Farmworkers' son tells of chasing his dream into space

If you're looking to inspire Latino teenagers to stay in school, you could hardly do better than the speaker selected for Saturday's Hispanic Education Conference: a son of farmworkers whose dreams took him through college and literally out of this world.

José Hernández flew into space with the crew of the space shuttle Discovery in August. He spoke to hundreds of students at the 26th annual conference, held Saturday at Modesto Junior College.

Hernández addressed a crowd that filled the auditorium and overflowed into the lobby. The Patterson Unified School District, always a big participant, delivered five buses of kids.

Students could attend workshops led by professionals in areas ranging from firefighting to green jobs to working in the aviation and aerospace industry.

But first they heard from a worker in the latter industry, Stockton's Hernández. He spoke in mixed English and Spanish.

"I'm just like you guys," he said. "I'm just one of the guys here."

Growing up, he didn't fit the typical picture of the overachieving student. The youngest child in a large family -- "before we had TV remote controls, I was the remote control," he said -- Hernández traveled the valley as his parents worked the farms.

A teacher came to the family home one year and advised Hernández's family that the travel, which kept the kids jumping from school to school, was hurting the children's education. From that time on, the family stayed put and trimmed its yearly trip to Mexico from three months to three weeks.

"My parents only had a third-grade education, but they made sure we did our homework," he said. "My mother would make tortillas while we sat at the table and worked. They didn't know if it was right, but they knew we did it."

He set his sights on being an astronaut watching the Apollo missions on the family's black and white TV.

He said his parents encouraged his dream, though they likely didn't believe it was possible. "I'm sure they thought, 'Let him dream.' "

The dream took him to the University of the Pacific, then grad school in Santa Barbara, then a career as an engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

He told students that his adventure into space was the product of perseverance: He applied to NASA repeatedly over the course of 12 years. He made the cut to visit its headquarters a couple of times, and in 2006 joined that year's class of astronauts.

The teacher who visited his parents was among Hernández's guests at the space shuttle launch in August.

After Hernández wrapped up his talk, a select group of students was told to stick around the auditorium, but they weren't told why. Then they got to meet Hernández.

"Meeting José Hernández has been a great surprise," said Mariela Magaña, a junior at Patterson High School. "When they told us to wait here, I thought we were going to sit down and listen to someone speak."

Alejandra Pérez of Stockton said she brought her daughter to the event because "we are Hispanics just like him and we work in the fields just like he did. He is a role model for all of us."

Modesto resident Nora Ramos took her three young children, Adolfo Tinoco, 8, Alondra Tinoco, 7, and Brizeyda Flores, 5, to meet Hernández."

"I wanted them to meet José Hernández so they can see that even if we are a low-income poor family, we can do it, too, just like he did."

Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at or 578-2343.

Vida en el Valle Managing Editor Olivia Ruiz can be reached at