MIDDLETON — Five months after a viral social media post rocked this small Idaho town, José Hernández told Middleton students and teachers how the son of Mexican farmworkers became an astronaut.
“I think it’s important, you know,” Hernández told a crowd of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders at Purple Sage Elementary Tuesday. “If you leave here with anything — it’s that anything is possible.”
The elementary school was Hernández’s final stop of the day. He had spoken at Mill Creek Elementary and Middleton Heights Elementary — the main reason he came to Idaho in the first place.
In November, a social media post showing staff at Middleton Heights Elementary wearing sombreros and fake mustaches, and others dressed as President Trump’s border wall, drew outcry across the country. The school district quickly apologized and briefly placed 14 Middleton Heights staff members on paid administrative leave. The principal of Middleton Heights, Kim Atkinson, was not reinstated and is resigning from the school district at the end of the year.
“I was upset at the fact that the stereotypical images were being portrayed and that that was counterproductive for our kids,” Hernández told the Idaho Press after his presentation Tuesday. “Immediately, my reaction was we’ve got to show kids that regardless of your socioeconomic background, regardless of the color of your skin, you can reach the American dream.”
As news of the costumes spread, Hernández posted on Twitter his offer to pay his way to Middleton to tell students and teachers his “story of reaching the American dream.” He really did pay his own way, he told the Idaho Press, because he felt it was so important for Middleton kids — especially the ones in elementary school — to hear his message. He was 10 years old when he decided he wanted to be an astronaut. He held onto that dream even after NASA rejected him a dozen times, until he was selected as an astronaut in 2004 and joined the Space Shuttle Discovery’s mission to the International Space Station in 2009.
Despite the impetus for his visit, the message Hernández preached in schools Tuesday was the possibility of achieving big dreams through hard work, no matter who you are.
“You should not be afraid to dream big,” Hernández said. “When I’m an old man in my rocking chair and we’re sending someone to Mars, I want to hear it was someone from Idaho who listened to my talk.”
Hernández also donated English and Spanish versions of his books to the library of each school he visited.
Canyon County has the largest Latino community in Idaho, as well as the highest number of migrant students. Middleton School District is 13 percent Hispanic, and only two staff members in the Middleton School District identify as Hispanic, according to 2018-2019 data from the Idaho State Department of Education. Nearby school districts in Caldwell and Nampa range from 40 to 70 percent Hispanic or Latino. While Latinos were horrified by the photos of educators wearing costumes that stereotyped their culture, many told the Idaho Press in November they weren’t shocked because of Canyon County’s history.
A few Latino parents sat in the back of the school assembly Tuesday, listening quietly as students watched footage of Hernández’s mission and shouted questions about what space was like. Afterwards, they approached Hernández eagerly, posing their kids with him for pictures. Hernández said he insisted they join the photos.
“I wanted to be a role model and an example that, hey, not every Latino wears a sombrero, has a big, long mustache and is under a cactus taking a siesta — which is how we’re portrayed,” Hernández said. “That’s what really got to me. I said no, we’re better than this, and the best way to counteract things like this is through example.”