By Carolina Canizales
Victor Hugo Hernandez-Jayme came to San Antonio to escape the climate of organized crime in Torreón, the industrial city in northern Mexico where he was born and raised. His ambitions, however, have propelled him well beyond his own personal safety and education. Hernandez, a standout student at UTSA, has become a nationally recognized voice for those who can't escape Mexico's drug cartel war.
“I am a writer: I write, and I sadly don’t have time to participate in as many student organizations as I'd wish to,” Hernandez said when asked to talk about his life at UTSA.
Hernandez has set his sights higher, and that ambition paid off handsomely last month when “The Uniformed Merchants of Death,” his essay linking U.S. consumer drug consumption and cartel-related violence in Mexico, won second place in the prestigious 2012 Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics Contest, sponsored by the Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. Elie Wiesel, 84, is a Transylvania-born Holocaust and Nazi concentration camp survivor whose work earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.
Hernandez, a junior with a double major in English and Business, is the first in UTSA’s history to win such recognition and only the second Texan to place in the competition.
Before coming here, Hernandez, 21, attended the college of business at Teconológico de Monterrey, one of Mexico's top ranked universities. While studying finance, Hernandez became more alarmed by the deteriorating security situation in a city once known only for its industrial and private sector prowess.
“Monterrey was becoming more unstable and very dangerous,” he said. "The first major change from moving from northern Mexico to the U.S. is a vast sense of safety. This exudes from people, the culture, and of course, the institutions of the United States."
By August, 2010, Hernandez had won his family's blessing to come north to complete his education. Like many Mexican nationals, he knew San Antonio from visits to the city's tourist attractions and shopping venues. He also had friends attending UTSA. Most important, he was awarded the school's Border County Scholarship, which allows international students to pay in-state tuition. The innovative, needs-based program requires recipients to return to Mexico after graduation.
Once in San Antonio, Hernandez, a confident writer in his native Spanish, found his language skills tested as he struggled with grammar. Fortunately, Hernandez said, he encountered Dr. Steven Kellman, a published author and professor of comparative literature at UTSA, who taught him “. . . everything he knows about English.”
"Victor is a student of a bountiful talents and wide-ranging interests and curiosity," Kellman said. "His keen ethical sensibility has been appropriately recognized by the Wiesel Award. His accomplishments are all the more impressive in that he has been working in a second language and in a country where he was not born."
Hernandez's writing bears the journalistic traces of his past. His father is a past recipient of the Mexican National Prize in journalism for his work on the network news program, "60 Minutes." Hernandez became a member of the editorial team at the Paisano, UTSA's independent newspaper, upon his arrival at school. His position as features editor has helped him hone his English writing skills.
“I am very fortunate to see both sides of the argument," Hernandez said, commenting on his essay. "I have a tremendous responsibility with my country Mexico, I notice the injustice and suffering, and knowing that there are so many people in such situations empowers me to be a voice for the struggle."
The Mexican drug problem is also an American problem, one actually shared by many other nations in the hemisphere. Hernandez challenges the notion of a military or enforcement solution, arguing that changes in U.S. consumer habits would have a greater effect.
"Our purchasing power is the most direct tool to trigger change, and it should not only be used to foster development, but it should first be used to prevent suffering," he said.
Hernandez travels to New York in September to accept his award. Meeting Wiesel will be a life changing experience for Hernandez, who related to the foreign-born humanitarian. Both came to America from another country, and both brought a different perspective on injustice elsewhere in the world.
Hernandez returned to his native Torreón for a bittersweet visit this summer. His love of Mexico is undiminished, but it's impossible to sidestep the widespread poverty and the great wealth of just a few.
"Just a semester ago, I took a friend, a German foreign-exchange student at UTSA, with me to Mexico," Hernandez said. "If anything, we were only worried about being shot—with tequila shots that is. People in northern Mexico have tragically become accustomed to living in fear. Part of the Mexican lifestyle is to wish and plan as if the future will be better."
Hernandez will spend the second half of his summer break at Harvard. Once back at UTSA he wants to complete a novel as his thesis, hopefully in the Honors College. He desires to launch a new campus organization called AMIGOS, (short for American and Mexican Initiative for Global Objectives to Our Society). His goal is to raise awareness among American drug consumers of the harmful social effects brought about by drug consumption.
Connect with Victor Hernandez through Facebook.
Carolina Canizales is a Rivard Report intern who graduated from UTSA with honors in May. She is a DREAMer active nationally in the movement to win the children of undocumented immigrants legal status to live and work in the United States. You can read her first person exploration of the issue here.