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Once I Was You -- Adapted for Young Readers
Finding My Voice and Passing the Mic
Table of Contents
About The Book
“When Maria speaks, I’m ready to listen and learn.” —Lin-Manuel Miranda
Emmy Award– and Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Maria Hinojosa has created a brand-new, unique version of her adult memoir, which was an NPR Best Book of 2020, for young readers, blending her story with perspectives on history in the vein of Jason Reynolds’s Stamped.
“There is no such thing as an illegal human being.”
Maria Hinojosa is an Emmy Award–winning journalist, a bestselling author, and was the first Latina to found a national independent nonprofit newsroom in the United States. But before all that, she was a girl with big hair and even bigger dreams. Born in Mexico and raised in the vibrant neighborhood of Hyde Park, Chicago, Maria was always looking for ways to better understand the world around her—and where she fit into it.
Here, she combines stories from her life, beginning with her family’s harrowing experience of immigration, with truths about the United States’s long and complicated relationship with the people who cross its borders, by choice or by force. Funny, frank, and thought-provoking, Maria’s voice is one you will want to listen to again and again.
I was born in Mexico City during the rainy season in the summer of 1961, when it wasn’t yet one of the largest cities in the world the way it is now. Back then, palm trees grew in the middle of downtown and my sister and brothers played hide-and-go-seek in the streets.
On most days you could look out the window from our house and see the snow-capped peaks of the Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl volcanoes. Of course, I didn’t notice any of this as a little baby, but later as a kid I would come to know all the things my sister and brothers already knew about Mexico City. I would spell the volcanoes’ names out phonetically so that I could learn how to say them—PO-PO-KA-TEP-UH-TL and EE-STAK-SEE-WAH-TL. I grew up hearing and speaking Spanish as my native tongue. But these names aren’t actually Spanish. They are Nahuatl, a language spoken by the Nahua people, who are descendants of the Aztecs. The story goes that Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl were in love. Anywhere else they might just be two volcanoes, but in Mexico they became star-crossed lovers.
The scents and flavors of Mexico were intense and unforgettable. I can never forget the smell of ripe mango in the morning for breakfast, key lime squeezed on top of papaya, the pungent aroma of cilantro and garlic, and Mexican rice seasoned just so with tomato and achiote for that vibrant pinch of red—the secret ingredient that all Mexican moms somehow know to throw in.
Whenever my mom took us to the mercado, it was like sensory overload. In the open-air market underneath a covered roof, each section had different smells. My nose would go crazy as we walked by the corner that sold pork and chicharrón. The man who worked the stall fried pork skin right in front of your face in a huge vat of boiling oil. If you took another hundred steps forward, you would end up in the corner of the market where they sold fresh cut flowers. Now you’d be smelling the roses and lilacs.
Turn another corner and you’d breathe in the scents of oregano and cumin at the stalls that sold spices. The fruit section was more about color than smell. Ruby red strawberries were piled high in perfect pyramids. Mangoes mimicked the colors of a sherbet sunset with shades of pink, orange, and golden yellow. They were ripe and ready to be peeled. Every time I ate one, the mango hairs always got stuck in my teeth. I loved them as much as I hated them.
That very first year in Mexico, though, I was still a baby in my mother’s arms. I was stuck to her like chicle, like gum. Everywhere she went, I went. Meanwhile, my sister, seven-year-old Bertha Elena, followed by my brothers Raúl, five, and Jorge, two, were let loose. Our neighborhood was known as Colonia Narvarte; the colony of Narvarte. Being a kid there meant being free. The kids were always out in the street jumping rope or playing hopscotch. Or they hung out in the parks together, which were massive and green 365 days a year because Mexico City never gets cold like that.
There was familia in abundance. But there was no TV. No iPhones or iPads. No radio really, except for the stations that played Mexican music or radio novelas. There were no plastic toys. No Sesame Street. And yet everyone had a great time. My siblings made things up because they had no choice. They acted out entire dramas and invented new games in the parks and palm-lined streets of la Colonia Narvarte. There was nothing to be afraid of. If you fell off a swing, you might come home with a few scrapes, but as long as nobody was crying everything was fine. You were safe and loved and fed. And there was no English to be heard anywhere.
Sometimes my sister and brothers played upstairs in our bedrooms. The same mercado where my mom shopped daily (people barely used refrigerators back then) had a children’s section where a few stalls sold papier-mâché miniatures of everything you could buy at the market. They had baby fruits and vegetables painted in bright colors and even tiny wooden kitchen replicas filled with teeny ceramic dishes and bowls—“estilo de una vajilla típica del pueblo”—that my sister and primas would use to make pretend meals.
