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Hernàndez didn't speak English till he was 12, and his peers often joined gangs, or skipped school. And yet, by his twenties he was part of an elite team helping develop technology for the early ...
Hernàndez didn't speak English till he was 12, and his peers often joined gangs, or skipped school. And yet, by his twenties he was part of an elite team helping develop technology for the early detection of breast cancer. He was turned down by NASA eleven times on his long journey to donning that famous orange space suit.
Hernàndez message of hard work, education, perseverance, of "reaching for the stars," makes this a classic American autobiography.
Where we love is home—home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.
OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES (1809–1894) AMERICAN POET AND HUMORIST
The story of my father, Salvador, is written in the surcos, known as furrows, of the fields in central Mexico in the state of Michoacán. He was only seven years old when he began plowing the same fertile lands as his ancestors. He and my grandfather José—for whom I was named—were like many of their fellow countrymen; the two were peasant workers who made a living sowing and harvesting small plots of land. They lived in small homes made of adobe, the same packed earth on which their very livelihood depended. They lived in harmony with farm animals under the blue, majestic Michoacán sky.
My abuelo, or grandfather, lived in Ticuítaco, a small village, or rancheria, located near the municipality of La Piedad. The calmness of the days and nights can be seen as either a blessing or a punishment by the village’s citizens, who, depending on their mood, thanked God for the tranquility they breathed or cursed the stillness in which they lived. It is precisely in this town and environment where my father was born and raised. It is also the place where, as a child, he began to work. He knew that his family depended on his work in the fields, or los campos, to survive. This is where everything began; like a seed that germinates, my life story has its roots in the Mexican soil of the state of Michoacán.
In 1944, things were not easy for the male peasant workers of Ticuítaco. The harsh reality was that their wives and children also faced the burden of making money through menial labor to provide for their families. Although my father was young at the time, he was aware of the circumstances that surrounded him and he knew he had a responsibility. He began to work the fields to help support his parents and eleven siblings.
A typical workday for my father, with few exceptions, began at four in the morning. He would start his day by feeding the animals in my abuelo’s stable, known as the corrales. This consisted of washing the pigpens, refilling the water troughs, and feeding the pigs. Next, he would release the chickens and turkeys before spreading their daily seed for them to feed upon. Finally, my father would corral the cows, which would join a herd that would graze the open pastures just outside of Ticuítaco. The boys in the neighborhood would take turns taking care of the large multifamily herd. Upon finishing these initial tasks, assuming it was not his turn to tend to the community herd, my father would then join my grandfather in the kitchen.
The kitchen was where Cleotilde, my grandmother, or abuela, would prepare the breakfast and lunch for my abuelo and the older boys. The breakfast was very simple; a hot chocolate with two or three corn tortillas right off the hot skillet, known as a comal, was served with beans and a healthy dose of chile that was prepared directly on a molcajete. A molcajete is a bowl with three legs sculpted out of lava rock. These molcajetes, as I would later learn, were made by nearby indigenous Tarascans. After finishing breakfast, my abuela would then pack a lunch for my grandfather, my father, and my tíos, or uncles. The lunch consisted of a healthier portion of the breakfast items and was usually garnished with a piece of meat. My abuela would fit everything in a small, colorful, nylon-weaved bag with plastic handles known as an hargana.
Then, my father and his older siblings would follow my abuelo into the fields where plowing and harvesting awaited them, day after day. Despite working in the campo from sunup to sundown, without having much time to dedicate to his schooling, my father’s desire to learn how to read and write was strong. This led him to enroll in evening sessions of the school near the house where he lived. He loved school so much that he never missed a day of class. However, as he grew, so did his responsibilities at home; eventually, that led to his inability to attend school beyond the third grade. This is a common story for the majority of the children of Ticuítaco, including my mother.
My father had many dreams and goals at a very young age, and he did everything in his power to make them a reality. My siblings and I grew up listening to my father talk about the challenges and obstacles he faced as a child. His anecdotes taught us lessons about overcoming adversity. Those stories remain dear to me.
At the tender age of ten, my father was the fare collector of the only camión, or bus, that took passengers to and from Ticuítaco to La Piedad. The camión was graciously christened “El Muchacho Alegre,” or “The Happy Youngster.” It made only one trip into town a day, except on holidays when it would make two. The driver of the camión, Don Severiano Arroyo, noticed my father’s eagerness to better his life and his future. So it came as no surprise to Don Severiano when my father asked him, “Can you teach me how to drive your camión?”
“Don’t be silly, boy, you can’t even reach the pedals!” said Don Severiano.
“Come on, please. I’ve seen you drive and it doesn’t look difficult… please,” insisted Salvador.
