This story is the fourth of the Broken Ladders series, exploring why so many in Fresno can’t climb out of poverty and what different organizations are doing to help create better job pathways. The series is made possible with support from the James Irvine Foundation.
Miguel Hernandez could easily be dismissed as someone who is programmed to fail because of his childhood which he describes as “surrounded by a lot of chaos.” His mother was an addict and his father absent; his grandparents who raised him were laborers, and with low income and long hours in their jobs, they were left with not too much time to devote to guiding him.
He recalls “there was kind of a lot of stuff going on,” when he was growing up. “A lot of fights would happen. A lot of them (uncles, aunts and cousins living in the same household) kind of had their own issues in their own lives as far as drug abuse, alcohol abuse, issues with the law,” Hernandez said. “So sometimes, fights will break out in the front yard, back yard.”
On one occasion, “I had a family member overdosing inside the house when I was in the room with her, but she ended up recovering, but situations like that were kind of rough.”
His troubles, which were percolating throughout his childhood, boiled over in his teen years, and he transitioned to an alternative high school.
“I got sent there for selling alcohol and drugs and getting in fights,” he said.
‘It was just a bad state of my life’
Things got even rougher once he graduated high school, Hernandez said.
“My grandmother was going through cancer. We all knew she was passing away soon,” he said. “And my life was kind of going through a spiral at the time. I was kind of like, more or less, reaching out to see what I can let out – aggression and just kind of running outside, just hanging out with the wrong crowd, being involved with selling drugs, and robbing houses and those kinds of things.”
“I was drinking a lot at the time and getting high, and it was just a bad state of my life.” He would get arrested and bailed out and then arrested again, until Dec. 11, 2019 when he was arrested for residential burglary.
“I had broken into somebody’s house and drove away and the police were searching for me. And they ended up going to my house because of license plates and all that stuff. And that’s where they took me in at the time,” Hernandez said. “I was facing four to six years in federal prison.”
He was 18 years old and would be facing an adult prison sentence if convicted. Hernandez said this terrified him and he was, for the first time, willing to do whatever it took to not lose his freedom.
While locked up in jail, he learned many hard lessons. “I was seeing some of the cases they (inmates) were fighting, and seeing how heartbroken some of them were, and how some people just didn’t care because they seemed to be enjoying the spiral.” In jail, he would have to do certain things, like being part of certain gangs, “depending on your race or where you’re from.”
‘I’m going to not see my family for a long time’
Then the realization, “My grandparents didn’t raise me to live like this; they taught me so much better. They wouldn’t want me to go out like this,” he said. “But at the time, it’s just like, when you’re going through stuff, it’s kind of hard to see the clear picture.”
So when prosecutors offered a deal, he saw that as a lifeline. He would have to prove himself – “like getting jobs, staying out of trouble, all that kind of stuff,” he said. “I got some money together, so we managed to bail me out, and I was fighting my case, outside, like on the streets.”
He worked hard to get a job and go to alcohol and drug abuse classes and do therapy. It all paid off. Hernandez got a job at a temp agency and got probation for three years.
What made the difference? Hernandez said it was “knowing that I’m missing out on my girlfriend’s birthday; I missed out on my little sister’s birthday; I’m going to miss out on Christmas; I’m going to not see my family for a long time.”
The effects of the choices he made earlier lingered when he searched for jobs. “I still got denied a lot; it got even worse, to the point where they’ll look up your background before you’re in the interview, and they’ll cancel the interview before you even get through, before I had the chance to go in and kind of sell myself a little bit more to help myself out.”
While working at the temp agency, someone there, who was tasked with helping people who had been in trouble with the law, connected him with the Bitwise pre-apprentice program. “They let me know that it’s free for people who had been previously in trouble with the law or incarcerated – that kind of demographic,” he said.
Hernandez started with a pre-apprenticeship and entered the apprenticeship in 2020, just before the pandemic.
“It was really difficult. But thankfully, it’s one of those things, one of those challenges that you want to keep going on towards, like, ‘Well, I’ve made it this far, I think I can make it to the next step, too,’” he said. “And then, this class comes up, and I’m like, ‘Whoa, this is a lot of stuff I don’t know anything about, but I’ve made it this far. I know I can do it.’
“I’m surrounded by great people. The teachers were really supportive. Setting up after-school study groups, and it was just all perfect. I had all the tools around me to make it work. So I just had to put in my effort.”
His hard work paid off. Hernandez completed the program in December 2020 and was hired full time at the beginning of 2021. His finances improved dramatically, and he is finally meeting his needs and those of his family. But he says it is more than just finances.
“Now, I have something to teach other people. I did have a chance to be a co-teacher in a couple of classes which also had people with felonies and misdemeanors and people who have been previously incarcerated. And I was able to help inspire them and kind of give them my two cents,” he said.
“I’m also giving speeches here and there in other classrooms, telling them my story and trying to inspire them and let them know that, ‘Hey, we’ve all been through something, but you know, we can also make it.’”