for Latinos,” added co-chair Cynthia Rojas. “Maria speaks about optimism for Latinos. For our future ... and the optimism that we should feel. Progreso Latino Fund is all about what we bring to New Haven, what we bring to the state. If everybody walked away feeling optimistic about our future, and the diversity that we bring to the state, we’ve done our work.”
Hinojosa has the kind of tempered yet fiery voice that fills the room and brings everyone up from the middle of their seats; her sense of civic obligation is as palpable as it is contagious.
“We are facing extraordinary challenges as Latinos in the Unites States today,” she began. “It’s a strange story that we’re living through ... We are part of a massive historic change in demographics and power and how we construct our society. You are the leaders, you are the history makers of this Connecticut.”
“You have to own your story ... Your narrative ... of leadership and power. We have to act as leaders. We have a historic responsibility to do that.”
A self-professed “democracy junkie,” Hinojosa also made clear exactly why communities are currently in need of strong Latino leaders, outlining several miscarriages of justice that are taking place daily within national borders. Ranging from the woes of the librotraficante in Arizona to Georgia’s ban on undocumented students in college classrooms, culture wars are very much worth being waged.
“Every 90 seconds in our country a Latino is turning 18. At the same time that’s happening, we have the highest rates of detention, deportation, and incarceration. It is confusing. It is misleading. And I believe that we are, unfortunately, the guinea pigs for a consistent violation of due process and basic human rights in our country. Because we have became the other. In the mainstream media, we are the illegals. We are the foreigners.”
But it doesn’t have to feel that way, Hinojosa said. Indeed, it shouldn’t feel that way.
“Connections must be made at the level of ‘why are we being separated and dis-empowered and disenfranchised and made the other, and dehumanized?’ Why?’”
Enter local action. New Haveners, she argued, can have a direct impact on a rapidly changing social landscape. “The country is watching what is happening in New Haven. We at Latino USA have been watching and talking and covering the story of what’s happening in this part of Connecticut. People here have worked around the notion of being visible. This activism is actually on the map. You can in fact have an impact. If Latinos in greater New Haven succeed, so does New Haven, and so does Connecticut.”
This got the crowd thinking audibly. A flurry of right rights, yess and sís rippled through the audience. Fitting, then, that she left them with a resonant message of social engagement.
“When we cross borders amongst ourselves, and begin to see ourselves in the person most unlike us, that is the time where our common humanity begins. That person is America…the new America, and all of our America.”
To learn more about the Progreso Latino Fund or get involved in their recent initiatives, click here.