My father was extremely persistent; he would ask Mr. Severiano to teach him how to drive every day. Salvador insisted and insisted until Mr. Severiano finally agreed. Even though my father could barely reach the gas and brake pedals with the tips of his toes, he quickly learned how to maneuver El Muchacho Alegre through the narrow streets, or callejones, of Ticuítaco and into the bigger and wider streets of La Piedad.
Time passed with no opportunity for anyone to forge a better future in the hope of overcoming the poverty and hopelessness that consumed La Piedad and its surroundings; nevertheless, my father had a plan. When he reached fifteen years old, he made a decision that would change the rest of his life and that of his future family—for the better!
“Papá, I’ve decided to move to the United States” is what my father said to my abuelo as he fed the pigs in the corrales.
“May I ask why all of a sudden?” sullenly asked my abuelo. “You have everything here… am I wrong?”
“You’re right, but the fields do not yield what they used to before, and there is hardly any work and money,” responded Salvador.
“So, do you plan on returning?” inquired my grandfather.
“Well, I’m going to test my luck. I’ve already spoken with my friend Eliseo and he has agreed to come with me. We’re going to California.”
My abuelo did not know how to take the news of his son leaving for the United States. Abuelo already had three sons who had ventured off in search of a better life—he didn’t want to be apart from one more. Therefore, letting go of Salvador would not be easy, but Abuelo felt that he had no choice in the matter after realizing his son’s determination and stubbornness.
“I suppose there isn’t anything I can do or say to persuade you to stay, since you’ve already made up your mind. Ay muchacho, you have my blessing to go. If things don’t go as planned, you’re always welcome to come back home. I’m going to give you some money to hold you over until you find work.” My abuelo did not know what else to say.
With three hundred pesos in his pocket, my father and Eliseo set out on their journey. Eliseo was the same age as my father. His strong Tarascan complexion and characteristics were inherited directly from the indigenous ancestors of their land. Eliseo’s parents and my grandparents had been friends for decades, so it was no surprise that Eliseo and Salvador became such good friends. Their families’ connections to one another just made their bond all the more special.
In 1952, the controversial hot topic being discussed in the streets of La Piedad concerned the “economic progress and growth” of Mexico. According to the elderly people of that time, opportunities for the rural poor were nonexistent. In the state of Michoacán and outside of small ciudades, or cities, like La Piedad, there were only a few paved roads for camiónes to steer through; it was a luxury to drive on paved roads. The pathways consisted of nothing more than dirt and rocks, although in some spots there was evidence of an attempt to improve the ground with a layer of reddish, sandlike texture. Unfortunately, only the donkeys and cows seemed to have benefited from the limited street enhancements. The livestock would roam along the obstacle-free roadways, leaving behind footprints and manure as they paraded with a red cloud of dirt trailing behind them. Few people traveled to or visited nearby villages without having the money to safely or comfortably get from one place to another.
Eliseo and Salvador hoped to escape that poverty by migrating to the north. Touring through the vast, dry land, the two men were accompanied by thirst, hunger, and occasional uncertainty. After a month—which, according to them, seemed more like a century—they finally reached the border, or la frontera. My father had only a few pesos left over from the three hundred he originally had when he started his journey. According to my father, it was barely enough for a plate of beans.
Eliseo addressed my father as Chava, a common nickname for the name Salvador. “Chava, don’t you think we should go back? Look at us, Chava; we’re getting skinnier by the passing of each day!”
“We only have a little ways to go. We’ll be there in a few days,” answered my father.
“But I’m afraid we may not make it, Chava. I feel weak and we are running out of money!” said Eliseo, more worried than ever before.
“Tell you what, Eliseo: we’ll rest here a bit and then we’ll continue.”
My father remembers sitting with Eliseo on a sidewalk in front of a store in Mexicali, a city located near the U.S.-Mexico border. He remembers being extremely exhausted, having to camouflage his tiredness with courage and optimism to continue moving forward. Chava refused to let Eliseo see him weak or defeated. Chava was determined to cross over to the United States. As for Eliseo, he had no choice but to continue the journey, despite having his feet covered with blisters; these sores were the result of walking the hot terrain in a worn-out pair of leather sandals known as huaraches. At this point, the men were beginning to experience, on a daily basis, dryness in their mouths from the lack of water that reached their lips. This was coupled with emptiness in their stomachs from going without food.
“I couldn’t help but overhear you two muchachos conversing. Are you two headed for El Norte?” asked a man who was standing at the entrance of the store. El Norte was the common term used for the United States.
Eliseo was quick to respond, “Sí, señor.”
“And may I ask where to?” inquired the man.
The truth is that neither Eliseo nor Chava knew how to respond because neither knew where their trip would end. All they knew was that my father had a primo, or cousin, living on a ranch near Fresno, California. They had hoped to stay with that cousin, but they were not certain that would be a possibility.
“Well, honestly, we really don’t know where we’re headed to. I guess we’ll figure it out once we get there.”
