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Maria Hinojosa, Futuro Media & PRX Win Pulitzer for “Suave” Podcast on Prisoner’s Journey to Freedom

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Image Credit: Suave

The Pulitzer Prizes were announced Monday, and among the winners was the Futuro Media and PRX team behind the seven-part podcast series “Suave” that follows acclaimed journalist Maria Hinojosa’s decades-long friendship with David Luis “Suave” Gonzalez, who received a life sentence without parole at the age of 17 for first-degree homicide. Gonzalez met Hinojosa in 1993, and they continued to stay in touch through letters, visits and phone calls that Hinojosa recorded, eventually forming the foundation of the podcast. The series chronicles Gonzalez’s journey as he is eventually given the opportunity to experience life on the outside for the first time as an adult, after the 2016 Supreme Court ruling that mandatory sentences of life without parole on juveniles are unconstitutional. “Here is a stranger telling me, a lifer, that I could be the voice for the voiceless. I was lit,” Gonzalez said when he spoke to Democracy Now! in 2021 when the series was first released. Hinojosa credited the success of the podcast to their open and honest relationship. “Suave and I were just very real with each other, over decades,” she said. “I never imagined that it would end up being a podcast that is getting this amount of attention.” Hinojosa founded Futuro Media in 2010 and said Monday it is now “leaving its mark in American history.”

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

On Monday, the Pulitzer Prizes were announced. Among those who won was the staff at Futuro Media and PRX for the podcast Suave. This was how the podcast’s co-host, the award-winning journalist Maria Hinojosa, responded yesterday on Twitter.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Guys, we won a Pulitzer! We won a Pulitzer Prize! We won a Pulitzer for Suave! What? I didn’t even — I mean, it’s like I never even thought of winning a Pulitzer!

AMY GOODMAN: Maria Hinojosa founded Futuro Media in 2010 and says it’s now “leaving its mark in American history.”

Today we go back a year ago to our interview last March, when the now-Pulitzer Prize-winning Suave podcast series was first released. Democracy Now!’s Juan González and I spoke with Maria Hinojosa and her source, Suave.

AMY GOODMAN: We end today’s show with two people who met almost 30 years ago. It was 1993 when the acclaimed journalist Maria Hinojosa met David Luis “Suave” Gonzalez while she was giving a talk at the Graterford State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania. Suave was there serving a life sentence without parole, after he was convicted of first-degree homicide when he was 17 years old. At the prison, he was part of the largest population of so-called juvenile lifers in the United States.

Suave and Hinojosa stayed in touch through letters and visits and phone calls that she recorded. Those calls are now part of a new seven-part podcast series called Suave, that chronicles his story all the way to unexpected freedom. It includes dramatic exchanges like this one from 2016, when the Supreme Court ruled it’s unconstitutional to impose mandatory sentences of life without parole on juveniles. The ruling was retroactive and gave thousands of people, including Suave, a chance at freedom. This is a clip of the call, his call to announce the good news to Maria.

RECORDING: Thank you for using Securus. You may start the conversation now.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Hello? Hello?

DAVID LUISSUAVEGONZALEZ: Hello, Maria. How are you doing this morning?

MARIA HINOJOSA: Suave, it is Friday, June 9th, at 10:44 in the morning. What’s going on? I thought we were talking at 2:00. What happened?

DAVID LUISSUAVEGONZALEZ: I wanted to let you know that the judge told the lawyer this morning we don’t have to wait no longer. June 26, 17 days from today, we bring it in to court, so he could go seek parole in July.

MARIA HINOJOSA: What? So, it’s like — it’s like totally not a normal day for you in prison after 30 years. Today is —

DAVID LUISSUAVEGONZALEZ: No. And last night — you wouldn’t even imagine — I had a dream, like, that I was eating Chinese food.

MARIA HINOJOSA: What? What were you eating?

DAVID LUISSUAVEGONZALEZ: Eggrolls and some pork fried rice. And then I woke up, and I went to the head.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from the podcast Suave. Episode three just came out Tuesday, continues to follow Suave’s journey as he eventually was given the opportunity to experience life on the outside as an adult for the first time. Suave is now in his fifties, living in the free world as an artist and activist, joining us now, for more, along with Maria Hinojosa, president and founder of the Futuro Media Group and the anchor and executive producer of the Peabody Award-winning show Latino USA. She’s executive producer of the podcast Suave.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Suave, if you could briefly — I mean, your story is an unbelievable one. But the significance of going to prison in the '80s? You lived in the Bronx, moved to Philadelphia. You were convicted, thought you'd be life in prison without parole. Then the Supreme Court made this decision.

DAVID LUISSUAVEGONZALEZ: Yes. Thank you for having me on.

And it was an experience that I will never forget and don’t wish on no juvenile in the United States. It was an experience that left me traumatized to this day. And I’m just grateful that I was able to meet Maria in 1993 and was able to make that transformation from prison into a decent human being, because at the time, in 1993, I was on a suicide mission. I wanted to die. I didn’t know how I was going to get out of jail. All I knew is that I was sentenced to life in the state of Pennsylvania, which housed more juvenile lifers than any other state in the country. And I was stuck. And here comes a stranger telling me that I could be the voice for the voiceless.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Suave, could you talk about that first time you met Maria Hinojosa and the relationship as it developed over the years, from your perspective?

