Mission Specialist José Hernández
NASA's Mission Specialist José Hernández Wikimedia Commons/NASA

Astronauts, comedians, musicians, civil society leaders. Prominent figures from all areas of society spoke to The Latin Times during the past months and shared their stories, from their beginnings to reaching the top of their areas of expertise. In our Year in Review, we go back to some of them and go through the highlights.

José Hernández - Astronaut

"Who better to lead this planet and dive into the unknown than a migrant farmworker?" The sentence captures the premise of "A Million Miles Away," the movie about former Latino NASA astronaut José M. Hernández that streams in Prime Video.

The movie delves into the struggles that Hernández, portrayed by actor Michael Peña, faced throughout his journey, which included eleven rejections by NASA before being admitted to the space program in 2004. The Latin Times spoke with Hernández about his life, his involvement with the movie and his father's five-step recipe for success.

"After the sixth time I was ready to stop but my wife's words really stuck with me, when she walked away and said 'I don't know what they [the chosen astronauts] have that you don't,'" said Hernández.

Asked what advice he'd give to aspiring astronauts, Hernández said: "Follow my father's five ingredient recipe: determine your purpose in life, recognize how far you are, draw yourself a road map, prepare yourself according to the challenge and develop a work ethic second to none. Add perseverance to it and then look at what astronauts have accomplished professionally to get selected and make you emulate that."

Angelo Colina - Comedian

Angelo Colina's film school professor told him he was not good at writing dramatic scripts, but that he was funny and he should pursue comedy. So he did. After leaving his native Venezuela and following a stint in Colombia, Colina arrived in the U.S., specifically in Salt Lake City. He started doing stand up in English, but quickly switched to Spanish. And it worked.

"I noticed that in Spanish I don't need to explain who are Venezuelans. I don't need to explain myself, everybody knows who are the Venezuelans and what the country is going through. I am completely married to doing comedy in Spanish. Comedians who perform in English have started noticing me because fewer people do it and you can get more stage," said Colina to The Latin Times.

Asked whether his experience showed him that non-Latinos are starting to differentiate nationalities more and not considering the demographic a monolith, he said that "it's a process that has certainly started more than people think."

"Of course, if you go to middle America many will mostly focus on Mexicans because it's the largest demographic and it's always been like that for them. But in the larger cities it's definitely happening. They tend to be more careful when addressing somebody, asking them where they come from specifically. There's a larger conversation than just assuming people are from one place," Colina said.

"It's mostly younger people and a lot of it has to do with reggaeton, whether people like it or not. They're trying to learn Spanish because they like Bad Bunny, Karol G and J Balvin. It's helped so much to give us value. And now many more people want to produce shows for us. It's happening and it's a great time for us," he added.

Axel Kutchevatsky - Producer

You might not be that familiar with Axel Kuschevatzky's name. But if you're Latino and follow the Oscars you'll probably recognize his face. For years he's been presenting TNT's Academy Awards Preshow — next year will be his 30th — going toe to toe with Hollywood royalty on a regular basis.

You'll also be very familiar with other areas of his work. As well as being a force on screen, Axel has also made quite the impact behind it, producing an impressive (and growing) list of Latin American films and garnering three Oscar nominations and one win in the process. El Secreto de Sus Ojos (Secret in Their Eyes), Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales), Argentina, 1985... Some of the biggest Latin American titles of the last two decades have Axel's imprint on them.

Having produced over 90 films and shows since 2009, Kuschevatzky has become one of the most prolific producers in the region, with a knack for understanding what resonates with audiences. But in an era in which algorithms and artificial intelligence are taking over the discussion in the film industry, he still puts all his trust into something that cannot really be measured by technology: a good story.

With such credentials to his name, Latino identity in film is a topic that Kuschevatzky can definitely talk about. But even he finds it difficult to define what exactly that means.

"Defining what is Latino it's kind of a tricky thing to do. What is Latino? What constitutes a Latino? Every single individual has a different answer. And that relates to movies too. I mean if Guillermo del Toro makes a film in Canada with an American and British cast, is it a Latino movie just because Memo is Mexican? Big question mark. If an American that has nothing to do with Mexico culturally speaking makes a film in Mexico. Is that an American film? Even if it's in Spanish?"

The issue of defining Latino identity has a lot to do with the melting pot that is Latin America. As Kuschevatzky puts it: "we are culturally linked and we share a lot of common traits but that doesn't mean that we are exactly the same." And the discussion gets even thornier when we include second generation Latinos in the US: "someone who is a second generation has a lot of Latino elements yet he grew up in a different culture."

But instead of trying to satisfy the needs of every group, Kuschevatzky reiterates that great stories are the solution. "We have to trust good stories and people will accept them regardless of language. The only thing we should do is find common ground. And that's related to the human experience, not only to being a Latino."

Natalia Lafourcade - Musician

In an intriguing twist of fate, 'De todas las flores,' Natalia Lafourcade's ninth studio album, became an unforeseen success. It was the project she had the least faith in yet it has blossomed into a remarkable triumph in her illustrious career. "It's a work that doesn't fit what's trendy," the Mexican singer-songwriter told The Latin Times. "I truly thought nobody, or very few people, were going to listen to it."

Lasting an hour and six minutes, "De todas las flores" opens with a 1.5-minute violin intro, followed by guitar chords leading up to Lafourcade's haunting voice. The album isn't just music. It's also an experience born from deep personal pain, transformed by her art in a beautiful experience for the listener. "It is an album surrounded by death and the pain it causes. Also filled with love," Lafourcade explained.

"I am so grateful to everybody who listened to it. All the recognition, the nominations, and the awards still feel surreal, she admitted. "I never thought this album would get noticed this way, if anything. It was a labor of love and pain. To me, it was one of those gifts that music will give you if you stop and listen."

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