“Ay muchachos, I imagined so. My name is Juan Mora. I’m from Michoacán and I work in the fields of Fresno. I take it you two are a long ways from home and with no money.”
“Nice to meet you,” said my father as he extended his right hand to Juan Mora. “We’re also from Michoacán,” my father added.
“Come, I’m going to take you two to get some food, and we can figure out a plan to find you guys some trabajo.” Trabajo is the Spanish word for “work.”
The life of a migrant worker was not an easy one, especially as an undocumented immigrant. Both my father and Eliseo were well aware of this, but they did not care because they knew that this alternative was much more promising than their way of life back in Michoacán. El Norte was the only hope for prosperity in exchange for their hard work, and they were not going to allow anything to deter them from succeeding.
Juan Mora helped Salvador and Eliseo complete their journey to a small ranch located in the outskirts of Fresno, California. My father and Eliseo quickly found work as seasonal agricultural workers; more important, they were paid in U.S. dollars. The majority of the fieldworkers in the surrounding fields were fellow Mexicanos who picked fruits and vegetables from sunrise to sunset. The two of them did not earn much, but in comparison to what they made in Mexico, it was far more than they ever imagined.
My father spent the next two and a half years working the fertile fields of California’s San Joaquin Valley, harvesting everything from strawberries to cucumbers in the summer, and pruning trees and grapevines in the winter. Later in life, I would remember the result of his arduous work each time I touched his tough, rough, and leathery hands. After thirty months of doing rigorous work for long hours in the sun, my father had managed to save enough money to return home to a special someone. This special person was Julia, a fourteen-year-old girl who was born and raised in the rancho of Ticuítaco, just like my father. Julia naturally possessed a simple beauty that was accentuated by her brown eyes, light complexion, and eternal smile. Years later, this beautiful girl would become my mother.
Since my mother was practically a child, her family prohibited her from having a boyfriend. This tended to be the norm in small towns like La Piedad. Therefore, my mother was always under the supervision of one of my tíos, which made it impossible for her to catch a glimpse of, or be alone with, my father. However, when it comes to love, anything is possible. My parents are living proof of it.
My parents met at the kiosk, which was directly across from the main church, by the city hall, in the center of town known as the plaza. Traditionally, all the young, single ladies would put on their most beautiful dresses to walk together, in a group, clockwise around the plaza on Sundays. Going counterclockwise were the young suitors of La Piedad and the surrounding rancherias. The men would walk in the opposite direction, eyeing the young ladies they liked; this allowed them to exchange looks with one another. When a young suitor discovered “the one,” he would present a rose to her. If the lady accepted the rose, this would signal the start of her courtship with the young man. This was how my parents met and began their life together.
Unfortunately for my father, my maternal grandparents—Trinidad and Rosario Moreno, or Trini y Chayito, as they were affectionately called—were extremely old-fashioned and strict. My mother was under constant supervision and rarely had the opportunity to head to the town square with her girlfriends. Soon, my mother’s parents became aware of my father’s existence. All they knew was that Salvador was the son of a nice and decent campesino, or peasant family, from Ticuítaco.
Both Julia and Salvador decided to start a relationship despite the disapproval of my abuelo. On many occasions, abuelo chased away my father at gunpoint. Abuelo was not about to lose his precious daughter to Salvador. Therefore, my parents had to find time to be together free of the watchful eyes of Julia’s parents. When they did, they showed affection by gazing at each other and intermittently holding hands; in addition, they secretly wrote letters, or cartitas, in which they expressed their love for each other.
After spending a significant amount of time in El Norte, my father—who left as a boy—returned home as a young man. He was building the foundation of a future in which he could provide for Julia. With this conviction, he decided to ask for my mother’s hand in marriage, and he did so at his own risk. He was fully aware of my grandfather’s willingness to scare him off the property at gunpoint, yet Salvador was willing to take that chance because he loved my mother and he did not want to spend his days without her. Hoping to be taken seriously, and out of respect, he had the town priest accompany him to meet with Julia’s father.
“Mr. Trinidad, this young man here loves your daughter, and he has nothing but the best intentions for her,” the priest quickly blurted when my grandfather opened the door.
“I don’t care. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again. Julia is way too young to get married. Don’t you understand?” my grandfather responded while pointing angrily at my father.
“Look, Trinidad, they are both in love, and he respects her. I know she’s young. Don’t cause them to be apart and miserable. Think about it: he is a hard worker and, just like you, he makes an honest living in the fields. Backbreaking, honest work is what real honorable men are made of, you know that,” said the priest.
The angry look on my grandfather’s face soon gave way to what appeared to be resignation to the fact that his daughter would soon marry. Although not completely convinced, he allowed the priest and my father to enter his house for twenty minutes. My father did not say much, for his future father-in-law’s presence made him forget what he had been practicing to say for months.
