'My Job is Trying to Make Chicago the Most Immigrant-Friendly City in the World'

Adolfo Hernández, 29, was named Chicago’s Director of the Office of New Americans in December. Hernández’s parents immigrated to the United States at young ages— equipped with the determination to support their families in Mexico. The sacrifices they made and struggles they endured while going from undocumented to naturalized citizens has inspired Hernández’s commitment to community work.

Today, as he works to bridge the various perspectives on immigration in Chicago,  Hernández hopes to transform the conversation and build more effective policy.

Andrea: Why did your parents come to the United States?

Adolfo: “My dad has 10 siblings and grew up on a small farm. It’s beautiful, but there wasn’t an abundance of food, or money when he was growing up. So basically all the older brothers, my dad and the two older guys, they moved away so they could send money back and support the other siblings and my grandparents. He came in the early 70’s on a visa and actually overstayed his welcome when he came here. (laughs) He worked as a taquero and now one of my uncles owns a taqueria on the southwest side, El Pastor.

My mom is a very similar story. She grew up in Durango. She was one of the older siblings; she came here when she was 16 or 17 years old and started working, cleaning houses. They both had really rough experiences in the U.S. initially. They’ve both become naturalized citizens, and they love it here but each of them goes back at least once a year since the time I was born. I go back at least once a year—and they make sure I go back. When I was a kid I didn’t appreciate going there. But in retrospect, it was so incredible to spend that much time every single year in the place where my parents grew up. I probably had 30 cousins growing up, so if you could imagine 30, 10-year-olds running around on a farm it was a really great environment.

I still feel so incredibly connected to it. I always tell people I would only live in two places—Chicago and my family’s farm in Jalisco, because it feels like home. I grew up there a quarter of the time I grew up here. And I still have a ton of family, way more there than here.”

Andrea: What was growing up the son of immigrants like and why did you stay in Chicago?

Adolfo: “I grew up in Little Village—you don’t really need to leave the neighborhood for anything. You don’t even need to speak English in that neighborhood. For me this ‘fitting-in’ didn’t really come into play until I entered high school. Little Village felt like this controlled, safe environment where everyone speaks Spanish, everyone has family, or is a person that recently moved here. That’s part of what makes that neighborhood great—there is freshness there because everyone keeps coming in from Mexico.

I loved growing up there. I went to high school in this city; I went to grammar school in this city; and I went to college in this city. Part of the reason I want to stay here is that I want to do work to help the city. I just remember all these youth basketball programs, or people my mom took an English class from for free when she was becoming a citizen. I just think of all that work someone was doing for them. That idea of serving your city, your community is important to me. I know it’s important to my parents.”

Andrea: What does the word immigrant mean to you?

Adolfo: “I think of that word three different ways, firstly thinking what does it mean to me, but I couldn’t get there without thinking of the national context. The word has this horrible connotation attached to it—like criminal, or illegal, or some other sort of violence or crime… we’re like the worst of the worst from other countries. But then I thought about the actual term. And finally I got back to what it means to me—I associate that term with family because everyone I know: my parents, uncles, [and] my friends’ parents, they moved here to support their families. 

I think of brave, family, strong, risk-takers, entrepreneurial, hard-working and willing to sacrifice themselves. This duty to your family and to aspire for something more is incredible to me. I think about my 17-year-old mom coming here on her own, not speaking a word of English, and that’s incredibly brave. Her sense of sacrifice for her family—I think that’s incredible. I think that’s the typical immigrant story; dreaming of something better not only for themselves but for their family.

But I recognize that may be incredibly different, at least, from what the national perception of the word is. 

I constantly think about how to take back that term, it’s a really interesting question, whether it’s doable, or do we just find a new word to come up with?”

Andrea: What’s been the biggest challenge for your parents living in the United States or Chicago?

Adolfo: “Just hearing of their stories and the coyotes and how my dad was the one going back and forth and hearing how dangerous it was then. Then when my dad hears stories of how dangerous it is now, he basically advises people that it’s not worth it to come without any sort of documentation or legal status.

There are also all these little things that I guess you don’t realize are tough, or think about when you’re a child. It was all normal. I remember calling my mom and dad at work when I was seven or eight years old. This didn’t dawn on me until a couple of years ago—when I called them at work I didn’t ask for them by their real names because they were working under other identities. In the moment you don’t think that’s weird, but in retrospect it’s incredibly weird to call your dad at work and ask for someone other than him.

I think my parents did an incredible job of sheltering me from that and keeping me away from knowing there was a danger of one of them leaving. I’m sure the weight on them was incredible…the thought of me calling and making a mistake, just how difficult that must’ve been. I also remember translating for them at the bank—I mean a seven-year-old probably shouldn’t be translating for parents at a bank during an official transaction. Things have gotten so much better, like being able to get service in Spanish everywhere.”

Andrea: And for you?

Adolfo: “I don’t think it’s been as challenging for me because of the safety net my family provided. An interesting thing though, the first time I heard myself recorded I realized I had a bit of an accent. I remember asking colleagues, and they were like ‘Yeah you have an accent!’ But when I was in Little Village all of the kids had an accent. I never heard it. I think that’s another reason why I love this city particularly, because we’re a city with such a strong immigrant history.

My job now is trying to make the city the most immigrant-friendly city in the world. Even without this office, historically we’ve been an incredibly immigrant-friendly city. It’s really great to have that opportunity to do that from a policy perspective because it’s already been happening from the bottom-up anyway. It’s great to have these two sides working together to try to reach the same goal.”

Andrea: How do you carry your family and background with you?

Adolfo: “Well, it’s the accent. (laughs) But it is things like that. The first language I spoke was in Spanish and I was in bilingual education until the fourth grade. I still speak Spanish everyday. My parents really heavily, heavily stressed, speaking Spanish and eating traditional Mexican food that they grew up eating and sending me to Mexico on a regular basis.

I don’t carry a physical or tangible thing but that farm and my family’s experiences are a part of every decision I make, and how I perceive the world around me. It’s part of me and there’s no way I can put it down.”

Check back Monday for audio extras of Adolfo’s interview. Want to join the conversation? Find us on Facebook or share a profile via Instagram.

Voices Beyond Borders documents the experiences of immigrants and migrants from all walks of life in New York City and Chicago. Our central aim is to foster a greater understanding of these communities in our two cities.

We want to foster a democratic exchange of storytelling — open, honest and sincere.

We encourage submissions from anywhere in the U.S, as well as abroad. Please contact us if you would like to contribute: borderlessvoices@gmail.com.

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