"I didn't consider myself a hero. I did what anyone should have done. Heroes are people who spend a lifetime committed to helping others. I was just a twenty-year-old intern who happened to be in the right place at the right time."
That's how Daniel Hernandez, now 22, begins his memoir about how he helped Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords the day she was shot in a shopping center just north of Tucson. The simply written memoir, titled They Call Me a Hero (with co-author Susan Goldman Rubin) is directed to younger readers, and serves as a fascinating document of what it's like to be young, Latino, and gay in 21st century America.
Beginning with the recounting of those events that catapulted him to national fame, Hernandez (who was photographed and honored as a hero in the 2011 Out100) goes on to detail the attention (and insanity) of the media, issues with his body weight, and how he came out to friends and family, while remaining actively involved in local and college politics. Coincidentally, his book comes out the same day as another bestseller by a Hispanic writer, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is seen as the foremost face of the current "Latin moment."
It's now surprise that Hernandez is still involved in politics—he's currently on the school board for a district in Tucson, Arizona—and when we caught up with him, he had just left Washington, D.C., after President Obama's inauguration, on which he was working. He was still excited at having met Kelly Clarkson, who performed for staff as a 'thank you' for all their hard work. So we started by asking him about the impact of having a gay Latino poet be such a high-profile part of the big day.
"The amazing thing in how normal it was and how little of a deal was made of it," Hernandez replied. "It wasn’t as if he was introduced as the 'first gay Latino poet.' It was: Here’s Richard Blanco. Those of us who are Latino and gay, you have this existentional crisis all the time. Are you more Latino? Or more gay? It's this or that. So it was great to have someone profiled in such a historic way."
Hernandez says he had previously made a conscious decision not to get involved in the gun safety debate, despite his close call with a man who shot innocents in public. "I’m gonna be really honest, it was a really different time for me," he explains. "I didn’t want people to accuse me of politicizing an awful awful event. But after Newtown, and being a school board member, it hit so close to home. I don't think any of us—even those of us who are very conservative—can sit back and do nothing."
Hernandez is also frank about how difficult a process it was to write the book. The publisher Simon & Schuster wanted him to work with a co-writer since it was his first book, and he said at times they were confused about word choice, especially when it dealt with gay issues.
"Drag queen was used in the book, and they wondered, Should we really be using that word in a book for kids. 'It’s on RuPaul’s Drag Race,' I told them!" he says. "But they’re not used to thinking about word choices like. Even using LGBT for everything; it can be a good phrase at times, but it doesn’t really go with the narrative. I said, 'You could just say gay.' But they thought that might be offensive to people. People are going to be offended by the use of the word gay? I was learning things, they were learning things. But overall, it worked out really well. I think Simon & Schuster learned something about Latinos and gay people and hopefully it will help normalize things: There's not too much out there that explains what young gay people go through in high school. And I hope there will be other authors who can publish books and have an easier time of it." [READ AN EXCERPT FROM THE FIRST CHAPTER HERE]
Below: The photograph by Gavin Bond of Daniel Hernandez for 2011 Out100