A native of Mexico, Elvira Hernandez joined the ACLU of Michigan as a program associate in our West Michigan Regional Office in 2016. To help celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, she agreed to participate in a wide-ranging Q&A that touches on her life growing up as the child of migrant farmworkers, what it was like attending school in a place where she was considered an outsider, the motivation for working at an advocacy organization, and why McFarland, USA is a movie she feels a deep connection to.

How do you identify?

Even though my parents brought us to the United States when I was just 4 years old, and I’ve lived in this country almost my entire life, I think of myself first as a Mexican, because that’s where I was born.

What was your childhood like?

For much of my time growing up, my parents were migrant farmworkers. We would be in Michigan from May to October, and then in Florida from October to May. Needing to pack up and move everything you own twice a year meant you could only have so many things. Because my parents didn’t speak English, I became a translator for them while still in elementary school. Starting when I was 11, my sister and I would work in the fields alongside our parents on weekends and over summer vacation, picking tomatoes, peppers, cherries, apples – all sorts of crops. When I was a sophomore in high school, we stopped moving back and forth, and settled permanently in western Michigan. My parents were still farmworkers, and my sister and I continued to do farm work when not in school. Because of that, we couldn’t participate in extracurricular activities like the other kids were able to do.

That was just our way of life. And you learn to deal with it. Living like that teaches you to be resilient. You develop a sink-or-swim mentality, and believe that no matter what happens, you will have the strength and resourcefulness to get through it.

What were things like for you as a kid in school?

There are two things that happened while I was in elementary school here in Michigan that really stick out in my memory. The first one, I was out on the playground during recess talking in Spanish to my friend, Esmerelda – who, like me, had parents that were migrant workers from Mexico. We were the only ones. And while we’re talking, this playground aide came up and started yelling at us for speaking Spanish. We felt totally belittled, and embarrassed.

A year later, the same girl and I were in class together, and the other kids started making fun of us for speaking Spanish. My teacher heard them and stopped everything. He asked everyone, “Who are the smartest people in this room?” No one said anything. Then he asked, “Can anyone else here speak two languages?” Again, no response. “So that means Elvira and Esmerelda are the smartest people in this class!” We felt so proud to be singled out like that in such a positive way, and to be defended by our teacher.

Those two incidents provided a real lesson in how much effect – both positive and negative – adults can have over the lives of children.

What made you want to work for an organization that protects people’s civil rights?

When I was a teenager going through the amnesty program that was open to immigrants at that time, I’d have to go to an office in Detroit. People were applying for the program so that they could stay in the U.S. legally, and we were all very nervous because if things didn’t work out, we were at risk of being deported. And the way the workers at that office treated me and others was so wrong. They were just very rude and gruff, just barking at us. They treated us badly because they knew they had all the power over this room filled with immigrants. And I remember thinking to myself, “When I grow up I want a job like this so that I can treat people the way they deserve to be treated.”

After graduating from high school, I began working as a secretary. Then I  got job as legal assistant for Farmworker Legal Services. That then led to my job here at the ACLU of Michigan, where I continue to deal with a lot of farmworkers facing a variety of issues. Sometimes, when people show up, and they are in their work clothes and their boots are muddy, you can see that they are embarrassed. And I’m able to talk to them, and put them at ease, because I know where they are coming from, and the struggles they are going through. So, I’m able to help them feel comfortable, and that means a lot.

Are there any books you would recommend for people interested in learning more about the immigrant experience?

One book I always recommend is Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario. It the true story of a Honduran teenager and the perilous trip he makes to the United States to reunite with the mother he’s been separated from for many years because she was forced to come to this country to find work and send money home to provide food for her starving family. It speaks to the toll separation takes on so many immigrant families, and the tremendous risks people take, and the hardships they face, in an attempt to make a better life for their families.

How about a movie?

I think McFarland, USA is very good. It stars Kevin Costner, who plays a new track coach at a high school in a rural California community where most of the students are the children of immigrant farmworkers. Based on a true story, it shows the awakening of a white coach who, because of his privilege, initially  has no idea of the challenges the students at his school face. At first, he just doesn’t have a clue. He can’t grasp why people aren’t showing up for practice, and they’re like, “Dude, we have to work.” But he, and they, persevere. At the end, they show where the kids he coached ended up – as teachers, engineers. Jobs like that. It is a movie really connected with me, showing a lot of what my life was like as a teenager.

The ACLU of Michigan has a Heritage Month committee that you are part of. Why is that?

I think heritage months are important. I’m very proud of my Mexican heritage. I’ve tried to instill that same pride in my kids. And to share that pride in your heritage with the people you work with, and to help other people better understand your culture, and the issues immigrants face – not just for Hispanic Heritage Month, but for all the different months, showcasing all these different communities – is very rewarding.