If you turn on a TV to watch the news and land on any of the three major networks — CBS, NBC, or ABC — you might notice that the anchors for all of our national evening news programs are white men. If you switch to cable news, there are some female journalists but most of the heavy hitters like Wolf Blitzer or Anderson Cooper fit the old boys club profile. Where are the journalists of color? Some of them, like Maria Hinojosa, are forging their own path. Together with a diverse group of reporters she created the Futuro Media Group in 2010 to carve out a space in media, to tell stories from a new perspective and using a different lens than the white male establishment.
After its founding, The Futuro Media Group took over as producer of Latino USA, a weekly radio show for NPR hosted by Hinojosa, that is the longest running Latino-focused program on air in the United States. Since 1992, Maria Hinojosa has reported on Latino news and culture in a radio format that doesn’t shy away from Spanglish or using Latin indie music interludes. Now, the young but audacious production company is taking the show on the road — better put, to television. Bringing together her more than 25 years of experience as a journalist for networks like CNN, PBS, and CBS, Hinojosa is hosting a weekly news program. In her own words, the new show America by the Numbers covers, “The most phenomenally deep demographic change that our country has ever experienced.”
What kind of demographic change? If you’ve been watching mainstream media, then maybe you haven’t heard the news. “We are going to be a majority non-white country in a matter of decades,” Hinojosa explains. This is exactly why she created her company, Futuro Media Group, in the first place: to tell stories that the big networks are ignoring, stories that can no longer be ignored.
I sat down with the Mexico City-born, Chicago-raised veteran journalist to talk about the genesis for America by the Numbers and how as a Latina she fights to maintain her identity when standing in front of a camera or sitting behind a microphone.
What was the genesis of America by the Numbers? Did you approach PBS or did they approach you?
Hinojosa: I had just finished a stint on PBS on a show called NOW. I came up with the idea to create a recurring television news series for PBS. I didn’t want to just do a yearly special for Hispanic Heritage Month. I wanted to have something that was going to have a continual presence. I wanted to take all of the journalism that I’ve learned over 25 years and become an executive producer with my company Futuro Media Group. So that’s how America by the Numbers was born.
“America by the Numbers covers the most phenomenally deep demographic change that our country has ever experienced.”
We had a retreat. I gathered a very diverse group of the top journalists of the time. This was 2010. We were talking about wanting to report on what was the next thing, what was coming up. We were trying to look into the future. The notion of reporting about demographic change, is a story that I rarely see covered journalistically, across the board in the media. America by the Numbers covers the most phenomenally deep demographic change that our country has ever experienced and we based this television series on hard data.
From the idea to now, it’s been four years. It takes a long time to launch a television series — a news television series. It’s not just a sitcom, it’s real journalism at a time when in our country the economy is contracting and the conversation about the state of American media is in flux. So, to be able to launch a series with some new tiny production company based on 125th Street in the heart of Harlem, led by a Latina and a really diverse group of journalists is a huge accomplishment. Thankfully we got eight and a half hours on PBS and we raised all of the money to do it.
America by the Numbers focuses on the demographic change occurring in the U.S. At the same time as this transition to a non-white majority is happening, there has been a backlash, most visible in discussions about immigration reform when pundits fear the loss of the American way of life (meaning white). Do you think this backlash will increase as the ethnic makeup of the U.S. continues to change?
Hinojosa: You know what? When you were asking this question, I started thinking about the 1980s when I was starting out as a reporter. I was thinking back to New York City in the 1980s and 1990s when racial violence and racial tension was the core narrative of our city. And then I think about where I am. It’s 2014, sitting right here in my office in Harlem, that is a completely, very safe part of the community, very diverse. I think that our [current] racial divisions are not the [same] segregations that we were facing in New York City in the 80s and 90s. It’s not a nirvana, but it isn’t the way it was.
So when you think about where the country is going to go, I do believe that we’re going to make it and that this country is going to remain very solid and unified. It’s probably going to get much better and much more interesting as we figure out these complex problems together. Having said that, it’s completely understandable for the people to say, “Oh my God! What’s happening? I don’t recognize my country anymore. I don’t recognize my neighborhood.” This is mostly an older generation I would say over 50, over 55, probably over 60 — with all due respect to younger conservatives.
“This other reporting is going to make you understand what’s happening in our country and that hopefully is going to help you be less fearful.”
