McAllen native Israel Hernandez spent his summers in elementary and junior high working in fields as a migrant farm worker. He traveled to farms across the country with his mother.
He picked all kinds of produce — strawberries, blueberries, watermelons. He remembers picking corn one day in Illinois at the age of 13, pausing and telling his mother that he wasn’t going to spend the rest of his life toiling in a field.
“I told her, ‘Mom, you know what? I don’t want to do this all my life, I don’t want to do this’’ Hernandez, now 49, said. “And then she told me, ‘OK son, I know, just keep moving forward.’”
Hernandez kept those words close to him ever since. More than 30 years later, he turned them in to the title of his first book, “Keep Moving Forward – Discover the 7 Keys to Transform Your Life.”
The book leads readers through multiple plans to success, including making commitments of yourself, disciplining yourself and developing positive habits.
Hernandez said that his rough background helped him become well versed in these virtues. He lived in an impoverished community all of his life — in fact, he can name every colonia in the area.
After dropping out of high school, he said he got involved with gangs, which led to a life surrounded by drugs and violence. He started doing drugs in his 20s and was given 10 years of probation after being caught with cocaine; later he was sent to a military boot camp for a year, then jail for another.
“I’ve been through a lot of stuff,” he said. “I’ve seen my brother shot, my sister shot. I’ve been in drive-bys.”
To turn his life around, Hernandez said that he had to leave his past behind. At 34, he moved to San Antonio seeking a fresh start. There, he joined a local Toastmasters chapter which became a surrogate family to the troubled transplant.
“They mentored me and listened to my story, and they were amazed,” he said. “When people think about gang members, the first thing people imagine are people with tattoos all over their back, neck, their arms. I don’t have any tattoos at all.”
Toastmasters is an international nonprofit that teaches public speaking and leadership skills. Hernandez has been a part of the San Antonio chapter for six years, and said that he will be recognized this year as a Distinguished Toastmaster — the highest honor a member could attain.
After telling his story for the first time to the club, a friend encouraged him to write a book, but Hernandez was hesitant.
“I felt intimidated because in the group we have doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, entrepreneurs, and I felt intimidated because they were professionals,” he said. “But I knew that I had a story, and that I wanted to tell it.”
After two years of writing, the 104-page book is now available on Amazon and his website, https://israelspeaks.com.
“As an ex-gang member, ex-drug addict, ex-crack addict, I have seen people shot, whatever, I could say now that I am an author,” he said.
One of the first chapters in the book covers forgiveness, and Hernandez said that writing this was his way of forgiving himself for everything he was involved in before.
“Growing up, you don’t care who you hurt, you say, ‘It’s my life, I don’t care what you say,’” he said, through tears. “Now that I’m grown up, it’s different. I couldn’t let go of the guilt, for everything I did.”
Hernandez dedicated the book to his mother, Raquel Hernandez.
“I just want to encourage people to follow their dreams man,” he said. “It does not matter where you are from, whatever you have done. You can still accomplish anything you want.”
Hernandez is currently writing his second book, “Serve to Build: Excellent Customer Service, the 7 Ways to Build a Better You and a Better Company.”