Dreams of a Farm Worker

Jose Hernandez was the youngest of four children born to a migrant farming family from Mexico that picked crops in California. The family’s annual “California circuit” began in February, when they arrived in California’s Central Valley and headed for the strawberry fields near the city of Ontario. During each stop he and his siblings attended school. The children didn’t work Monday through Friday, but always on the weekends. Late in the school year, when all the kids were looking forward to summer vacation, he dreaded it.

In November, after the walnuts and grapes were in, his parents, Salvador and Julia Hernandez, would pack their four children in the car and headed south through California’s Central Valley to the Mexican state of Michoacan, 1,700 miles away. The journey back home took 2 1/2 days. During the trip his father would put cans of Campbell’s soup on the engine manifold to warm up so the children could eat soup in the back seat.

Eventually, Jose Hernandez graduated from high school, attended Stockton’s University of the Pacific on a scholarship, graduating with a degree in electrical engineering, and then earned a master’s at the University of California at Santa Barbara. This story in itself would be  extraordinary – but it does not end here.

Jose Hernandez is now 41 and this coming week, he’s is taking a different kind of trip. He’s headed into space with the Space Shuttle Discovery. Jose is an expert engineer specializing in X-rays, tomography, ultrasound, and other nondestructive means of medical and materials analysis. Before joining NASA, Jose worked for the Department of Energy, where he helped develop the inspection techniques and monitoring procedures used in the disposal of 15 tons of Russian enriched uranium. And at the DOE’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the1990s, he and a colleague used experience gained working on the X-ray laser defense initiative to develop the first full-field digital mammography system for detecting breast cancer in women.

Along the way, he became president of the Society of Mexican-American Engineers and Scientists, an avid runner who has participated in the Marine Corps Marathon and the father of five children. Ironically, Jose is heading toward space next week with another Hispanic astronaut, Danny Olivas, a graduate of my alma mater, The University of Texas at El Paso. Jose and Danny take with them the dreams and aspirations of many young people all over the country– not just Hispanic Americans. 

One can imagine that Cesar Chavez, struggling for the rights of Mexican farm workers in the fields of California, dreamed of such things. This week, as the Space Shuttle streaks across the sky toward space with the son of Mexican farm workers, we can realize and appreciate the great accomplishments to be achieved through unity, perseverance, dedication, and education. Jose’s accomplishment inspires us to reach for our goals and realize that education is certainly the great equalizer.