Mexico's Twin Tales of Astronaut Jose Hernandez

By Jerry Kammer, September 8, 2009

The story Astronaut Jose Hernandez, the flight engineer on the Space Shuttle Discovery's ongoing mission, is being told two ways in Mexico: one of pride in the accomplishments of the son of poor immigrants and one of pain because of the lack of opportunities in Mexico.

Hernandez, 47, was born in California to parents who entered the U.S. illegally in 1957, working as field hands and eventually acquiring permanent residence. In a conversation with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, Hernandez said that the entire family picked cucumbers, tomatoes, peaches, and cherries. He made a point of noting that while his parents took the children into the fields during weekends and in the summer, "they always made sure we were in school" when class was in session. Elsewhere he has said that his parents settled in Stockton to provide the children with greater stability than they knew as migrant field hands.

Hernandez, who has an M.S. degree in electrical and computer engineering from the University of California at Santa Barbara, said that as a young boy his family made frequent trips back to his parents home state of Michoacan. Calderon, the son of a prominent Michoacan family, was born there just 11 days after Hernandez was born in California. The Mexican president told him: "In the name of all Mexicans, of all the people of Michoacan, I want to extend you a big greeting, with all our admiration, with all our affection. With all our pride, because you are putting the name of Mexico up there very, very high."

For Luis Rubio, director of Mexico's Center of Research for Development (CIDAC), the Hernandez story is bittersweet.

"The pride of seeing the astronaut has to be tempered by the shame of the reality that drove his parents from the country," Rubio wrote in the Mexican newspaper Reforma (English translation here). He lamented that Mexico "has become a nest of privileges where only a very small fraction of people can achieve their aspirations. The rest have virtually no possibility of envisioning opportunities different from those that their social origin imposed upon them."

Rubio continued: "The success of the poorest Mexicans living in the US constitutes brutal evidence that in other circumstance might make us proud, while in fact is nothing but a ruthless indictment against the country as a whole. The tangible fact is that the country does not work. Everything seems organized and built to make life difficult for the population, to cancel opportunities and to close spaces for their development."

Hernandez in 2005 established the Reaching for the Stars Foundation, which funds scholarships for needy children.