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Among the 22 people invited to attend President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night are notable people from the fields of business, politics, science and medicine, as well as some who have overcome great hardship in their lives.
Sitting alongside the first lady will be Alan Gross, the Maryland man who returned home last month after five years imprisoned in Cuba, his wife, Judy, who never stopped pushing for his release, the astronaut Scott Kelly and the top executive of CVS Health, Larry Merlo.
So will be four Latinos, each with a fascinating story behind how they came to be part of the select group.
This is who they are:
Victor Fugate of Butler, Missouri, is a worker at the Missouri Department of Mental Health. He first wrote Obama three years ago, telling him how he went from being an unemployed new father to getting his degree to helping low-income patients obtain medical care.
“As a Christian and a health care worker, people automatically assume that we can only be Republicans,” he wrote in a letter to the president. “I believe, regardless of the political party, we can all do something to help our citizens to have a chance at a job, have food in their stomachs, and to have access to great education/health care.”
Fugate said that he was only able to complete his education thanks to an Obama program that caps monthly student loan payments. "I'm hoping that by me getting involved, it will ... show people that they need to stand up for these issues too," Fugate told a Kansas City television station.
In July, Fugate introduced the president at an event at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City last year.
Another guest is the climate-change and sea-level researcher, Nicole Hernandez Hammer, a Guatemalan immigrant who now lives in South Florida.
As assistant director for research at the Florida Center for Environmental Studies, her work looks at how cities and other areas most vulnerable to the effects of climate change also tend to have large Hispanic populations.
“We Latinos have this special concern and care for the environment,” Hernandez Hammer told a reporter for the Sierra Club recently, “and that’s what’s being identified in the polls. The fact is when I talk with my family about climate change, they know what I am talking about.”
Her research field is one that hits close to home.
“Miami, which is almost 70 percent Latino,” she said, “is the world’s most vulnerable city to sea level rise.”
Also sitting with the first lady will be Ana Zamora, 21, of Dallas.
Zamora was brought from Mexico to the United States illegally as a 1-year-old and has benefited under Obama's program to defer deportations for eligible immigrants.
She wrote Obama in the fall to thank him for adopting policies that have allowed her and her family to stay in the U.S. “I was blown away. I’m humbled,” Zamora told the Dallas Morning News. “I never thought that a letter to the president would welcome me to the White House.”
A senior at Northwood University in Cedar Hill, Texas, Zamora is majoring in business administration and expects to graduate this May, in part thanks to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program started in 2012, which has allowed her to work legally, get a driver’s license and a Social Security card.
Both of Zamora’s younger siblings were born in the U.S., so her parents—a small-business owner and a construction worker—qualify for deportation protection under the executive actions that Obama announced in November.
The Bronx-born Anthony Mendez is just a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Hartford in Connecticut, but he has certainly known his share of troubles.
According to the New York Daily News, as a high school freshman, his best friend, Johnny Moore, was shot and killed in an argument that spilled over from a basketball game. The following year, his family was evicted from their apartment and spent 6 months living in a Brooklyn homeless shelter. Mendez had to rise at 4:30 a.m. to get to his school in the Bronx.
“It was frustrating and hard to be in school and stay focused after (Johnny’s) passing and being poor and living in a shelter, not being able to buy clothes,” he told the Daily News.
His striking perseverance brought him to the Capitol last year, when he was invited to a round-table discussion Michelle Obama for people who’ve overcome challenges growing up.
His date will be his mom, Evelyn. “I’m excited for him,” she told the Daily News. “He was like, ‘Mom, you’re nervous.’ I think he’s the one that’s nervous, not me!”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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