“Why did you come with him, Father?” asked Trinidad with a visible frown.
“Because I’ve known him and his family for many years, and we all know you threatened him with a gun so he would stay away from your daughter. I’d rather be safe than sorry, Trinidad,” answered the priest.
“I want the best for my daughter, and I don’t think having a boyfriend or getting married is right for her at this moment,” said Trinidad to both of them.
“I understand, but nowadays to find a son-in-law like Salvador is not as easy as it used to be,” responded the priest to my grandfather, who turned suspiciously to my father and asked: “What do you have to say for yourself?”
Unsure of what to do or say, my father got up from his seat, walked over to my grandfather, looked him in the eyes, and said, “I love your daughter more than anything in this world, and I will do anything you ask until you see that I am worthy of marrying her.”
My grandfather saw the sincerity and honesty in my father’s eyes, which made it more difficult for him to disapprove of my father. As a result of this visit, Trinidad gave my father and mother permission to court each other as long as they were under the family’s supervision. Their first conversation as a couple took place in my mother’s house; it was short and straight to the point.
“Julia,” said my father as he took her hand. “I’m leaving again for the U.S. so that I can make enough money for us to get married and live together forever.”
“How much time are we talking about, Salvador? When do you plan on coming back?” inquired my mother.
“I don’t know. Not long, I hope. We’re engaged, that’s all that matters now.”
“True, but you might meet someone over there. What then?”
“No, I’ll give you eight months to come back, Salvador. If you don’t come, our engagement will be over,” replied Julia firmly as she shut the door on him.
My father concurred. This time around, he planned on working only eight months in the United States. Not a day went by in which he did not count down the remaining days until he could return home to marry Julia.
These fond memories of my father and mother hold vestiges of an era that was difficult yet had a peculiar charm. When I was a child, my father kept us entertained with his stories. He would tell us that in his day, no one could really afford a television in Mexico. That was why many people would stand outside of storefront windows to watch the black-and-white images being transmitted on the television monitors. He vividly remembers having watched his first Rose Parade in 1954. He recalls the streets of Pasadena, California, lined with the cars that were decorated with colorful, fresh flowers that represented animals, caricatures, scenes from films, and prominent figures. He noticed, via the television, that the spectacle captivated the people watching it in person. My father lacked the financial means to actually travel and see it in person, but told me that he anxiously awaited every January 1 to watch the parade on television. He said the parade was the most beautiful event he had ever seen in his entire life.
Julia waited in Ticuítaco for her future husband. She was hopeful that he would keep his promise and return for her. Their young love remained strong as ever, and—after being apart for months—the day finally came when they exchanged vows in front of their families in a delightful and humble ceremony.
There are few memories of that simple wedding; many of the details have been blurred by the passage of time and the creation of new memories. I, for example, can only remember my maternal grandfather, Trinidad, by the photographs that I have of him. I cannot recall a hug or a kiss from him because he died when I was only two years old. His tuberculosis proved to be the only thing that could permanently yank his roots from Ticuítaco. He caught the disease on one of his own trips in search of work in northern Mexico, near Ensenada, where he slept in close proximity to his coworkers in a little house made of straw. “The life of a campesino is a hard one” is what my grandfather would tell his children, including my mother. This is true, especially when one loves his homeland but must leave it in search of a better life.
My brother Salvador remembers my abuelos, or grandparents, much better than I do because he was my parents’ firstborn. Not only was he the joy of the whole family, but he was also able to share special moments with my abuelos. Two years after his birth, my sister, Leticia, was born. It was not until my mother conceived my third sibling, Gilberto, that my parents decided to apply for their papers, or papeles, to legally work and live in the United States.
I was born on August 7, 1962, in French Camp, California. At that time, my family lived in Stockton, California. That is where the story of my life begins. I grew up surrounded by the love of my family and the many hardships that come along with being part of a migrant family. My memory begins at the age of five, precisely at the time I started school.
If the seed is planted with faith and watered with perseverance, it will only be a matter of time before it flourishes.
THOMAS CARLYLE (1795–1881) SCOTTISH HISTORIAN AND ESSAYIST
Many years have passed since I first started school, but those first few days have remained fresh in my memory. I still remember not understanding the importance of having to go to school. It seemed so strange and out of the ordinary to have to get up so early every morning to take a yellow bus, known to us as el camión amarillo, to school; it was especially strange to be surrounded by so many other children who spoke English, which at the time I did not understand.