I understand when they say, “This is scary to me.” I feel that is all the more reason, as to why a television news series like America by the Numbers needs to exist. The narrative right now in our country around demographic change, ethnic change, cultural change has been approached from a place of fear. In newsrooms the model was, “Things are happening and this is really scary and somebody is going to lose something and this is not going to be good.”
I don’t approach ethnic demographic change like that. I believe that our reporting is not in response to that fear. We’re basically saying, “This other reporting is going to make you understand what’s happening in our country and that hopefully is going to help you be less fearful.”
And I think about our first episode in Clarkston, Georgia, the fact that we went back to Clarkston, a place where right next door is where the Ku Klux Klan was re-birthed in 1915. In that town that was majority white — and is majority non-white right now — the town is going through a phenomenal transformation. Former refugees who have become citizens are being elected to office. And we show, in those segments, people who have a lot of worry [about this change].
We try to approach folks who have fears about this in a respectful way. We cover them as journalists and create a space for dialogue, but I think we are very clear about not throwing fuel on the fire. That’s not what this kind of journalism is about.
I find that very refreshing. You are telling these stories and looking at America through a lens of demographic change but without sensationalizing it the way other news programs do. You aren’t buying into the fear or the attitude of we will never get along or depicting stark racial divides.
Hinojosa: That’s really what we’ve done with Futuro Media, we’ve inserted ourselves and said, “We are American journalists and we want to tell stories about the demographic change, but it’s going to be from a very different perspective.” It’s with a solid journalistic basis, but maybe looking at it through a prism that is tilted in a different way because of the fact that we, on purpose, are wanting to be one of the most diverse group of journalists.
In the episode called The New Mad Men you interview Lizette Williams, a multicultural marketing executive at Kimberly-Clark, who says that, “the face of America has changed” and that, “the census was a real game changer for the industry.” There has always been a flurry of activity and commentary after a census comes out, starting even in the 80s, about the increased buying power of Latinos.
Now it’s just louder and more urgent since Latino buying power has reached the trillion dollar mark and companies are scrambling to win over Latino consumers. Do you think this time it will really stick? What is different now than in the past when similar conversations were started and then left by the wayside?
Hinojosa: I think that’s why you want to base a story on numbers. If you look at the demographics — of this notion of what is called the “total market” that is basically the intersection of what was the general market and multicultural marketing — those numbers are irrefutably the only part of the consumer base that is growing.
So, you absolutely have companies that are looking at these numbers and understanding that they are irrefutable. Now, having said that, I was just in Orlando, Florida, last week and somebody there who is a Latino working in advertising told me that he talked to a corporate brand who basically said, “Can we just translate what you’ve done into Spanish? Can we just translate it and make it work?” And he’s like, “No, you need to understand that there’s a particularity.” I was told by another advertising executive that a company told him, “I’m not interested. I’m basically not interested in reaching Latinos.”
“We are going to be a majority non-white country in a matter of decades.”
So this is not nirvana, we have not reached the point where all consumer companies have totally understood. But the advertising and consumer dollars are not fictitious, they are real. These are consumer groups that are going to be driving the American economy.
So yeah, there is progress. But it’s not, perfect and I understand this. I’m in the middle of living it. I’m covering it. I’m reporting on it. I mean, I totally get it. When I travel across the country, I understand that sometimes I’m in parts of the country and with people who just don’t really see it yet. That’s, again, more reason for why we have the television show. We actually say it in the opening statement that, “We are going to be a majority non-white country in a matter of decades.” We want to talk about this. We want to add to the conversation.
On your radio show Latino USA you cover lots of different topics, but are specifically looking at the Latino experience. With America by the Numbers you are telling stories about different ethnic groups. What are some of your favorite stories from the TV series that you wouldn’t be able to cover on Latino USA?
Hinojosa: Well, it’s hard to have a favorite one, they are like your kids, but in terms of impactful experiences for me… being able to go to Guam, an island that’s similar to Puerto Rico, in its relationship and status with the United States, First of all traveling across the world to a land that is a part of United States, was just strange. And then to be with the people of Guam, which they said over and over again how much they wished they were Puerto Rico because at least if they were Puerto Rico people would know where they were on a map.
And be with the people who are my equals as American citizens and yet feel so completely invisible was profoundly powerful for me. And who knew that Guamanians shared so much in terms of our Spanish backgrounds, because of course we were all colonized by Spain at one point.
I think the other story was going to a Native American reservation and spending time really trying to understand this community. It was very powerful to me as an American journalist; it was transformative for me to spend time on the reservation. These are in fact our founding fathers and our founding mothers, and the fact that we don’t have more journalism on these communities is a problem.