When I came into the picture, my mom began to rely a lot on my big sister. As the oldest, Bertha Elena was the one in charge and I idolized her my entire childhood. She had long, jet-black hair, thick eyebrows, and a sharp Aztec nose como la bella Iztaccíhuatl. Even though I was Mom’s chicle, as I grew older my sister became the role model I looked up to. Everything she did seemed so hip and modern. She was already wearing perfectly coordinated outfits. She showed up to play dates wearing a petticoat, white dress, and white patent leather shoes with bows in her hair, her skin looking even more chocolatey in comparison to her starched white dress.
Bertha Elena played house with us and made sure my brothers didn’t destroy everything around them. Sometimes she dressed them in matching clothes because that was the style, everything matching. In fact, Bertha, my mom, and I sometimes wore matching outfits too. (Yes, my sister is named after my mom and my brother Raúl is named after my dad. Show me you’re Mexican….)
Raúl was known for being somewhat out of control. He was always falling off things and hitting his head. By six years old, he’d already had one or two concussions. Raúl talked so much that one time my mother hit him on the top of his head with a plastic plate and broke it. That’s not something that would be considered acceptable nowadays, but things were a little wack back then when it came to corporal punishment.
My brother Jorge, who’d enjoyed being the baby of the family for two years until I arrived, was now the third child out of four. In many ways, he had a hard time being overshadowed by his louder older brother, but some would call that dirty laundry, so allí muere.
Since she was older and better behaved, my sister went to church with our grandmother several times a week. Catholic masses were always said in Latin back then. Bertha Elena (we called her by her full name) would sit in the church pew, perfectly quiet, not understanding a single word, and watch the other congregants to figure out when to stand and kneel at the right times. This went on for an entire hour. Sometimes she saw our grandmother beating her chest and saying “mea culpa” over and over again. It scared her. The statue of Jesus Christ being crucified was also hard to look at. The wounds on his hands and feet where he was nailed onto the cross looked so real. If you’ve been to a church in Latina America, you know what I’m talking about. Who needs a gory movie when you can just go to church and see the statues of Jesus dripping blood from his head with the crown of thorns and his life-size feet where the nails were gashed in and all the way through to the wooden crucifix?
Church was always a little weird, but Bertha Elena liked that she got to wear her black leather shoes and a mantilla, a veil made out of lace. Afterwards, she and our grandmother would stop and buy a snack from one of the women outside. The ladies wore long braids and spoke accented Spanish because they were usually Nahua or Zapotec. They sold freshly sliced jicama with chili and lime or freshly toasted chicharrón, thin and crunchy and warm, out of huge straw baskets. That made the entire ordeal worth it.
There is a common saying that it takes a village to raise a child, so I guess we would have said toma un pueblito, but our family was so big it was like we were our own pueblito, and we took care of one another. My dad was usually busy working three different jobs to support us and follow his dream of being a research doctor and finding a way to help the deaf to hear if they wanted to. The only way my mom was able to handle taking care of four kids under the age of seven in her home was with the help of her hermanas, cuñadas, and primas who were around us all the time.
We lived on a street called Eugenia. My mother’s eldest sister, Lila, lived a few blocks away on Pythagoras Street. That was another one of those words I had to practice to say right—PEE-TAG-OH-RAS en Español.
Lila had five kids. My mother’s other sister, Gloria, had seven. Her brother Hermilo had five and her brother Raphael had four. Altogether, including my siblings and me, that’s twenty-five kids, and that was basically what life was about for me and my mom and sister and brothers. When we all got together it was as many kids as one classroom!
Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, after school ended at two p.m., the entire extended family would gather at someone’s house for the traditional comida del mediodía. This is the main midday meal, kind of like an extended lunch, that starts at three o’clock and is supposed to end at five. Often, though, it goes on until seven or even eight in the evening with something called la sobremesa (“the after table,” which includes coffee, dessert, and sometimes tequila), by which time people are ready to have la cena or dinner. There used to be a lot more time off back then. You didn’t live to work. You lived. And you worked some—unless you were my hyper-focused father who worked because he loved it and was on a mission.
Whoever was hosting la comida had to pay for all the food, prepare the meal, and take care of serving everybody. Can you imagine being responsible for feeding fifteen, sometimes twenty or even twenty-five people? That’s a lot of work. And it usually meant that the women were doing all of it and serving the men. When I think back to the way Mexico was and still is, that is the part I dislike most—how the men are always being served by the women. That is one seed that was planted early in my body and soul that I rejected thoroughly.
The women in my family didn’t complain, though. They helped whoever was hosting in the kitchen. That’s where they worked and gossiped and joked and gave all the kids hugs. Once the kids had eaten and the rest of the meal was ready, the adults sat down to eat.
Our grandfather showed up to every single comida del mediodía even though he no longer lived with our grandmother. His skin was the color of smooth dark brown leather. He always wore rimmed glasses and a suit and tie, and held a cigarette in his hand till I forced him to quit when I was a teenager. This was the only time my grandfather and grandmother saw each other anymore; it was one of those strange things that happens in Mexican families. They just never told us kids what was going on between them.