I remember boarding this bus to school when we were living out in the countryside near the city of Modesto. The school, located in the small town of Salida, seemed very large and was filled with students who seemed a lot bigger and older than me. The classrooms were decorated and filled with rows of shiny new desks; the desks had built-in compartments that allowed us to store our pencils, crayons, and papers. I could not believe I was assigned my own beautiful desk. Phrases of gratitude were silently running through my head, but all I could do was stare at the blackboard because I did not speak the language. I tried to figure out the meaning of what was written and drawn in colored chalk. I never dared to raise my hand to ask a question, let alone answer one. I also never fully participated in any of the classroom kindergarten activities like singing, storytelling, or playing board games. It came as no surprise that my kindergarten teacher, whom I called la maestra, spoke only English. She was not sure I understood everything that was being taught, much less being said. I remained silent with the hope of being invisible to everyone.
Although I did not speak English, or inglés, that did not keep me from having fun during my lunch hour and recess, or recreo, as I called it. I was just a kid who had fun whenever I had the opportunity. For example, I was very happy when it came time to play a sport! I was content when we got to play fútbol, or soccer, because it was an occasion where I did not have to master English—just the ball. I was a good soccer player, or at least that was what my classmates made me think. Whenever the captain of each team started to select the players for his side, both captains always wanted to be the first to select me. Those moments would be the first times I ever felt a sense of belonging at school, giving me the motivation to get up every morning and catch the camión amarillo.
With the exception of recess and lunch, every day consisted of the same thing as the prior day: vocabulary words that were foreign to me, coupled with stares at my brown complexion from classmates with blue eyes and light skin. I knew perfectly well that my outward appearance differed from that of the rest of the kids at my school; however, when I complained to my father about it, he always told me that everyone in the world was equally the same, period.
I remember a specific incident that happened to me one day as I was walking to the bus after school. James, a fellow classmate, closely observed what I had brought for lunch before calling me a come tacos, or taco eater. After seeing my homemade tacos, James’s facial expression was full of disgust. To this day, I cannot get the image of his face out of my mind. I remember every detail: his mouth bent into a frown, his nose wrinkled like an accordion, and his eyebrows suddenly closer together. At that time, I did not pay too much attention to him, and I continued eating my lunch while thinking: “What does come tacos mean? Is it a bad thing to eat tacos? The tacos that my mom prepared for me look a lot more delicious than the bologna sandwich he is eating.”
Trying to forget James’s reaction to my packed lunch, I went on with my life, giving little importance to his expressions or comments. I was always happy to come home every day after school. When my siblings and I stepped inside our home, I would scream, “Mamá, we’re home!”
“Okay. Wash your hands and do your homework. Dinner is almost ready and your father is about to come home,” Mamá would reply.
“Okay, Mamá,” I would scream at the top of my lungs.
Chava, Lety, and Gil—my siblings—were always right behind me like a military lineup; together we marched through the door every single day after school. Chavita, as we called him out of affection, was the oldest. He was responsible for protecting his three younger siblings. Lety, my parents’ only daughter, was vivacious and full of life. At eight years old, she was the one who helped my mother take care of los hombres de la casa, or the men of the house. Gil, who was two years younger than Lety, was the liveliest of the four of us, a real whirlwind. As for me, I was just like any five-year-old, always exploring and full of unanswered questions. What I loved to do most as a kid was to play fútbol and spend the afternoons watching television with my parents, or papás, as I called them. I, of course, had another passion that I did not mention to anyone for quite some time…
In spite of my inquisitive nature, I remained focused on the daily activities at school and at home. Every day, as Mamá prepared dinner and the fresh flour handmade tortillas, my siblings and I sat around the kitchen table with our books open as we simultaneously inhaled the fragrant smell of dinner. We would hurry to finish our homework—or la tarea, as Mamá called it—because once we finished it, we could go play or watch television. That was our motivation to do our work.
Problem number 1: 2 + 3 = 5
Problem number 2: If there are seven apples, and a boy decides to eat one, how many are left? There are only six apples left.
I understand this completely! I thought to myself, with a smile on my face, every time I did my math homework. Sadly, this was not the case when it came to my English homework.
“Why the long face?” asked my father as he arrived from work and walked into the kitchen with a sense of curiosity.
“I don’t understand anything at school because I don’t speak English. It’s really hard for me.”
“I’ve already told you: if you live in the United States, you have to learn English. You can’t just give up,” my dad would say with encouragement.
“But we’re going to go back to Michoacán in a month. Can I stay home tomorrow, Papá? It’s Friday.”
“No, no, no,” he said as he ran his hand through my hair affectionately. “Go on, finish your homework. I know it’s difficult, but I also know you’re capable of doing it—and much more. You just have to put your mind to it.”
Since my family and I were migrant workers, known as campesinos, we traveled to the U.S. from Mexico following the harvest throughout California. We migrated from one house to another in different cities within the San Joaquin Valley, which comprises most of central California. We spent the majority of our time near Stockton, California, where we worked in los campos during the cucumber, cherry, strawberry, peach, tomato, and grape seasons. In fact, we worked on any and every fruit and vegetable crop that needed harvesting.
