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Once I Was You: A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America by Maria Hinojosa

This book was phenomenal. Thanks to the recommendation of @lupita.reads, I quickly scooped this book up.

Following Emmy award-winning journalist and long-time anchor or NPR’s Latino USA, Maria Hinojosa from her childhood to present day with stories of immigration in America through both her family’s experiences and decades of on-hands reporting. It paints an unflinching portrait of America in crisis, one that has been going on for a very long time.

Maria shares her intimate experience growing up Mexican American on the South Side of Chicago and offers an incredibly personal and wildly illuminating account of how the rhetoric around immigration has not only long informed American attitudes toward outsiders, but also sanctioned willful negligence and profiteering at the expense of our country’s most vulnerable populations—charging us with the broken system we have today.

This memoir is very wide-reaching in comparison to other memoirs and gives a plethora of statistics, policy explanations, and political critiques which made it an all-encompassing read for me. But it is intimate at the same time as she talks passionately and kindly about her own imposter syndrome, Latinx guilt tied to productivity and success, and her sexual trauma and how it intertwines with her personal desire and relationships.

I’m a white woman, someone who has never had to worry about deportation. I’m so thankful I read this book right off the back of The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio (The Book Slut writer Karen Salgado wrote an amazing review of this book here and also interviewed the author here). They got me to think very deeply about my upbringing in a small town in Minnesota that has one of the largest undocumented populations in the state because of a meatpacking plant, a corporation I worked for after college.

In Southern Minnesota, ⅓ of the workers in food manufacturing are Latino, and the entire industry and my hometown would collapse without the contributions of undocumented Americans. Latinos add nearly $500 million to the economies of South Central Minnesota through their labor force contributions, their spending as consumers, and the increased demand by employers for regionally-supplied goods and services.

When my local police department made a joke about an ICE raid on their Facebook page, I went into a rage when I saw people I worked with from our corporate office laughing in the comments.

I commented that I felt like they were making a mockery of people who are probably incredibly afraid of the possibilities of deportation and being split up from their family in a community that had become increasingly minority and undocumented after the Hormel Strike in the 1980s. And I told them that their post was incredibly gross. I made sure to include a photo on “What To Do If ICE Knocks On Your Door” and made my stance clear to any undocumented people reading the post that they had a supporter on their side in the plethora of racist and ignorant comments filling the Facebook page, that my police department NEVER acknowledged.

After seeing coworkers liking and sharing the post with their ‘opinions’ on undocumented Americans, I entered an even deeper level of dissociation and resentment for my company I had dedicated over three years of my life to as I watched them hire more white people and interact with more racially insensitive companies that hired the same kind of people, spewing the same ignorant bullshit.

Now, meatpacking plants across the country that are filled to the brim with undocumented Americans (and documented Americans like my own sister) are COVID hotspots. Immigrants make up outsize shares both of essential workers in the fight against the pandemic and those in the industries hit hardest by its economic impact.

6 million immigrants are working in frontline occupations, such as healthcare, food production, and transportation. Another 6 million immigrants work in industries such as food services and domestic household services that have been economically devastated, making up 20% of the total workers in those industries.

My hometown, my entire life, was split between the white, corporate yuppies in Ford Town on the west side, and the minority and blue collar plant workers and their families on the east side where it smells like death.

In both Hinojosa’s and Villavicencio’s books, they talk in depth to the undocumented Americans who are often left out of mainstream conversations like the undocumented in Flint, the undocumented who dealt with the devastation of 9/11, and I thought immediately of my undocumented friends I grew up with. The ones who were afraid of the raids. Afraid of being deported without being able to say goodbye and with nothing in their pockets. Afraid of being sent to a place that wanted them dead. I can’t imagine moving my entire family away from a war-torn country to a new country filled with prestige and potential, but with people who still wanted me dead too.

While no data is available on the number of COVID-19 cases by national origin, MPI analysis indicates that 13 of the 20 U.S. counties with the most cases per capita (as of April 14) have higher concentrations of noncitizens than the national average. I am so happy I read these two books, written before the pandemic. Imagine their work that would have included the brutal, rage-inducing, and devastating statistics for the pandemic on top of the travesties undocumented Americans face every day.

The number one hotspot for COVID in the country is the Smithfield Pork Factory, one of my old corporations largest competitors. With hundreds of employees losing jobs due to plant closings and coming down with the virus themselves, where does that leave them with healthcare? Many immigrants, particularly the undocumented and their U.S.-citizen and legal permanent resident relatives have been excluded from the most important of relief measures—the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program (that I used in March and April to keep me afloat) under the CARES Act provides relief for unemployed workers who are ineligible for their state unemployment insurance or have run out of state benefits. In a major departure from past policy, the legislation covers the self-employed, such as gig workers and freelancers, but NOT undocumented or unauthorized workers, even though they themselves have contributed to the unemployment insurance fund with their income taxes. The CARES Act also provided one-time cash payments of $1,200 to individuals earning less than $75,000 and who filed taxes for either 2018 or 2019 using a valid SSN. The vast majority of unauthorized immigrants, except for those with work authorization—such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients—are thus excluded, including those who file taxes using an IRS-issued Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN). The CARES Act also excluded from cash payments anyone filing jointly with an ITIN filer, even if that person is a U.S. citizen or green-card holder with a SSN. So basically, in families where even ONE member files using an ITIN, the entire family is rendered ineligible.

Anyone, ANYONE, who says that undocumented Americans do not pay taxes are fucking WRONG and that argument needs to be plummeted into the ground and buried for eternity. They pay taxes yet receive almost NO benefits or handouts. And anyone who refers to undocumented Americans as illegal also needs a firm fist to the mouth. Humans are not illegal. They have taxation without representation and it is a travesty.

Undocumented Americans are shit on every single day in this country. I am so grateful and thankful for Maria Hinojosa for sharing the stories of the undocumented. She showcased the tenacity and courage undocumented people deploy every day in this country with burning determination to provide for their families.

A big section that I loved that was included was her criticism on Obama. With Trump as our president, many people turn to the worshipping of Obama and try to reminisce on the good times we had with him as our Commander in Chief. But they forget that he got the nickname “Deporter In Chief,” because in 2011, there were 429,247 people in detention and $18 billion was being spent on immigration enforcement, more than the FBI, secret service, and DEA combined.

I seriously loved this book. If you don’t believe me, take a look at all the incredible blurbs. Maria is the only Latina running a nonprofit newsroom in the United States and supporting POC-led, non commercial newsrooms allowing for news that isn’t bought and biased towards corporations and corruption. Buy this book. Support her book. And “live your life like the other in society, not like the center.”

Once I Was You: A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America

By Maria Hinojosa

352 pages. 2020.


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