The True Story of a Migrant Farmworker Who Became an Astronaut | Sojourners

The True Story of a Migrant Farmworker Who Became an Astronaut

'A Million Miles Away' / Amazon Studios

A Million Miles Away feels like a story too good to be true. But the new film is the true story of José Hernandéz (Michael Peña), a migrant farmworker who became a NASA astronaut. In today’s xenophobic political climate, with officials at every level of the U.S. government working to prevent migration at our southern border, the idea that a migrant farmer would be welcome in the U.S., to say nothing of earning a prestigious spot on a space mission, reads as fantasy. But A Million Miles Away, a biopic based on Hernandéz’s memoir, Reaching for the Stars, is a timely omen, warning of the dangers of persisting in our current immigration policies — a danger not just for migrants, but for the collective good of the U.S.

A Million Miles Away, which is available for streaming on Prime Video beginning Sept. 15, opens in the late 1960s when Hernandéz was a young boy. His family is one of thousands in that time who spent half the year in Mexico. From December to February, the Hernandéz’s family lived in La Piedad, Michoacan, and from March to November, they worked as migrant farmers throughout California, where Hernandéz was born. Hernandéz frequently changed schools and didn’t speak English until he was 12.

According to Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey, this sort of annual migration persisted in the U.S. until 1986, when border enforcement became “aggressive.” Ironically, the enforcement backfired: Rather than curb immigration, the undocumented immigrant population in the U.S. ballooned, as migrant workers chose to stay in the U.S. rather than face increasingly perilous border crossings.

A Million Miles Away initially seems as though it’s going to reproduce the typical beats of the genre: Hernandéz is a kid with an impossible dream and an unflappable ambition: He wants to go to space. He earns a degree in electrical engineering, but even with the advent of the space shuttle program, the idea that a migrant farmer could be an astronaut seemed, well, out of this world. This “genius versus the world framing” is common in biopics, from Ray depicting how Ray Charles took heat for secularizing gospel music to Oppenheimer following an ineffable scientist.

But A Million Miles Away deftly avoids major pitfalls of the genre, demonstrating that Hernandéz was not a lone genius. His capacity to achieve at every point in his life came from his parents and wife’s willingness to sacrifice for their belief in him. Early in the film, his parents give up their dream of owning a home in La Piedad to settle in the U.S. so Hernandéz can remain in a single school, ultimately allowing him to earn his engineering degree. After his wife discovers he’s been applying to NASA’s astronaut program, she insists on using the savings they’d set aside for her restaurant to pay for him to train.

Because this is a biopic, we know how Hernandéz’s story is going to end. The surprise is not his final ascent to the heavens, but rather how his journey is buttressed at every turn by those who love him.

Most biopics work hard to make the point that their subjects are exceptional; A Million Miles Away does something more: By illustrating the heights a migrant farmer can reach with the right support, the film invites us to consider what we’re missing by excluding families like the Hernandéz from our culture. It wasn’t just the support of his family that allowed Hernandéz to achieve his dreams; it was also the opportunities he had as a citizen.

How is Gov. Greg Abbott harming the future of Texas — where I live and pastor — by installing a floating border wall that includes saw blades? What irreversible harms are we enacting not only on asylum seekers but ourselves when we use them as political theater props, bussing them across the country, as both Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have done? What does the future hold for a nation whose president strands tens of thousands seeking asylum at the border in camps with subhuman conditions, especially in the record-breaking heat of the past summer.

A Million Miles Away offers a powerful look at just how far the love of a family can propel a person. It’s enough to overcome multiple systemic injustices and launch a man into the stars. But I was left asking how much further we could all go if we worked to change those systems — if we lived out this biblical call:

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. -Leviticus 19:33-34

Just after he returned from space, the real-life Hernandéz gave an interview to Mexico’s Televisa network where he insisted, “The American economy needs [undocumented immigrants]. I believe it’s only fair to find a way to legalize them and give them an opportunity to work openly.” Hernandéz is right; it’s only just to provide an easy path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented people who are already an indispensable part of American life.

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