Intern Daniel Hernandez Jr. helped Rep. Gabrielle Giffords when she was shot
Hernandez, now 23, has written a memoir of the experience and his youth in Arizona
As a gay Hispanic man, Hernandez aims to inspire other youths with his story
Daniel Hernandez Jr. isn’t your typical 23-year-old.
On January 8, 2011, Jared Lee Loughner opened fire at a “Congress on Your Corner” event in Tucson, Arizona, featuring U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Since he had some medical training, Hernandez ran toward the gunfire to tend to victims, realized Giffords was shot on the left side of her head and used his bare hands to keep her from losing more blood. Six people died and 13 people were injured, including Giffords, who is still recuperating.
That was Hernandez’s first week interning for Giffords. He was only 20.
He’s been credited with saving Giffords’ life and recognized as a hero, although he rejects the title.
Since the tragedy, Hernandez’s life hasn’t been the same: It’s involved interviews, meeting the president and first lady, and national fame. After graduating from the University of Arizona, he was elected to serve on a school board in Tucson but also travels the country as an inspirational speaker.
Now, in a heartfelt memoir, “They Call Me a Hero: A Memoir of My Youth,” the Tucson native speaks in detail of the shooting, the experiences that have helped shaped him and why he doesn’t want to be called a hero.
Hernandez spoke with CNN about the book and growing up gay and Hispanic in Arizona. An edited transcript of the conversation is below.
CNN: It’s clear in the book that you aren’t comfortable with the word “hero” or the attention, so what challenges did you come across when writing this book?
Daniel Hernandez Jr.: You know, it’s not easy writing a memoir when you don’t like talking about yourself. (laughs) That was something I had to overcome quickly.
I was very fortunate in working with young-adult writer Susan Goldman Rubin. But, when we were writing, she kept having to remind me, “I need you to tell me what it was like and how you felt,” because I was very matter-of-fact and straightforward. Having to talk about my emotions and having to remember very sad and tragic memories was very tough for me.
Giving up my privacy to achieve writing what I thought was a good book was difficult, but I didn’t want to write something and hold back, because that would’ve defeated the purpose of writing a memoir.
CNN: What inspired you to write this memoir?
Hernandez: I was first approached to do a memoir right after the shooting, but the pitch seemed opportunistic and contrived and not something I was willing to do, especially considering six people were just killed and 13 were injured. I didn’t want it to seem like I was taking advantage of something so horrific.
If it were up to me, I would not be writing a memoir at the age of 21. But the idea of public service and getting young people involved came up, and that interested me, because there aren’t too many young gay Latino authors who are writing about their experiences. So that’s why I really chose to work on this project.
CNN: Whom did you write book for?
Hernandez: I’ve traveled around the country and have met LGBT or Latino young people who think they aren’t being taken seriously, who are doing amazing work on social issues, who would say to me, “We’re so excited that you’re here. We never see people like us working to make this world a better place.”
I was writing to them.
CNN: After the shooting, you were hesitant to do any interviews, but then a friend who helped you with the press said it was important “to show that a Hispanic man saved the day in a state that has been discriminatory toward Hispanics.” Was this what made you change your mind?
Hernandez: Someone who is in my shoes who probably should’ve never had the opportunity to intern for the congresswoman, because Latinos aren’t expected to do well academically.
Kelly made me realize that something positive had to come out of this horrific situation, especially someone who typically wouldn’t be in this position.
I still continue to do interviews because I think it’s important for people to see “this is the face of Arizona, this is the face of America,” and it’s a different face from the one you are used to, but it’s one that’s in every community around this country.
CNN: Is it difficult to be Hispanic and gay in Arizona?
Hernandez: It depends on where you are, sadly. For example, I do a lot of driving, and when I’m in rural Arizona, I’ll get pulled over a lot but not because I’m speeding but because of what I look like. He’ll say, “You were reported as being suspicious,” and I’ll hand over I.D., but then his whole demeanor will change, and he’ll say, “Aren’t you the guy who helped Gabby?”
It’s really striking that I went from being a “suspicious driver” to being the “hero” who helped Gabby. It’s one of the reasons that I’m so vocal about staying in Arizona and doing what I can do here. I love Arizona. But if Latinos aren’t here to fix these problems, then it’s never going to be done. It’ll only get worse. The demographics will change soon; the Latino population will soon be the majority, but we need institutions to facilitate that. I want to show that we’re here and we care just as much as you do about making Arizona a better place to live for everyone.
CNN: Do you have a five-year plan?
Hernandez: I’ll probably go back to grad school at some point, learn as much as I can from people all over the country. Whether it’s volunteering at the school board or writing a book, I’m just making the best out of this horrific situation. Hopefully inspiring some folks to get interested in their community that otherwise weren’t involved.
Unfortunately, there is no grandiose five-year plan. There used to be, but things have changed because of what happened on January 8. I never thought that I’d be in the position that I’m in now.