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Tony Hernandez clearly recalls the exact day - Nov. 17, 1967 - that he and his parents left their native Cuba to come to the United States.
And he clearly recalls what prompted them to leave - his father recently had been jailed. His crime: Buying milk for five-year-old Tony.
Stories like that of the Hernandez family are not unusual. Over the years millions of Latinos have come to the United States to build better lives for themselves and their families. Now, Hernandez, Class of '84 and president and chief executive officer of the Latino Broadcasting Co., is leading the Immigrant Archive Project, an independent nationwide effort to record Latino immigrants' stories of struggle, sacrifice and triumph.
"With the immigration debate raging, I thought it would be a good time to help people understand what Latinos of all nationalities and all age groups have gone through to come to the United States," Hernandez said. "We want to put a face and a soul to what so far has been a faceless entity."
Project quickly grew
The project was begun in late 2008 by recording audio interviews in immigrants. After hearing the first stories, Hernandez and others involved in the work quickly realized the project was much bigger than they had anticipated. They decided to videotape the interviews and open the project to Latinos of all nationalities.
By late 2009, the Immigrant Archive Project had recorded about 225 interviews with people ranging in age from 8 to 96.
"It was obvious from the very beginning that everybody has a story," Hernandez said. "Most of the stories, you listen to them and you're just floored."
It's difficult to be unmoved by the stories:
"One story after another is inspiring," Hernandez said.
Spreading the word
As more stories are recorded, the Immigrant Archive Project is preparing to share them through mass media, traveling educational programs and art exhibits.
"We hope to use the stories academically as a true oral history project, so when people look back many years from now, they can have an understanding of what the Latino immigration experience was like," Hernandez said. "We also want to use these materials in education. They're very valuable testimonies to foster tolerance and understanding of what the Latino immigrant is all about," he said.
One way the stories will be told is through the Latino Broadcasting Co., a Spanish-language radio network based in Miami that provides programming to more than 100 affiliate stations. Hernandez - who majored in Communicating Arts at UW-Superior -- founded the company in 1996 after a stint as vice president of ESPN Latin America.
Producers are editing interviews to be aired on radio. Hernandez hopes to also provide interviews to Hispanic television networks, and he's talking to HBO about a possible documentary film.
Popular on Facebook
The Immigrant Archive Project also is gaining traction through the Internet. Many interviews can be viewed on the project's website. Its Facebook page - available by looking up "Immigrant Archive Project fan page" -- is popular with viewers in Latin America as well as, curiously, India and England.
How long the Immigrant Archive Project may continue is open to question. Hernandez is trying to find sponsors to make it self-sustaining. He also hopes to broaden it by opening the project to Asian and African immigrants, who, he said, have their own compelling stories to tell.
While he's hoping the Immigrant Archive Project will inform and educate people today, Hernandez also wants it to become a legacy for future generations of Latinos.
"The people of my parents' generation were clearly members of our greatest generation, particularly in the Cuban community. They were the generation that literally left everything behind for the sake of their children's future," he said. "It would be a travesty to lose those stories. I see it as a responsibility my generation has to save those stories so my children's generation and their children's generation can understand the sacrifices made so they can live in the greatest country in the world."
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