On May 9, 2023, Latinos in Action held their annual leadership conference at the Jon M. Huntsman Center at the University of Utah. Almost 100 busses brought children and teens to hear the founder, José Enríquez, PhD, share inspiring words with Latino youth from across the state of Utah. It was the largest Latinos in Action conference to date, with over 3,000 participants.
I was assigned by Vice President Mary Ann Villarreal to give the welcome remarks; initially I was given 10 minutes, but due to scheduling issues, it was cut down to three. I was fine because, like the other participants, I wanted to hear the keynote address, which was scheduled to be given by José Hernández, PhD.
When I finished with my remarks, a group of elementary school children from Heber Valley Elementary School performed a dance to one of my favorite songs, “La Gozadera” by Marc Anthony and Gente de Zona. They were followed by another talented dance group from Mountain View High School. And then, Dr. Hernández began to speak. He was dressed in his NASA uniform and shared with us his incredible story. Born to parents who were migrant farm workers, he was the first in his family to be born outside of Mexico. His parents each had an elementary school education, but they had worked hard their whole lives. Their migrant jobs had them moving every three months in California for nine months out of the year; the last three months they would spend in Mexico. Hernández and his siblings only studied while in the US. When they would leave for Mexico, they would ask their teachers for three months of homework.
When Hernández was in second grade, his teacher, Miss Young, told him that she was going to visit his home. Miss Young visited with his father and asked him for some advice. She spoke of a tree that she wanted to plant, but every three months she wanted to move it. She asked him if he would help her take care of the tree. He responded he would but warned her that with moving the tree so frequently, it would survive but would not grow. Five seconds later, he realized she was talking about his children. Miss Young excused herself, changing Hernández's life forever. His family stopped moving; they settled down in Stockton, California, and they remained there through today.
A few years later, Hernández, now age 10, saw the last lunar landing on TV. He told his father that he wanted to be an astronaut. His father was wise beyond his education. After a few questions, he gave the young Hernández a recipe for success:
- Define your goal
- Recognize how far you are from it
- Create a roadmap to get there
- Education is key
- Develop a strong work ethic
- Persevere and never give up
Hernández followed this advice for decades. He followed it from elementary school through graduate school, eventually earning a doctorate in engineering from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He worked at many laboratories after that, developing the equipment we use today in digital mammography, which has saved millions of lives.
Hernández applied to be an astronaut 11 times before he was finally accepted. He went to the International Space Station in 2009, as a part of a crew that completed that project. His book, “Reaching for the Stars,” will be made into a motion picture entitled, “A Million Miles Away” starring Michael Peña—which will be available on Amazon Prime in September.
After that amazing talk, I asked if we could get a picture. José Enríquez, José Hernández, and José Rodríguez—all of us doctors. Never did I dream I could be in a room in Utah with three doctors named José. I left that talk completely transformed, and grateful for the opportunity to be in the company of Drs. Enríquez and Hernández, inspiring leaders who are also Latino.
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José E. Rodríguez, MD, FAAFP