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In Memoirs, Two Reporters Plumb Their Latina Identity and Heritage

In her opening, Calderón turns the camera on herself, recalling her interview with a Ku Klux Klan leader who threatened her: “We’re going to burn you out.” She writes: “There’s no doubt: I, Ilia Calderón Chamat” — she uses her full name here, highlighting the Syrian lineage she inherited from her mother’s side of the family — “am Black. Colombian, Latina, Hispanic, Afro-Colombian, mixed and anything else people may want to call me or I choose to call myself, but I’m always Black.” Race is a central theme of her story, underlining the significance of Calderón’s professional ascendance in her native and adopted countries: She was the first Afro-Latina to anchor leading national newscasts in Colombia and on a major Spanish-language broadcast network in the United States.

Hinojosa focuses her introduction on a girl from Guatemala whom she encounters at an airport in McAllen, Texas, one of nine immigrant children about to be escorted onto a flight to Houston — and from there, who knows? Hinojosa and the girl stare at each other, a grown woman on her hands and knees looking for a plug to charge her phone and a “numb girl, the one with the gaze of nothingness, of just barely being human”; a child “anesthetized by some mysterious poison that kept you alive on the outside but dead on the inside.” It’s a jarring scene, punctuated by the bureaucratic coolness of the girl’s chaperones, Hinojosa’s tender reassurances in Spanish and the outrage she feels while witnessing “one of the greatest modern horrors of the U.S.A.,” as she puts it, “the holding of innocent children; the transporting, trafficking, kidnapping of children by a government.”

Hinojosa’s book is as much a manifesto as it is a memoir. The narrative is chiseled by points of convergence between her own story and the history of immigration in this country. In one vivid passage, she recalls a childhood memory of desperate families fleeing Vietnam in small fishing vessels after the fall of Saigon. She notes the term used by newspapers at the time — “boat people” — then asks: “Should we call those waiting on the sidewalks at the border in Mexico ‘concrete people’? What’s next? How else can we otherize people from different places?”

There’s an almost perverse similarity between Hinojosa’s description of her arrival as a green-card-carrying child from Mexico in the 1960s and the arrival, in 2018, of a “mute and blind” asylum-seeking boy from Guatemala whom she introduces in the final pages of her book. Hinojosa is a child of privilege: Her family moved to the United States because her father, a doctor and researcher, was offered a full-time job at the University of Chicago. The boy she writes about has a different story: His family came to the United States to escape the mafia that had killed his grandfather and threatened to kill him and others in his family. Yet the overlap is telling. The government attempted to remove each of them from their mothers’ arms as they arrived — Hinojosa while at the airport, where a customs agent threatened to quarantine her after mistaking an allergic rash for German measles; and the boy while at an immigration detention center, just because.

Her message is clear: Pedigrees don’t matter much when you’re brown. As a result, Hinojosa has made it her mission to shed light on the lives and stories that others refuse or aren’t equipped to see. She has earned distinction after distinction in nearly 30 years as a journalist, working at public radio stations and for public, network and cable television news channels, often as the only Latina in the newsroom. Again and again, she recalls stories like one she worked on at NPR, about young boys who earned money by performing back flips and other tricks outside an El Salvador hotel that housed foreign reporters during that country’s civil war: “It was a story that had been right in front of journalists’ faces for years and yet for them and therefore for the rest of us, these kids were invisible. Their stories didn’t matter.”

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