But you know, demystifying stereotypes that’s what Latino USA is all about. We just did a whole collaboration with Hyphen magazine to talk about Latino-Asian issues. So in some ways America by the Numbers has allowed us at Latino USA to even expand on what we do.
I was really happy to see this collaboration you’re doing with Hyphen Magazine. I recently wrote a post called “10 Reasons Why Latinos and Filipinos are Primos” for Hispanic Heritage Month that went viral. Lots of people responded that they knew about the similarities in our cultures, but they had never seen them written down or reported on in the media. The connections that exist between different communities are so often overlooked. Why do you think these stories remain invisible in the media?
Hinojosa: If we’re talking about the mainstream media and who have been the deciders — to use that term — on what is news and what is important to people in our country — with all due respect to our fellows journalists in the newsrooms — but most often those newsrooms have been led by white, wealthy men. And we love them, right? But the point is that they may not really think it’s that important to talk about, in their view, “How minority groups relate to other minority groups.” Is it sexy? Is it conflictive? Is it a problem? Is it a sexy story?
So as our demographics change and who is in the media changes at places like Remezcla, like Latino USA, like Futuro then we can take control. We can say, “We’ve always wanted to talk about this” and we can because we have a radio show on NPR, because we have a television series on PBS. And I think that that’s why it hasn’t been talked about it. And the response is that: it’s refreshing. It’s like, “Wow! Of course!” So it’s great journalism, great American journalism. Period.
I’m a big fan of Latino USA and listen to it often. On a story about Latina professionals, you spoke about how it is important for you to maintain your identity as a Latina in the way you dress. That sometimes in the business world women from minority groups are told to “tone it down” and to conform to what’s acceptable business attire. For example, some women have been told to straighten their hair for a job interview. You talked about how you like to wear hoop earrings at work.
As we go through this demographic change, do you think it is now even more important for journalists who are minorities to affirm their cultural identity. Especially as the new non-white majority starts looking to television and media to see faces that look like them?
Hinojosa: You know what? I think identity is so personal to each and every one of us, and I’ve been through the whole gamut, from being a teenager who was filled with self hate and who almost lost my Spanish language to being much more radical. During my days at CNN it was like, “Do not touch the hair” and even letting it loose and never blowing it out when I was doing my live reporting. Then getting older and realizing that sometimes you can’t get away with that look.
So identity is really fluid, but I love the fact that I have developed a sense of who I am and what I want to look like and what I want to portray. I’ve always been very, very aware of the fact that what I’m doing on camera or how I’m sounding behind the microphone is going to have a potential impact on someone else. I’m very aware of that.
But I think the conversation about Latino identity is so hard to box in. I can’t go and tell my daughter, “Mamita, te tienes que poner esos aretes. You have to wear your hoop earrings. You have to do this.” I think identity for Latinos and Latinas in the future is, wow, this is where it’s going to get really interesting and it’s going to be a change for all of us. But at least the fact that we’re talking about it is so much progress.
“I’ve been through the whole gamut, from being a teenager who was filled with self hate… to being much more radical.”
It was an invisible conversation when I was younger. We can talk about our identity, it’s out in the open. We have other Latinas who are out there. We see them, we see how they relate to their identity, good or bad. So the fact that it’s a conversation is the good part. I’m happy and honored… the fact that I say my name the way I do or the fact that I look the way I do, that is a part of saying, “This is who I am and I’m okay in not changing it.”
It’s great, although for younger journalists trying to break into the mainstream media it’s really hard and you have to have a really clear mission of who you are, if you’re going to be completely — the word that comes to mind is rajatablas — about who you are. I think that there is a space absolutely in the media now. Is it going to be on ABC News? I don’t know, but there’s a space in the media for that. The broadcasting media, absolutely. So don’t give up your identity if that’s what’s really important to you.
[Someone interrupts in the background]
Hinojosa: I’m sorry I have to go. I have an interview waiting.
I don’t want to keep you.
Hinojosa: We’re interviewing somebody. Pobrecito, he’s supposed to be deported tomorrow. He’s been living in this country 22 years and never committed a crime and he’s supposed to be deported tomorrow. I’m sorry that we have to cut this a little short.
No, that’s okay. Thank you so much for your time and for telling the stories you do. Just like the interview that you’re about to do, that is so incredibly important, thank you for telling our community’s stories to the world.
Hinojosa: Thank you.