DAVID LUISSUAVEGONZALEZ: Yes, I met Maria Hinojosa in 1993. I was just coming out of solitary confinement, and a older gentleman gave me a radio that had three stations. And one of the stations, Maria was on. So I heard it, and I was impressed just to hear a Latina voice on the radio. So, I just told everybody, “We’ve got to get her up here to the prison to speak to the guys. We’ve got to get her up here.”

So, one of my friends was the institutional tutor, and he graduated at Yale, like 27 guys with GED. So, he was given the opportunity to bring a guest speaker. And I begged him, “Bring Maria up here. Bring Maria.” And somehow they got Maria up there. And they told me I couldn’t get into the graduation, because I wasn’t graduating. So, I was fine with that, because I was doing time in a corrupt jail. There was no way I was not going to get into that graduation and meet Maria.

So, I got in, and Maria spoke. And when she took the podium, I just felt that every word that she was — every word that was coming out her mouth, I felt like she was talking directly to me. And even though it was an auditorium filled with people graduating, I just felt like her message was for me. So, when she was done speaking, I went up to her, and I told her, “I’m serving life. What can I do?” And Maria just looked at me and said, “You could be my source. You could be the voice for the voiceless.”

And those simple words changed my life: “the voice for the voiceless.” And at the moment, I didn’t understand what it meant, but then it dawned on me, like, all my life I’ve been told I was mentally retarded, I had an IQ of 56, that I would never amount to nothing. And here is a stranger telling me, a lifer, that I could be the voice for the voiceless. I was lit. I was like excited just to have somebody tell me that I could be something, that I could be somebody. And that’s what changed my life.

AMY GOODMAN: Maria, if you could talk about your experience of first meeting Suave and the relationship that you and Suave had over not the months, not the years, the decades, and what it meant to you when you got that call that this young man, who you expected to live for the rest of his life in prison, who was your source, was now going to be free?

MARIA HINOJOSA: All right, well, listen, I just got to put some credit where credit is due. I learned from the best. I was watching people like Juan González. I was reading Juan. I was watching and listening to you, Amy. You were my boss, remember, way back when, when I was a budding journalist at WBAI. And one of the things that I learned from you and the great journalists in our tradition — Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Rubén Salazar — is that you also can lead with your heart. You can be the most critical journalist possible, but you can also lead with your heart.

So, Suave likes to give me a lot of credit for the words that I said. You know, “Hey, you’re going to be inside here. Just tell me what’s happening inside a maximum-security men’s prison.” But the point is, is that he was the one who walked up to me. He was the one who asked the question, “What can I do?” He didn’t say to me, “Do something for me. Get me out of here. Here’s my case. Let’s talk about it,” which a lot of the other guys did. Suave said, “What can I do?”

And, you know, I didn’t know Suave. I didn’t know that he was illiterate. I didn’t know that he had been accused of committing a murder against another juvenile. I didn’t know that. I saw that there was something in him that had a question. And as a journalist, if you are aware and you are sensitive and you are working with your five senses, and sometimes your sixth, you have to pick up on that.

Now, look, I’m a Christmas card lady. I should be sending you and Juan Christmas cards, but I just never got your addresses. But I knew where Suave was going to be for the rest of his life, and I started sending him Christmas cards, because I wanted — I don’t know, that’s a human thing to do. And from there, we just — I mean, I never imagined that it would end up being a podcast that is getting this amount of attention and so much love and raising critical issues around justice for young people in our country. And so, I’m so thankful, Amy. And I know that this is a dream come true for Suave to be with you and Juan right now. And so, you’re helping to make his dreams come true, as well.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Maria, the thought process that made you decide to do a podcast once he was out, in terms of what the importance of this kind of journalism is, in terms especially with the national debate going on continually now about criminal justice reform?

MARIA HINOJOSA: Right. So, look, you know, people talk about numbers, and they talk about institutions. But until you actually meet someone who has been in this — I mean, Suave was in solitary confinement not for days or weeks or months, but for years. What does that do to a human being?

Look, I just had a little recorder, Juan. And when I realized that the Supreme Court was going to be addressing the question of whether or not it was inhuman to sentence a juvenile to life without parole, I just started recording every single call that Suave made. I went back, and I reported. I had visited him a couple of times. But I just said, “Something can happen here.”

And, look, this is a message to fellow journalists out there. You need to hold onto your stories. You need to learn from the Juans and the Amys and, in this case, the Marias of the world, who are journalists of conscience in the United States. And we understand that there is not just a human story, but there is a story that we can, with one human story, really uncover all of this injustice.

And so, I never imagined, Juan, that it would be a podcast like this. But you start recording, and that’s where you capture the most dramatic moments, because, you know, Suave and I were just very real with each other over decades.

AMY GOODMAN: Our interview from a year ago with the now-Pulitzer Prize-winning Suave podcast series co-host Maria Hinojosa and her source, Suave. That’s Luis David “Suave” Gonzalez. On Monday, the staffs of Futuro Media and PRX won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Audio Reporting for Suave, calling it “a brutally honest and immersive profile of a man reentering society after serving more than 30 years in prison.” You can see the full interview at democracynow.org.

Next up, we speak with historian Kelly Lytle Hernández about her new book, out today, Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire, and Revolution in the Borderlands.

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“Bad Mexicans”: Historian Kelly Lytle Hernández on Race, Empire, and Revolution in the Borderlands

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