José M. Hernández, in 2004, became the first migrant farmworker to become a NASA astronaut. An impressive achievement in itself, José’s accomplishment is even more amazing in light of the journey he took to get there.
Born into a migrant farm-working family from Mexico, José didn’t learn English until he was twelve years old. He spent much of his childhood on what he calls the “California circuit,” travelling with his family from Mexico to California’s southern San Joaquin Valley each March, then working northward to the Stockton area by summer, picking strawberries, cucumbers, cherries and tomatoes along the way. In late November, they would return to Mexico for Christmas and wait until March to start the cycle all over again.
In California, José spent weekends laboring in the fields with his family, and while the end of the school year meant summer fun for his peers, it meant working seven days a week in the hot fields for him and his family. The neighborhoods he lived in were often dangerous, filled with drugs, alcohol and gang violence. There was also the issue of growing up in a bicultural environment as a Mexican American and the prejudices that came along with this label: too Mexican to be American, too American to be Mexican.
Through all of this, José’s parents stayed strong and focused on their children’s education, which allowed him to dream of one day reaching the stars. Determined to achieve his goal, José obtained his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Electrical Engineering. He had a successful career as an engineer and scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where he worked on the development of an X-ray laser, helped develop the first full-field digital mammography system for the early detection of breast cancer and worked in the nuclear non-proliferation arena. In 2004, he was selected as part of the nineteenth class of US Astronauts.
Assigned to the STS-128 Space Shuttle Discovery mission as the flight engineer, José’s dream of reaching for the stars came true on August 28, 2009, blasting off into space on a 14-day mission to the International Space Station.
His inspiring journey of perseverance and hard work is a true fulfillment of the American Dream.