Our family would drive from La Piedad, Michoacán, to California in February of each year, so we could spend the spring and summer in the U.S. Then, halfway through the fall, usually around mid-November, we would pack up all of our belongings and make the long two-and-a-half-day trip back to Mexico. We would spend the rest of the fall season and the entire winter with our extended family in La Piedad. The next year when February came around, the cycle would repeat, and we would find ourselves making the same stops and usually renting the same houses in California. Once again, we moved from one city to another. Our routes were so well established that we typically returned to work with the same contractor, or contratista, working for the same farmers and in the same fields, year after year.
La Piedad, Michoacán, and its surroundings have always been known for the flow of migrant workers leaving to come to the United States. Most workers labor in the fields of California before returning to their hometowns to buy plots of land to build houses on for their families. The construction of such a house usually takes years to complete as family members pool their yearly earnings together for its building. I still remember the plot of land my father bought and the many years it took for us to finish our house. During our stay in Mexico each year, my father would hire one or two skilled bricklayers known as maestros. We kids, known in the construction industry as peones, would mix the cement with shovels, and bring both cement and bricks to the maestro for him to work his magic in constructing the walls of our future home.
When our family was back in the United States, regardless of the city we were living in, I continued attending school and doing my homework with the encouragement of my father and mother. Of course they would check to ensure I did indeed finish my homework. It only took once for me to get caught fibbing to them that I had completed my work to realize that my parents were serious about us kids finishing our assignments. I still remember the whipping my father gave me for telling that lie! Chavita, Lety, and Gil somehow always managed to finish their homework before me and move on to their chores, or quehaceres. Every day they would be first to gather around the screen of our small black-and-white television set. I remember that television vividly. It was the bulky wooden console type, which was held up like a piece of furniture by four short and skinny legs; the screen was in the middle, surrounded by speakers on each side, and there were big knobs for changing the channel and a “bunny ear” antenna to help improve reception. I would hear Lety yell from the living room, “Pepito! Hurry up! Star Trek is about to start.” Pepito is a term of endearment for young boys who are named José. Once an adolescent, the term would typically change to Pepe.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” I would yell back.
Then, a few seconds later, I would hear, “Pepito! It’s starting.”
So, I would run straight into the living room, leaving my homework completed but still laid out on the kitchen table.
Star Trek was my favorite show growing up. My brother Chava had a toy model of the USS Enterprise spaceship from the show, which was my favorite toy to borrow and play with for hours and hours. While playing with it, I would disregard the ticking of the clock and would go into deep concentration on the clouds, stars, and planets, as well as the vastness of the open blue sky. Those thoughts captivated my mind to the point where I could not stop thinking about them, even when I stopped playing with my brother’s toy model.
“Look, they’re in the spaceship on their way to the planet Ghorusda, and they say the mission is going to be hard because the inhabitants of the planet are dangerous. I wonder what’s going to happen,” I said, wanting to know right away.
“Pepito, we can’t see anything on the TV. Can you adjust the antenna so we can watch the show?” my sister asked.
Whenever our televisión had poor, snowy reception—which happened frequently—I was put in charge of fixing the problem. Somehow I was always tasked with adjusting the rabbit ear antenna. With my help, the image quality would greatly improve and my siblings would ask me to me stay there while they enjoyed a new episode of Star Trek; I always found this to be unfortunate. I was only able to catch glimpses of the intergalactic spaceships, distant planets, and stars while still holding the antenna. I now tease my siblings and tell them that it was through osmosis that I became an astronaut because I always had to hold the antenna when any space-themed program was on TV. I add that they too could have become astronauts if only they had helped me adjust the antenna.
In Stockton—where we spent the majority of the year while in California—we lived in a small, rented three-bedroom house located on the east side of town. It was an old house made of wood with a tile roof. It had a small bathroom, a round dining table, and a living room with old furniture. Although the kitchen was small, it was always stocked with the necessities for making a delicious Mexican meal: tortillas, tomatoes, peppers, and onions. The cuarto, or bedroom, I shared with Chava and Gil had only two beds, a desk, and a dresser. Our furniture was rather austere and most of the pieces were secondhand. The most luxurious item my family owned was the black-and-white television set, and even that was old by normal standards. The street we lived on reflected the humbleness of its residents, my family included. With few exceptions, my neighbors made a living working either in los campos or las canerias, in the fields or the canneries. The canneries process vegetables and fruits brought directly from the fields; this is where tomatoes are packaged after being turned into ketchup or paste, and where fruits are canned to become fruit cocktail.
I came from a world bordered by limitations, primarily financial ones. Fortunately, as a child, I occupied myself with something that did not require any dinero, or money, because it was free. No one knew about my special hobby because I did not talk about it. Fueled by the scenes of Star Trek, I spent my time looking up at the sky, especially at night. At the time, I did not know exactly what had me mesmerized, but there was something up in the sky, or cielo, that had me fascinated. I spent hours in my bedroom, gazing through the window and staring up at the stars. I stared at las estrellas, or the stars, thinking: Those stars over there are twinkling and that one over there is not. Those over there look yellow, while those over there look blue. All of them appear to be the same, but they are all so different.
