José Hernández–who is my most favorite astronaut of all time–has returned to Earth after his journey into space aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. Hernández and his fellow crew mates had to make their landing in California, at Edwards Air Force Base, rather than in Florida, due to bad weather. They touched down on September 11, 2009.
As you may or may not know, Hernández was one of two Latino astronauts aboard Discovery during the 14-day journey. More significantly, he is the first ever former migrant laborer to go to space, growing up as he did between California and Mexico with his Mexican-born parents as they followed “the circuit” of seasonal agricultural work. Hernández, who was born in California, even worked in the fields himself as a child. Now, he is one of only a handful of humanity who has left the planet and returned.
Both before he left and since his return, Hernández has been something of a celebrity in Mexico. He Tweeted his entire trip, in both English and Spanish (which is his first language), and has been a regular guest on a major Spanish-language, Mexican news show–even giving them an interview from zero gravity.
In a telephone interview yesterday, he spoke out on the “immigration problem” in the US. Simply put, he said the US should find a pathway to legalization for the estimated 12 million undocumented residents within its borders. “I believe it’s only fair to find a way to legalize them and give them an opportunity to work openly, so they can also retire in a traditional U.S. system.” Hernández also shared some of what he learned from his journey, restating what he had said in his earlier interview from the International Space Station on September 3: “What surprised me is when I saw the world as one. There were no borders. You couldn’t distinguish between the United States and Mexico.”
NASA sort of flew off the handle when Hernández’ remarks started making the news. They made a special effort to distinguish them for being representative of Hernández only, and not the official line of the agency.
You can read about the whole story here.
Amidst the flurry of attention, Hernández offered more interviews this morning with a few Spanish-language media outlets, including yet another appearance on Televisa. He reiterated his perspective on immigration indirectly, this time saying:
“When I speak, I speak for myself, my personal thoughts, or my personal opinions. And though I work for the American government, as an individual have the right to express my opinions… Obviously, having 12 million undocumented people, the system is not working here in the United States, and it needs to be fixed.”
Earlier in the interview, when Hernández was asked how he, a former migrant worker, could become an astronaut. He replied by thanking his parents’ dedication to his education. He said as Latinos “we shouldn’t spend so much time going out with friends drinking beer and watching telenovelas, and should spend more time with our families and kids.”
You can read about the latest interview here.
I think Hernández is a spectacular example of so many complex and powerful forces shaping the lives of millions of Latinos in this hemisphere. His success is simultaneously a testament to the possibility of individual progress in the United States, as it also undoubtedly speaks to the multiple good fortunes, decisions, and support networks he and his family had from each other and others to make their lives what they are. His parents are retired in Stockton, where they live next to many of their children and grandchildren. None of them have to labor in the fields. I assure you, their story of breaking out of “the circuit” is as triumphant as their space-traveling son’s.
Hernández also articulates the strong refrain of familial dedication so important to the collective identity of being both mexicano and Mexican American. He uses his own sense of himself and his collective “people” to stand as a role model for children and as a voice for human compassion, articulating both his stance for the legalization of immigrant workers and against “drinking beer and watching telenovelas.”
Some of us lefties might be a bit offended by his remarks suggesting that alcohol and indifference are what keep Mexicans in the US as poor as they are. The reality is far more complicated than that. His reality sees that this is a problem somewhere, in a place where people live who he cares about, and so he says what he says.
What is most interesting and endearing to me is that he seems to exhibit the familiar–the familial–to me. He’s one of those successful ones in the working-class, immigrant family, with multiple generations here and in Mexico. He is the one who uses his life in proactive ways to be a bridge from there to here, and then back again. He is us.
Here are the tapes of his interview this morning. In the first, he introduces his parents and makes the comments I provided above. In the second, he speaks to his family in Mexico, via satellite, and then introduces his other job, as “el jefe de lava platos.”