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Davis, California

Friday, April 19, 2024

José Hernández, the first Mexican migrant farmworker to go to space, speaks at Chancellor’s Colloquium event

The event featured a screening of “A Million Miles Away,” a recent film that depicts Hernández’s life 


By CHRIS PONCE — campus@theaggie.org


On Nov. 28, the Mondavi Center sold out of seats for an event featuring José Hernández, the first Mexican migrant farmworker to go to space. The event is a part of the Chancellor’s Colloquium Distinguished Speaker Series and included a Q&A with Hernández that was moderated by Chancellor Gary May.

Before the Q&A, there was a screening of “A Million Miles Away,” a new film directed by Alejandra Marquez that tells the life of Hernández. The film follows Hernández from his childhood to his moment serving on the Space Shuttle Discovery.

Hernández grew up south of Stockton and spent his childhood picking crops and working in the fields of the Central Valley and Southern California with his family. It wasn’t until he was 12 years old that he learned to speak English, but this didn’t stop Hernández from thriving academically.

Currently, Hernández is the CEO of an aerospace company located in Stockton, Tierra Luna Engineering, LLC, and serves on the UC Board of Regents.

“This is a case where a great person literally needs no introduction,” Jeremy Ganter, executive director of the Mondavi Center, said. “So instead, I’ll borrow a phrase from the film we just watched: Let me invite to the stage ‘one of the very few, highly skilled extraordinary people on this planet deemed capable of flying a rocket into space,’ UC Regent José Hernández.”

May called Hernández an “American hero,” as they both stepped onto the stage. Hernández shared that he had dreamed of being an astronaut since he was 10 years old and talked about his parents who supported him.

“My father, who only has a 3rd grade education like my mother, had this wisdom and set me aside to do two important things,” Hernández said. “First, he empowered me in believing that I could achieve that dream. Second, he said ‘You want to do this son, you got to follow this simple five-ingredient recipe.’”

“A Million Miles Away” is broken up into five thematic parts that each follow one of the “five ingredients” his father, Salvador Hernández, shared with him. The ingredients described in the film are: 1. Find your goal; 2. Know how far you are; 3. Draw a roadmap; 4. If you don’t know how, learn; 5. When you think you’ve made it, you probably have to work harder. The film used different phrases to describe the ingredients than Hernández used when he shared the advice his father gave him.

“[My dad] said, ‘Determine your purpose in life, what’s your purpose?’” Hernández said. “Then [my dad] said, ‘Recognize how far you are from that purpose, then draw yourself a roadmap so you know where you’re at to where you want to go.’ Fourth, prepare yourself accordingly to the challenge you chose. And fifth, apply the same work ethic you do picking fruits and vegetables on Saturdays and Sundays –– seven days a week in the summer with your family –– apply that here.”

Hernández said that while his father didn’t have a formal education, he had a “Ph.D. in wisdom,” to which May agreed. He shared the parting words his father left with him.

“‘Always give more than what people expect out of you,” Hernández’s father said. “‘You mix that up mijo, that’s the recipe to succeed.’”

Before working at NASA, Hernández worked as an engineer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for 16 years, but still, he carried on his dream of being an astronaut. He applied 11 times to work at NASA — each time he was rejected. It wasn’t until his 12th application that Hernández was selected for the program. Hernández gave a sixth ingredient to his father’s recipe.

“It wasn’t until the 12th time, so the 6th ingredient is perseverance: never giving up on yourself,” Hernández said.

Hernández graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from the University of the Pacific, and later graduated with a masters in electrical engineering, signals and systems from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

During the Q&A, an audience member asked a question about how to stay motivated as a first-generation student. At UC Davis, 42 percent of students identify as first-generation students. First-generation students are more likely to report job and/or family circumstances as obstacles to their academic performance, according to the UC Undergraduate Experiences Survey (2018).

Hernández said that not being motivated isn’t an option and that not all high schools adequately and equally prepare students for college. He shared his struggles and said that what kept him motivated when he felt like quitting was his parents.

“What motivated me the most was imagining my parents’ reaction when I told them I was going to quit college –– that I didn’t have what it took,” Hernández said. “That I was just going to throw away all the sacrifices they had made up until that point, and that’s what gave me the energy and motivation to say ‘I can’t do that.’ I owe it to them –– to give them a college degree.”

In response to another student’s question, Hernández shared that people who look like him, as well as other people of color, have to work harder to be taken seriously in life.

“We’re asked to do more in our community, because we’re role models,” Hernández said. “We’re asked to work harder in our jobs because we don’t get the same recognition, but as soon as you learn that’s the rule of life, you take one of two routes. One, you could have a chip on your shoulder and try to fight the system and the best that’s going to get you is being labeled a troublemaker. Or two, you understand those rules and you work your butt off. I chose the latter. I worked harder because I knew I had to.”


Written By: Chris Ponce campus@theaggie.org



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