The youngest of their four children, Mariela, 20, represented the Mexican state of Jalisco - not far from where the couple was reared in Mexico.
Mariela is a student at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi. All of the Hernandez children have been to college and three enlisted in the military.
“I thank God every day for everything He has given me,” Maria said. “I have received more blessings than I deserve.”
Their eldest, Christina graduated from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and is currently a captain who is married to a captain in the U.S. Army. Along with her career, she is rearing children and working on a master’s degree.
Sugei finished her schooling and is a sergeant in the Army and Artemio also joined the service.
Alex planned to enlist as well, but Maria asked him to go to technical college instead and he complied. Now he is a successful mechanic.
“Three of my children have served this country and I wanted him to do something else,” she said.
Artemio and Maria began life in Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico. As a 7-year-old growing up in one of the hottest climates in Mexico, Maria and her siblings walked five miles every day to work in the fields. Their mother carried a clay pot along. The children picked a few bananas on the way.
“The boss had cows,” she said. “We went to work very early when he was still milking. He filled my mother’s clay pot with milk so we had bananas and milk for breakfast.”
By 5:30 in the afternoon, they were back at home. The next day would begin before daylight.
“My mother raised eight children by herself,” Maria said. “We had a happy life, an awesome one, but little chance for an education. Artemio and I wanted a better life for our children.”
As teens in February, 1979, the couple decided to change the course of their lives. They set out for Texas with only the clothes on their backs and one extra set in a sack.
“If they got wet, we didn’t have anything,” she said.
The journey was “the worst nightmare anyone can live,” Maria said. “The moon was shining but we kept walking into cactus. It was so cold, we slept on the fence, and it got so bad, we thought about turning ourselves in.”
They stayed with a lady in Santa Maria for a week. The journey resumed but ended at a little store so their driver could purchase a drink.
“Then we saw the police lights flashing,” Maria said.
The couple were interrogated and deported.
“For the next three months we worked hard to save enough money to try it again,” Maria said. “We didn’t have children but we wanted our future kids’ lives to be brighter.”
In her Mexican community, the only work available was farming. With a drought in progress, corn fields dried up and corn for tortillas was too expensive.
“Nobody had corn,” she said. “I remember my grandmother saying she was tired of eating flour tortillas but that’s all we had.”
Their next attempt to immigrate was successful and they made it to Refugio.
“My husband took a job on a ranch for $7 a day,” Maria said.
Unable to make a living, they moved to Florida to pick oranges for $700 per week.
“Unlike the long work hours on the ranch, by two or three in the afternoon, we were home,” she said.
After the harvest, they moved to Dallas. But city life was not palatable for the young couple so they came home to Refugio.
The immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 signed into law by President Ronald Reagan was a godsend for the family. Maria and Artemio were able to come out of the shadows and apply for amnesty.
After the five-year waiting period, they became citizens.
“We live with pride, enjoy life and have fun the good way — with family,” Maria said.
But she will never forget her roots.
“Mother taught me so much and from her I learned to appreciate what I’ve been given,” she said. “She is 84 and lives by herself. She grinds her own corn for her tortillas and likes to build a fire outside to cook on because she says it tastes better.”
Diagnosed with terminal cancer 15 year’s ago, Maria’s mother was given only months to live. She refused chemotherapy and radiation so Maria brought her to Refugio to take care of her. Her health improved.
“One day, she told me she was going for a walk,” Maria said. “I told her breakfast would be ready when she got home.”
Her mother never returned.
As Maria searched frantically, she learned that her mother had walked to one of the restaurants on the highway in Refugio and boarded a bus for Mexico.
Three days later, the cancer patient arrived back in her community in Mexico.
“Without papers, she said she felt like a bird in a cage,” Maria said. “She didn’t like being afraid and wanted her freedom back so she went back to her homeland.”
Artemio and Maria built a modest home for her and visit as often as possible.
“Refugio is home to us, now and the community is like a family,” Maria said. “I love this town and the people.”
Maria has been employed at the school for 18 years. Her only regret is not having had the opportunity to obtain an education.
“I’ve tried to teach my children that life is about keeping your spirit going even if you stumble along the way... but most important, you never give up,” Maria said.
Many years have passed since the two scared teens ran in the dead of winter across fields laden with cactus. The youngsters didn’t come in search of a handout or free ride, but to fulfill a dream for a better life for their children.
As Mariela, the youngest of their children, was crowned queen of the 53rd Feria de las Flores, the Hernandez’s well-traveled journey to fulfill a lifelong dream of a better life for their offspring reached fruition. It was pure joy.