LIFESTYLE

Tony Hernandez and the Immigrant Archive Project: Documenting the Immigrant Experience

Tony Hernandez, more than anyone, knows what brings Latinos together – and what doesn't.

"If an Argentinian, a Mexican and a Puerto Rican are in a room – you're probably going to need a translator," said Hernandez, founder of the Immigrant Archive Project. "Language separates us. Music can divide us. 

"But what clearly unites us is the immigrant experience," he continued. "Everyone knows what it's like to say goodbye to their family members."

Hernandez, the owner of the Latino Broadcasting Corporation, started the Immigrant Archive Project (IAP) website to preserve the stories of immigrants from many different countries and a variety of ethnicities. The national initiative has drawn the attention of many different groups who hope to showcase their stories across print, radio and television.

But the inspiration for the IAP is not rooted in the United States. The idea was borne of hardship, on the shores of Cuba, as a revolutionary named Fidel Castro came to power.

Hernandez was born in 1962, three years into Castro's reign. 

"He was making his presence felt," he said of the Cuban leader. "He had instituted food rationing."  

When he was 5-years-old, little Tony suffered from a calcium deficiency. Doctors told his parents that the milk he was getting from the milk rationing program was not enough. 

"He courageously did what any father would do," Hernandez said of Guillermo Hernandez. 

"He went to the black market and bought milk for his son," Tony Hernandez continued. "Not milk that he stole – he paid for it." 

The proud father spent only a month in jail because he had friends on the outside who expedited his release. But the incident was the last straw for the Hernandez family; they left their homeland and headed to the United States as political refugees.

That leap of faith, however, was fraught with other challenges. Guillermo Hernandez had a third grade education; his wife only completed the eighth grade. Moreover, Tony Hernandez says that they had no marketable skills and couldn't speak the language, not unlike millions of other immigrants of different nationalities and ethnicities.

"They just came here and worked. Their work ethic was exemplary," he said of his parents, including Guillermo, who worked two full-time jobs seven days a week.

Hernandez says these experiences shaped him and his future profoundly.

"It marked me and affected everything I've done ever since," he said.

And what he's done since is build the IAP out of a small initiative that began by recording the stories of Cuban immigrants to one that has grown into a national vehicle to chronicle the immigrant experience in the United States.

In a 2009 podcast called Latincast, Hernandez said that at this point in our history an immigrant-focused project is very much needed. That need has grown, he believes, as a way to humanize a group that is being portrayed much differently than the immigrant he knows.

"The immigrant is being portrayed a certain way in the national media," Hernandez said. "It couldn't be further from the truth from what I've seen. At the dinner table, in the community, our friends, our family, our neighbors. 

"The immigrant experience is about a tremendous amount of courage, hope and perseverance through great struggle," he added. "They're no longer faceless or nameless. It's a group that has sacrificed to provide opportunities to their sons and daughters. At the end of the day that is what has built the country."

immigration laws in 2011

Actor, producer and director, Edward James Olmos, is one of the immigrants who has told his story to the Immigrant Archive Project.

And he stresses that the project is apolitical. 

"This is not in a political context.," Hernandez said. "I want to let the stories speak for themselves. If the average American heard this story the perception of what an immigrant is would change."

Hernandez says that he sees common threads in the stories of immigrants from all different countries.

"People say, 'When I'm in the U.S. I feel very Mexican or very Cuban,'" he said, adding that immigrants feel Latino in the U.S. but are made to feel American in their countries of birth.

"It's as if they inhabit this imaginary country with a brown flag, which is no longer their home country and no longer the U.S.," he said.

For his part, Hernandez became an American citizen later in his life. 

"When I was finally sworn in as a naturalized citizen I raised my right hand and carried my daughter, who was a toddler, in my left," he said. "It took me a while, not because I didn’t feel compelled. I was literally taken in by this country when my own country turned its back on us.

"But I was torn by a self-identity issue," he admitted. "I never felt not American, but always felt very Cuban." 

The IAP has north of 300 stories on its site and uses social media in the form of a Facebook fan page, which has more than 6,500 fans, and a YouTube channel with some of the stories. 

Hernandez is also trying to form national partnerships to distribute the content to complement his LBC radio network. He says stories on the radio reach 80 percent of the U.S. Hispanic market.

In February, he also met with PBS to discuss bringing the IAP to television. The talks centered on short two-minute versions of the stories as well as a possible IAP documentary with the channel; they are in the process of interviewing possible producers for the project. 

Further, a partnership for print distribution of IAP content is in the works with ImpreMedia, the company that owns El Diario/La Prensa and La Opinion, Spanish-language newspapers in New York and Los Angeles, respectively. The content would run in print and online. It is set for a summer launch.

Hernandez says choosing his favorite IAP story is like choosing his favorite daughter – he can't do it. But some interview subjects stick out in his mind. 

Lincoln García, 95, is one such person. He is oldest person ever to be interviewed for IAP.

Sadly, García died on January 25, 2010. On the anniversary earlier this year, Hernandez received a phone call from Garcia's daughter, Miriam, who wanted to thank him for taking down his story.

"She told me about how much comfort they have watching the story, and how its important for his grandchildren," he said.

"When they're older," Tony recalled her saying, "they will understand." 

Check out our slideshow to see the Faces of the Immigrant Archive Project. 

Contact Adrian Carrasquillo at Adrian.Carrasquillo@foxnewslatino.com or on Twitter @RealAdrianC.

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