It was a magical moment when I was lucky enough to see a shooting star cross the night sky. The sight was so amazing that I would go around my neighborhood the next morning to look for the place I thought the star might have fallen.
I became oblivious to time. When I would finally fall asleep, it was to images of stars still latent in my mind. Sleep was something that I did not get much of on Friday nights because I would go to bed late and wake up early for a long weekend of work.
“Come on, wake up! We have to go work,” my father would say when he would wake us every Saturday morning. If we were running late, my mother—who was young and energetic at the time—would yell, “Let’s go! We’re going to be late. It’s already past five in the morning!” Mamá also took the time to gather the tools we would need to work in the fields, and she even packed our lunches, which usually consisted of tacos.
The workload in los campos was extremely heavy, especially for children, but my siblings and I did not mind. We enjoyed it because we knew that we were going to get paid at the end of the day. My parents let us spend a small portion of our money on dulces y juguetes, candy and toys, although most of our money went straight into the family savings. My family and I have always been very close and supportive of one another. As we each succeeded in life, we looked out for one another and made sure we were all improving together.
It was May and cucumber season, or la temporada de pepinos, in Stockton. The rows, or surcos, in the fields were wet and there was mud everywhere. I remember seeing the other field-workers dressed in their bandanas, straw hats, Levi’s, and plaid flannel shirts. Each of us was paid fifty cents for each bucket we filled with pepinos, or cucumbers, that we dumped into the large wooden boxes at the end of every other ten or so rows. As I grew older, I would learn the mañas, or bad habits, of the other workers; this included bending the bottom of their metal buckets inward to create less volume and thus appear to fill each bucket even more quickly. I would also learn how to swiftly reseat a bucket of pepinos to make it look full when it really was not. “All tricks of the trade,” I told myself. This was how we Hernández kids spent our weekends and summers. We knew what it was our responsibility to do and there was no way of getting around that. Every morning spent in the fields promised us the same routine of going to and fro, picking the fruits, or vegetables, from the ground as the rays of the hot sun hit our backs.
During one Saturday in particular, I fell over after accidently stepping on a yellow overgrown pepino that was rotten. I remember its rotten stench as I threw down my bucket, standing there thinking, “I’m all covered in mud. I stink, I’m tired, and I’m sunburned. My siblings can continue working alongside my parents but I’m not going to anymore. I want to go home to watch TV and play.”
I decided to quit. I went to my father and pulled on his pant leg to tell him, “Dad, I’m tired. I want to go home!”
When he heard what I told him, he leaned down, took hold of both my shoulders, and, with a surprised look on his face, asked, “What’s wrong? Did something happen? Are you okay?”
“Look at me! I’m dirty. I fell in the mud. I want to leave. Plus, I’ve already made ten dollars for the day,” I cried to him.
“The day is almost over. Just keep on working.”
“I don’t want to!”
“Fine. Take a good look at yourself. You don’t like what you see now, right? You don’t like working the fields in the hot sun or getting dirty. Am I right? Well, if you quit now, you’ll be creating a pattern that is easy to conform to. If you don’t work hard in school, or in life, this will be your future. Is that what you want?”
“No,” I answered him.
“Well then, don’t settle for ten dollars. The day is almost over: get back to work,” he ordered, with just the right balance of authority and his version of tough love.
What my father told me that day in the fields changed the trajectory of my life. It turned into the speech that transcended the end of a long day of working in the fields. We would hear it when all four of us sat in the backseat of our ramshackle car. Father would turn around to look at us before he would turn the engine on, and he would say, “So how do you guys feel right now?” We, of course, were tired, sweaty, covered with mud, and would answer accordingly. “Good,” he would say, “because you kids have the privilege of living your future right now.”
“Living our future right now?” we would ask curiously.
“Yes. I am not going to force you to go to school or get good grades. But if you don’t, this is the type of job you’ll have for the rest of your life. This is the future that awaits you. So if you want to quit school right now, no problem; I invite you to start coming to work with me every day as of tomorrow!”
My father’s words made me realize that if I continued going to school, I could do whatever it was I wanted to do in life. If I studied hard, I might one day make enough money so my parents would no longer have to work in the fields! To this day, I believe that my father’s words changed the course of my destiny, and I am so grateful to him for that.
