Commentary: Jose Hernandez, an immigrant's son, makes run at Congress

The Sacramento BeeOctober 17, 2011 

I drove to Modesto last Tuesday to watch a farmworker who became a NASA astronaut announce that he's running for Congress.

His name is Jose Hernandez. On Twitter, nearly 208,000 followers know him as Astro Jose — the man who tweeted in English and Spanish as a crew member of the Space Shuttle Discovery in the summer of 2009.

"From plowshares to the stars" is the way Hernandez described his personal story while announcing his candidacy as a Democrat in the newly drawn 10th Congressional District, which runs from Tracy to Modesto.

"Now I have a new mission: to go to Congress and make sure mine is not the last generation than can claim the American dream."

It seems a safe bet that few people, if anyone, running for political office in America today have a more compelling story than Hernandez.

The 49-year-old grew up a Stockton kid whose humble Mexican parents barely had an education themselves, yet raised four children who achieved advanced degrees and professional careers.

Jose knew he wanted to be an astronaut even as he worked stooped over, laboring the sugar beet fields near Stockton as a young lad.

Instead of discouraging him, Salvador and Julia Hernandez nurtured their son's dream.

They didn't pretend to know about the complex mathematics that were be like water and oxygen to their son's mind and spirit.

But they knew about the hard work needed to achieve the dreams of personal ambition.

"We would work in the field and pile in our car, all hot and sweaty," Hernandez said Tuesday. "And my father would say, 'I can't make you go to college, but I can tell you that you are living your futures right now,' " Hernandez said.

"We wouldn't know what he was talking about. Then he said if we didn't pursue our educations, this would be our future.

"It was powerful."

As his son became a congressional candidate Tuesday, 74-year-old Salvador Hernandez looked like a man who was proud to his bones. He and his wife, dressed in their Sunday best, stood toward the back of the crowd and off to one side.

Their son pointed them out and they looked shy, slightly embarrassed – and overjoyed.

The Hernandez story transcends government efforts to address issues dragging down Latinos in California – the children who are disproportionately dropping out of high school and the high number of Latino inmates in county jails and state prisons.

It's all about the parents. The family unit. Education. Assimilation.

Jose Hernandez described his story as "an American story." He graduated with honors from the University of the Pacific and UC Santa Barbara, after being born in the tiny farming town of French Camp.

He worked for years at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where he and his colleagues developed tools used to increase the chances of early breast cancer detection.

He became a NASA engineer at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. He flew to the stars on Discovery in 2009.

"I tell people now that politics is not rocket science," he said Tuesday, getting a big laugh from 100 or so beaming supporters and friends.

With a June primary months away, it's too soon to determine whether Hernandez has the right stuff for the mercenary trade of national politics. His life is about launching pads. Congress seems like quicksand.

But there is a reason Hernandez drew a crowd and I drove a long way to see him. We still want to believe in the American dream.

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