From migrant worker to NASA: Former astronaut featured at Latino empowerment event
Hundreds of people gathered at the Student Center South Theatre on Friday for a Latino empowerment event sponsored by Arte Público Press, League of United Latin American Citizens Council 60, UH LULAC Chapter and Amazon.
The event featured a Q&A with José M. Hernández, a book signing and a screening of his biopic “A Million Miles Away,” which showcased his journey from farmworker to astronaut.
During the Q&A portion, he answered questions about perseverance, Latinos in STEM and his continuous involvement in the space industry.
“When you see astronauts go up in space, you see seven of us typically on the space shuttle, but there’s an abundance of people on the ground that make that possible,” Hernández said. “If we want to stay at the forefront, we have to engage every segment of our society, which means Latinos, African Americans, any people of color, women.”
Hernández attributed his success not only to his support network, but also to his genuine belief that he would some day travel to space. He didn’t wake up one day and step on a rocket, it took many years of rejection, determination and improvement before he could finally call himself an astronaut.
“Each time I got rejected, at least the first six times, I wasn’t too concerned because I knew I’d pick myself up again,” Hernández said.
After 12 years at NASA, Hernández retired to focus on his family. From there, he founded Tierra Luna Cellars where he owns a vineyard with his father and produces wine. He owes his success to the encouragement he received from the people around him, especially his father.
“When your father as a 10-year-old tells you, you can do something, you believe it,” Hernández said. “So, I knew as a 10-year-old, that’s what I want to do. That’s what I’m gonna do. And I knew the key to it was to go to college, go to graduate school, get a good job related to space and eventually I will get there.”
Hernández grew up in Stockton, California where he farmed crops with his family. After watching Gene Cernan on his Apollo 17 mission on TV in 1972, he was inspired to pursue his own dreams of becoming an astronaut. He applied for NASA’s training program 11 times before being accepted on his 12th try.
Before the movie screening began, Hernández attended a private reception at Arte Público Press where attorney and UH alumni Graciela Saenz, LULAC Council 60 President Rachel Cevallos, founder and director of Arte Público Press Nicolás Kanellos and other LULAC members were in attendance.
During the movie, there were several moments where the crowd erupted into applause. One was when he was finally accepted into the space program and the other was when he walked into his wife’s restaurant, Tierra Luna Grill, in his NASA uniform.
After the Q&A session ended, Hernández headed outside the theatre to sign over a hundred books and take pictures with the attendees. He said he would not leave until all the books were signed.
“It’s important to be out in person so they can see me,” Hernández said. “They don’t just have to watch me on TV or read the book. They can say ‘allí está.’ He’s telling me with his own words how he did it.”