Soon another yearly tradition approached. In November 1968, my family and I packed all of our belongings and prepared for the drive from Stockton to my parents’ hometown of La Piedad in Mexico. The journey would last more than two days, so it was necessary to pack our car with plenty of food, clothes, and blankets. Whenever my parents took us back to Mexico for the winter, they made sure we each asked our maestra, or teacher, for our homework so we would not fall too far behind in our schoolwork. My teacher always prepared three to four months of homework since I would not return until the following spring, around the month of February. The situation was the same for Chavita, Lety, and Gil. We felt fortunate that our teachers already knew our yearly routine.
“Ms. Johnson, can I get my homework, please? I’m going back to Mexico,” I said in my broken English, as I was leaving my first grade class.
“Of course, José. Here you go.”
Once I had my homework, I grabbed my personal belongings from my pupitre, or desk, and rushed home.
“Are we ready?”
“Yes, Dad,” answered Gil, as he finished putting his book away in his backpack.
“Are we missing anything?” inquired my father.
“No. We’re just waiting for Pepito to finish getting ready.”
“Where is he?”
“In our room.”
My father came into the bedroom and found me looking out the window. He asked me, “Everything all right, son?”
“Yes. I’m just looking at that cloud. It’s shaped like a…”
He started laughing and said, “Oh son, you’re looking at clouds while we’re waiting for you. Come on, hurry up! Mexico is waiting for us!” And as soon as he finished telling me to hurry, he walked out of the room.
“It’s shaped like a rocket,” I said to myself, alone in my room.
Once I was outside, I saw that my family and our belongings were packed inside our 1965 Mercury Monterey, which was the same color as the blue sky. This trip to La Piedad was one of many that I remember clearly.
Although the road ahead of us seemed endless, just like the night sky above, there was not much farther left to go by day two. I could not fall asleep; perhaps it was due to the excitement of being within hours of waking surrounded by our loved ones in Michoacán. As the evening approached, I asked many questions, to the point of exhausting both my siblings and my father. My mother told me not to get discouraged because she similarly had ideas, questions, and doubts about things—which no one around her could answer or solve—when she was young. She continued by saying that is why one goes to school, to find the answers to such looming questions.
I attempted to close my eyes in the hope of falling asleep on several occasions, but I never entered a state of slumber because I was too focused on the stars above. An endless trail of questions wound through my mind: I wonder how far they really are from me? They look like little lights. What’s their purpose? Are they just for decoration? Why can I only see them at night? That night there was a luna llena, or full moon, which followed me down the highway, never once losing sight of me. I did not take my eyes off of my new friend until I finally fell asleep.
I was eager to see the rest of my family back in Mexico. My cousins, or primos, and I would play together until the sun went down and the stars appeared in the night sky; they had the same skin color and dark features as me. I most looked forward to Navidad y el Año Nuevo, Christmas and New Year, because it was then that our extended family gathered at my grandparents’ house.
I spent my days running around between the pueblo, or town, of La Piedad, where mis abuelos from my father’s side lived, and el rancho of Ticuítaco, where mi abuelita from my mother’s side lived. The towns were only ten minutes away from each other by bus or car; the camión El Ranchero would take me on my way. The Ranchero was the newer version of the bus my father used to drive as a young boy. Ticuítaco was very rural, surrounded by vast open land where fishing in the dam and hunting doves, or guilotas, were favorite pastimes. Alternatively, La Piedad was a small town that now had some cafés located around its plaza; the center of the plaza had remained marked by a kiosk—the same kiosk where my parents met and fell in love. Despite their differences, the two towns shared a commonality: both offered paz y quietud, peace and quiet. Additionally, the smell of the local herbs and fruits mixed together with the sound of the local music created a synergy unique to the two communities, filling the air with a rich cultural history.
Many of the locals from La Piedad traveled to los Estados Unidos, or the United States, in search of good fortune that comes in the form of the green of the U.S. dollar. For some, this dream became a reality and their families were even able to build modest homes.
This was La Piedad: a town of migrants, or migrantes, who did not have much with which to occupy themselves. Las calles, or the streets, were empty by eight at night, and the major attraction was the town square, affectionately known as la plaza. La plaza was where families would get together on the weekends to have coffee or ice cream; it was also where they would gather to go to Mass, or misa, at the iglesia del Señor de la Piedad. Folks say that during the time leading up to Mexico’s independence, el cura, or the priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla—a leader of the Mexican War of Independence—often visited the church because the pastor was one of his relatives. I remain intrigued by this historical anecdote.
When we finally arrived in La Piedad, mis abuelos welcomed us with open arms.
“They’re here!” shouted my paternal grandmother, Cleotilde. “My son and his family are here.”
Excerpted from Reaching for the Stars by José M. Hernández Copyright © 2012 by José M. Hernández. Excerpted by permission.
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Author's Note xiii
1 About My Father 1
2 The Seed Germinates 15
3 Gaining Traction 52
4 Following My Dream 89
5 For My Mother 109
6 He Who Perseveres Will Achieve 127
7 Happy New Millennium 165
8 Harvesting the Dream 202