Several years into Mirta Ojito’s career as a reporter, her friends encouraged her to write a memoir. But Ojito said at a Morse College Master’s Tea Thursday that she was wary of the suggestion.
“I thought you had to be older,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist told the audience of a dozen students.
During her talk, Ojito explained how she later changed her mind. A chance encounter in a New York City subway car with a woman wearing a prosthetic arm reminded Ojito of the one-armed captain of the Manana — the boat that ferried her family, along with approximately 120,000 fellow refugees, from communist Cuba to Miami, Fla. in 1980, when she was 16 years old. Ojito said sudden memory inspired her to begin forming an outline for her new book, “Finding Manana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus.”
At the tea, Ojito described how her emigration resulted from a “chain of gratitude” — a line of different people who pulled strings to help her family leave their oppressive homeland. She said she was interested in “the power we have to affect one another” and wanted to learn more about the events surrounding her family’s journey to the United States.
“I was fascinated by connections,” she said.
Ojito said she wrote her memoir, which was released last April, mainly for herself. About four years ago, she gave up her full-time position as The New York Times’ immigration reporter in order to begin research and interviews for her book.
Her story is written as an interplay between her voices as a child of dissident parents growing up in revolutionary Cuba and as a reporter researching her own past, Ojito said.
“I grew up torn between the lovely ideas of the revolution and what my parents told me about America,” she said.
Ojito also discussed her career as a journalist, describing her transformation from an awkward high-school student who couldn’t speak English to a top reporter at The New York Times. She won a shared Pulitzer Prize for contributing to the Times’ “Race in America” series with an article about two boys, one white and one black, who were best friends growing up in Cuba but became estranged after immigrating to a racially segregated Miami.
In addition to her memoir and past work as a reporter, Ojito spoke about her views on political issues ranging from Cuban-American conservatism to Elian Gonzalez.
Viviana Rodriguez ’08 said she admired Ojito’s story and her candor.
“She was not too shy to say what she thought, and what she said about the Cuban experience was very insightful,” Rodriguez said.
Isabel Unanue ’08 said she was surprised and impressed that Ojito was passionate enough about writing a memoir that she left her job at the Times.
Other students said they had not anticipated Ojito’s answers to audience questions to be as lively as they were.
“It was more dynamic and energetic than I had expected, given the subject,” Peter Chema ’07 said.
Ojito currently teaches journalism at Columbia University and is working on her second book, a work regarding immigrants in America.