RAISING RAUL

Adventures Raising Myself and My Son

By Maria Hinojosa

Viking. 240 pp. $23.95

Maria Hinojosa has been a public person for a while now. From 1990 to 1996 she was a correspondent for National Public Radio, where she did long feature stories, often with a Latin base. In 1995 she was named by Hispanic Business magazine as one of the 100 most influential Latinos in the United States, and now she's an urban affairs correspondent for CNN. She's had the interesting task of reporting on news that prior to her efforts--and those of other "minority" journalists--might not have been news to an industry and a country where for centuries only the doings of prosperous whites were thought to be newsworthy. It's a cliche, but a true one, that the lives of minorities in this country have far too often been invisible.

So Maria Hinojosa has a hard job. She is making Latino lives public: That is her calling, her vocation. Here, in a memoir called "Raising Raul," she has chosen to make public her process of thinking about having a baby, having that baby, deciding how she's going to raise him, and then deciding to have another. Why not? The lives of Hispanic mothers living in the United States is material that has remained hidden, certainly ignored, by the larger culture.

But the author may not have written the book she started out to write. For one thing, we scarcely get a look at the Raul in question. This is all about Maria. "Raising Raul" is about invented identity--and since many people in this country reinvent themselves all the time, this turns out to be a touching if slightly unsettling chronicle.

Hinojosa was born of Mexican parents and raised with her brothers and sister in Chicago. Her dad, a fretful cuss (from her description), felt strongly that his kids should be raised as "Mexican," but there was more to it than that. The family shared a knee-jerk scorn for anything bland, "white," middle American, anything that seemed like "Gringo-Landia," "WASP-Landia." (Still, Hinojosa went to Barnard College when she could have pursued her higher education in a dozen Latin American countries.)

She married German (an artist whose last name doesn't show up until way late in the book along with a string of other names), "a gorgeous Afro-Taino from the Dominican Republic . . . with long black curls," and they turned their loft into "a wildly colorful combination of Frida Kahlo's studio and an island paradise. There were Mexican-blue walls with rows of masks, altars with flowers and fruits and goblets of water on white lace, la Virgen de Guadalupe candles everywhere, Che ashtrays from Cuba, Mayan deities, African drums, Yemanya and Oshun santos, and the smell of yucca, tortillas, cilantro, queso frito and chili."

Like the children of so many immigrants, Hinojosa is loyal to a past that in many ways turns out to be a fictional construct. She's obsessed with doing everything "a la Mexicana," but the Mexico she yearns for is glazed with yearning and nostalgia, larger than life, an emotional Oz, the Mexico her father yearns for as he lives discontentedly in Chicago and works on his reputation as a killjoy. The "real" Mexico Maria visits with her family is middle-class Tampico, and her real Mexican relatives criticize her both for breast-feeding and for carrying baby Raul around in a rebozo--like a peasant.

Hinojosa is seriously conflicted, and she gives her conflict a series of labels. Is she "Latina" or "gringa" (those prissy relatives torment her if she so much as opens a can of Campbell's soup)? Is she a feminist or a mujer? The feminist side of her holds down jobs at NPR and CNN; the mujer side of her wraps each separate outfit of her little boy's in plastic with its own label, and calls home every two hours, dissolving in a storm of tears when the baby calls his dad mami by mistake.

But a conflict that she doesn't directly name and seems to have no psychological use for is the one between bohemian and bourgeois. (The walls of their Connecticut country house are purple and yellow, but they still own a country house.) Hinojosa considers her own sister a bit of a "sellout" because she married a guy and has some kids and lives in the suburbs. And the author must have known, when she wrapped her kid in a rebozo down there in Tampico, that she would have gotten a rise out of those stolid relatives: What's the point of "astonishing the bourgeoisie" if they refuse to be astonished?

There's a postmodern doctrine that all of us are merely the sum of the "information" we carry around with us, from our DNA to the soup we eat, and that the "self" itself is merely another fictional construct. By the end of this memoir, Hinojosa knows she's going to be a "New- York-type-A-Mama-Mexicana-Domini-Mex-workaholic-abrazos-giving-gym-addict-reporter-order-giving-work-in-progress-madre-mother-mom-mami." Hinojosa is very much a postmodern heroine. Readers must be satisfied with that.

Carolyn See, whose reviews appear in Style on Fridays.

UPCOMING IN BOOK WORLD

The following books are scheduled to be reviewed next week in Style:

AN UNDERGROUND LIFE: Memoirs of a Gay Jew in Nazi Berlin, by Gad Beck, and REQUIEM FOR A GERMAN PAST: A Boyhood Among the Nazis, by Jurgen Herbst. Reviewed by Wayne Hoffman.

THE FEELING OF WHAT HAPPENS: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, by Antonio Damasio. Reviewed by David Brown.

A POSITIVELY FINAL APPEARANCE: A Journal 1996-1998, by Alec Guinness. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley.

THE BLIND SIDE OF THE HEART, by Michael C. White. In this novel, a priest is charged with sexual abuse and only his housekeeper has faith in his innocence. Reviewed by Wendy Law-Yone.

HENRY OF ATLANTIC CITY, by Frederick Reuss. The hero of this novel, a 6-year-old Gnostic, lives among 20th-century gamblers but believes he's a saint in 5th-century Byzantium. Reviewed by Carolyn See.