‘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.