While Daniel Hernandez, Jr.the openly gay intern who has been widely credited with saving the life of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in the tragic shooting in Tucson, Ariz., last monthmay not consider himself to be a hero, one would have been hard-pressed to find anyone else in attendance at the National Conference of the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute (USHLI), held Feb. 17-20 at the Sheraton in downtown Chicago, who matched the 21-year-old's modesty.
Featured as the guest speaker for the Feb. 19 luncheon at the conference, Hernandez told Windy City Times that, while he was honored to be invited to the 29th annual event directed toward students and young professionals of Hispanic heritage, he was anxious to hop on his flight home to return to his commitments there.
While admitting that he is recognized on the street more often these days, he said his life largely remains focused on his studies and continuing internship with Giffords' office rather than media appearances. He's also in the midst of a political campaign of his ownrunning for student body president of the University of Arizonawhich began several months before the tragic event that launched him into the national spotlight.
"Other than being recognized, nothing has really changed," Hernandez said. "I'm still at the University of Arizona, I'm still an intern with the congressional office of Congresswoman Giffords, so I haven't let it change too much. I'm sure I could have let it get out of hand but I've made a concerted effort to try and make sure that I stay as normal as possible so still an intern, still a student."
The "as possible" caveat to that statement is an important one to note for the man who, last month, celebrated his birthday while sitting next to First Lady Michelle Obama for the president's State of the Union address, where he was also recognized with a standing ovation.
But despite all the attention, Hernandez said he is limiting the number of opportunities he will accept in order to maintain a sense of normalcy in his life. He said he said "yes" to the USHLI conference because of the organization's emphasis on the importance of education.
Introducing Hernandez at the luncheon, USHLI President Dr. Juan Andrade described the student as someone who had "won the hearts of millions and millions of people across this country" in how he responded to the Tucson shooting tragedy.
In a press conference preceding the luncheon, U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., noted Hernandez's "extraordinary courage." Durbin was on hand to receive the Institute's Si Se Puede Award.
"Years and years ago, I was an intern for a United States senator and there was never any job training that suggested I would face what you went through," Durbin said. "What he lacked in training, he made up for in instinct, an instinct that he showed in Tucson of caring enough to risk his own life to try to protect others says a lot about him, his family and what his service and commitment that day in Tucson means in the future."
Addressing the conference attendees, Hernandez spoke of his experience as a first-generation college student within his family and encouraged high school students, in particular, to continue on to higher education and work hard to "be a first-rate version of yourself, not a second rate version of someone else"advice he said he received from a fortune cookie.
"When I see the people that are here, the majority of them are where I was not too long agoit was three or four years ago that I probably would have been in the exact same position they're in," Hernandez said. "I'm talking to them about the importance of getting an education and also not letting yourself get put into any boxes. Once you start letting others define you, that's when you start kind of losing who you are. I think it's a simple message that bears repeating."
Hernandez added that he is hopeful that the LGBT and Hispanic activist communities will pursue their legislative prioritiesincluding, but not limited to issues including marriage equality and comprehensive immigration reformin concert moving forward.
"One of the things that I think a lot of people have realized is that when we work together, we're a lot stronger than when we're kind of fighting our own fights because there's a lot of overlap for a lot of these things," Hernandez said.
Also present at the luncheon were U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, Cook County States Attorney Anita Alvarez, state Rep. and Chicago City Clerk hopeful Susana Mendoza and former U.S. Ambassador to Belize Carolyn Curiel. Gutierrez was recognized with the Edward R. Roybal/Henry B. Gonalez Award for Excellence in Public Service.