When Liliana Hernandez speaks at MiraCosta College’s commencement ceremonies this evening, her words won’t just be for her fellow graduates.
The 28-year-old Vista resident will also be speaking to her 6-year-old daughter, Darla Rojas, about how education and hard work have given her hope that she will overcome a lifetime of struggle.
When she was 6 years old, Hernandez was living in a car with her parents and three siblings. A bag of tortillas was all the family might eat in a week and the children were frequently exposed to drug abuse and domestic violence.
The trauma from her childhood experiences led Hernandez to attempt suicide at 13 and later drop out of high school. But since age 19, she’s been on the slow, but steady educational path toward her lifelong goal of becoming an immigration attorney.
“It’s been a rough road for us with lots of ups and downs, but I keep pushing myself,” she said. “I have a responsibility to show my daughter that as a Chicana I can be empowered and I can do it.”
Hernandez is one of nearly 1,800 MiraCosta students graduating this year. The college selected her as this evening’s featured speaker after reading an essay on her path to college.
Like her three siblings, Hernandez was born in Oceanside to parents from Mexico. Her father had legal status, her mother did not. She was 5 years old when the family ended up living in a car first in the San Diego area, then Nevada and eventually Mexico.
She remembers being hungry, not having water to drink, not going to school and watching her parents fight. When they drove to Tijuana out of desperation, Hernandez said her mother’s long-in-the-works application for U.S. residency was voided.
Twenty years later, she still hasn’t achieved legal status. Hernandez said her mother’s situation was one of the reasons she decided to become an immigration attorney.
“These people are here because they want a better future for themselves and their children and I feel like I could help people,” she said.
Hernandez’s older sister, Elizabeth, 29, said even in those early days when they were homeless, she remembers Liliana taking about being a lawyer.
“She would put shoulder pads in her clothing like the suits lawyers wore and we would all just laugh,” said Elizabeth Hernandez, a mother of two in Vista. “She was so determined.”
Eventually, their parents split up and the children and their mother ended up in a women’s shelter in Oceanside, which Liliana said was the first stable environment that she could remember. She enrolled in school and did very well in gifted and honors programs, but things began to go downhill in middle school.
She struggled with depression and began fighting with her mom. “I ended up taking 50 extra-strength Tylenol because I wanted to be done and not wake up anymore,” she said.
She ended up at Rady Children’s Hospital with liver damage but recovered. A year later, she got kicked out of the house and moved in with an aunt. In high school, she began skipping classes, started drinking and hung out with a bad crowd. Eventually, she dropped out and wouldn’t complete her diploma until she was 19.
Elizabeth said she understands why her sister struggled so much during her teen years. “With what Liliana and I went through as kids, we shouldn’t be here. To see her overcome everything — the depression, the teenage suicidal thoughts — is really amazing.”
In her early 20s, Liliana gave up on attending college to work in the insurance industry to help support herself, her daughter and her husband, from whom she has recently separated.
One of the friends she met eight years ago in the insurance industry is Artemio Olivas, who said Hernandez had a lot on her plate but always showed up to work every day in good spirits.
“If there is one thing about Lili that has really stood out to me over the years, it is her willingness and keen ability to be deeply self-reflexive about her own life,” Olivas said.
“When we spoke, I often noticed that Lili was both deeply emotionally present in her remembering of the past and yet objectively distant. This struck me as impressive and notably mature. In some ways, I feel that her ability to reflect on the hardships of her past in this way helped her to process the blame, resentment, and sorrow that experiences like hers so often produce, and instead allowed for those experiences to emanate from her person as humble office dreams that imagined something different, something more, and that today are materializing into the success she is now deservedly experiencing,” Olivas said.
Hernandez said she was 24 when she decided to stop putting off her goals and enroll at MiraCosta College. Today, she will graduate with an associate arts degree in social and behavioral science.
Juggling school, a job and family took an irreversible toll on her marriage. Nonetheless, Hernandez said she’s determined to stick with her plan to transfer in the fall to Cal State San Marcos, where she plans to earn a communications degree and then attend law school.
“I can take my daughter to school with me when I’m studying,” she said. “I want her to be inspired and see that even though we didn’t grow up with money you can find strength in yourself to achieve what you want.”
Elizabeth calls her younger sister “a fearless warrior woman” for doggedly pursuing her education despite all the obstacles in her path.
“She’s my idol, she’s the core of our family and she has more strength than anybody I’ve ever known,” Elizabeth said. “I have no doubt she will accomplish everything she’s dreamed of. No words can explain how proud I am of her.”
Article by Pam Kragen of the San Diego Union Tribune.