Abuelito always sat at the head of the table. My sister remembers him giving all the kids coins to go to a store known as La Miscellanea or the Miscellaneous Store. Their chore was to buy a Coke and an orange Fanta to bring back to the adults who were eating. It was a way of keeping the kids out of the house so the adults could have a moment of peace. There was always money left over for each of the kids to get a piece of candy. Their favorites at that time were pirulín, a colorful lollipop in the shape of a long cone, Chiclets gum, especially the lavender and pink colors, and Gansitos, which were little cakes covered in chocolate and filled with strawberry jelly.
La comida del mediodía wasn’t about the food. It was about being together. Since these meals took place at a regular time and place every week, anyone could just show up.
On Fridays, the meal was always at mi Tío Gordo’s house. Gordo means “fat,” so his nickname was “my uncle, the fat man,” but in Spanish it was meant more as a term of affection than anything else. Mi Tío Gordo was a jokester and would do dramatic things to get a laugh. Sometimes he had one too many tequilas and would end up throwing my family’s shoes out his apartment window just for fun. During the sobremesa, made up of chisme and chit-chatting, Tío Gordo would take the crumbs leftover from bolillos, Mexican bread rolls, and roll them up into tiny little balls. Then he’d throw them at my mami and my aunts—mi Tía Gloria, mi Tía Marta, mi Tía Carmelita, and the eldest, mi Tía Licha—aiming to get the little bread balls to fall into their cleavage. The women all covered their chests with their hands and continued talking. Next he tried to get the balls into their glasses of Coke. By the end of sobremesa, all the women had one hand covering their glass and another hand blocking their chest and they carried on entire conversations this way. The kids just laughed.
Sometimes mi Tío Benito was there. He was the uncle who later took me to see my first bull fight in the heart of Mexico City. He was funny, wore thick glasses, had tight curly hair, and, like his glasses, his lips were thick. He specialized in chistes and cuentos, in telling and singing jokes, rhyming jokes, off-color jokes, jokes that involved accents and reenactments, and jokes about our family. He would bring his guitar and make up songs to sing about each family member but actually teasingly and lovingly insult them bajita la mano. Everyone laughed at one another other. Remember, there was no Internet back then. People talked to each other face-to-face and the shade was real. People from Mexico City don’t play when it comes to dark, biting, and often belittling humor, so if you could spit it, you had to be able to catch it too.
Sometimes mi Tía Maria Cobadonga (I loved saying her name because it had so many syllables that it was like a haiku poem) would show up and tell stories about how the spirits came to visit her. Everybody knew she was a spiritual medium who had contact with the other side. Even though she was only in her thirties, her hair had gone completely white. Everyone told stories that were dramatic (so Mexican) but her stories were super dramatic. She would reenact the way people walked with a particular gait or their particular way of talking. And she would usually have the women running to the bathroom because they peed a little when they laughed and just couldn’t hold it any longer. These were the first seeds of storytelling that were planted in me.
My grandmother’s sisters who never married, mi Tía Carmelita and mi Tía Licha, often showed up too. Since they were both single, they lived and traveled everywhere together. They both had hair that was tight and curly and their lips and noses were thick and round, different from my mom’s and sister’s Aztec noses. Their brothers looked the same way, except they were bald. Looking at them, it made sense that somehow people from Africa had made their way to Mexico, to my Mexican family.
In our life in Mexico, my siblings and I saw our entire extended family three times a week. We felt completely supported and loved by lots of people who were also our blood relatives—grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. How was it possible that my mom and dad would make the decision to leave all of that behind?
My mom, like my grandmother, is what you call in Mexico una pata de perro or a dog’s foot. It means that she likes to be outside in the world, like the stray dogs that roam the streets of Mexico City. My mother learned at a young age from her own mother to go out and explore, however she could. She was never afraid to go anywhere or to speak to anyone.
In 1961, the University of Chicago came calling for my dad. They admired his research and wanted his brain—his mission and passion had earned him a job offer. Dad hated the idea of leaving Mexico. Like most immigrants, he really didn’t want to turn his back on his homeland, though he was tired of working three jobs. It was my mom who convinced him to say yes.
The University of Chicago was offering him an opportunity to make his dream a reality. My dad thought he could help do something most people considered impossible: give hearing back to those who wanted it. It hadn’t been easy for him to listen to his own family tell him his dream was loco, una locura, una ilusion. But the seed was planted and he never gave up and now he was off!
My mom was a pata de perro and my dad was a dreamer dedicated to looking at teeny tiny particles in the electron microscope ten hours a day. They were both out-of-the-box thinkers. So, almost one year after I was born, they took the leap to leave their country and come to the United States. Neither one of them ever had a seed planted in them that made them want to leave Mexico, but la vida les mando este regalo. Was it a gift or something else?
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (August 30, 2022)
- Length: 272 pages
- ISBN13: 9781665902809
- Grades: 3 - 7
- Ages: 8 - 12
- Lexile ® 1060L The Lexile reading levels have been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®
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