Embracing the past: Celebrating heritage with a personal story of survival

Now in his 20s, St. Jude survivor Ramón Hernández considers the impossibility of outrunning your past – and how he has thrived by honoring his experiences.

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  •  5 min

Len Delony

The week of Mexican Independence Day has begun, and soon, Ramón Hernández will broadcast a Facebook Live transmission. He works for the Department of Cultural Affairs at the Consulate General of Mexico in Los Angeles.

When you have a job like that, each day provides an opportunity to celebrate your heritage.

Attendees will be able to hop online and watch a mariachi band play live from Jalisco, the home of mariachi and the place where Ramón was born. Mariachi music is a tradition passed from generation to generation in Mexico, an art learned only by ear.  

Ramón loves his job because it helps him feel connected to Mexico, where he hasn’t been since 2001. That’s when the red dots appeared all over his body – the alarm bells of leukemia.

“Especially for someone who hasn’t been in Mexico for quite a while, it feels good to do a bit for my country from here, from the United States,” said Ramón.

Connection has been an important theme lately for the 26-year-old, who spent so much of his early life not looking back.

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital saved his life and allowed him to move forward. His choice to reflect on his past now has been a way to weave the strands of his life and appreciate – even celebrate – what he’s been through.

Ramon Hernandez

Time in treatment, measured in dinosaurs

Ramón doesn’t remember much before cancer brought him to St. Jude, but he does remember walking with his dad sometimes through the city center of Guadalajara, Jalisco – their hometown - on his way to work.

They would walk into the Plaza de Armas, past the cathedral, into City Hall. He remembers the clack of his father’s formal shoes and the warmth of his father’s hand holding his.

Cancer, of course, changed everything.

His mom, Maria, remembers the stressful plane flight alone with a 6-year-old boy who didn’t feel good and could hardly walk to the gates.

“She has her luggage in one hand and then me, a sick kid, on the other hand, and trying to maneuver through the airport,” said Ramón. “I can only imagine how hard it was for her.”

Plus, the language barrier. But there had been a good Samaritan, a woman who took the time in the busy Texas airport to help them get to the right gate and make their connection.

“If I saw her again, I would thank her profusely,” said Maria. “I would let her know that because she helped out, we were able to see our son grow for the next 20 years.”

They arrived at St. Jude that January, and Ramón remembers how differently from home it smelled, even before they stepped outside of the airport. “I know it was a city, but it had a good forest-y smell to it,” said Ramón.

And the impressions only got better.

“In the hospitals in Mexico and many other hospitals in the U.S., there are white walls,” said Ramón. “Everything looks sterile with white lights. The difference at St. Jude is, as soon as you step in, you look up and you see this bright, colorful painting. Then you see the walls, you see the staff. Just the general aura of St. Jude made me realize I was in a different place.

“One of the few things I knew about the United States was that Disneyland was there. So I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I’m in the Disneyland of hospitals.’”

Ramón began the standard St. Jude treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia at the time - three years of chemotherapy. His dad and sister joined them so the family could be together. Ramón learned English through tutoring provided by St. Jude and by watching kids' shows pertaining to his interests, such as dinosaurs. Movies like The Land Before Time and Jurassic Park ingrained in him a love for learning about civilizations and the people and creatures that came before us.

“At St. Jude, after a clinic visit, you get to go to the toy chest,” said Ramón. “I would grab a dinosaur every time. So three years later, when my chemotherapy treatment was over, I had a whole box of dinosaurs. Every sort of dinosaur you can think of.”

Ramon Hernandez

It all comes back to St. Jude

Ramón celebrated his No More Chemo party in 2004, marking the end of treatment. End of story, right?

“In a way, I kind of wanted to put it aside and concentrate on school, on family and everything else,” said Ramón. “Not that I wanted to forget about it, but in a way have a semblance of regular life.”

So he moved forward, graduating last year from UCLA with degrees in political science and history. He began his career at the Consulate, where he now helps to put on its many events and cultural celebrations. "Most of my time is spent getting in contact with artists and filmmakers and making sure they have everything ready for their event, including promotions," said Ramón.

Ramon Hernandez

But his St. Jude experience tugged at him.

“Every day, there’s something that makes me think, makes me remember my time at St. Jude, whether it’s a commercial, whether it’s a memory,” said Ramón. “There’s always something that brings me back to St. Jude. There’s no way to forget that it gave me another opportunity at life, and finally I realized: Why would I want to forget?”

Therapy further helped him reconcile his past with his present.

“I realized, ‘You went through a bit of a hard time when you were younger. You might need to see someone and make sure you’re OK,’” said Ramón.

And today, maybe for the first period in his life, he feels certain he is.

Last year, when Ramón came back to St. Jude for a survivor study, he decided to begin looking for opportunities to help support the hospital. 

“What St. Jude gave me is something that, in a way, can never be repaid,” said Ramón, “but fundraising is a way for me to give back to St. Jude. Giving back as much as I can and raising awareness as much as I can.”

Earlier this year, Ramón began to livestream his video game playing to raise money for St. Jude through St. Jude PLAY LIVE. (His favorite games are Civilization VFortnite and FIFA.)

Ramon Hernandez

First, he had to learn how to livestream, and he says doing so has benefited him in ways he hadn’t expected.

“It’s helped me with my job, which has gone virtual since the pandemic,” said Ramón. “I’ve learned how to set the overlay, create a preview screen with a countdown, reply to comments, do scene transitions, etc.

“I’ll be applying most, if not all of these things, to the mariachi event.”

A rich, stirring tradition

In the early 1800s, as Mexico struggled to become independent from Spain, mariachi musicians traveled from town to town, sharing news of the trials and tribulations of the Mexican people through song.

Hard-hitting, this revolutionary music has a rich cultural history and wants you to feel something. Today, it’s played at celebrations and is considered the quintessential Mexican music.

You could listen to the mariachi band from Jalisco and not know any of this and still enjoy the livestream, still tap your feet, still feel the rush of emotions without knowing one bit of the history.

But knowing the history of mariachi deepens the experience, Hernandez believes.

Just as his history deepens him.

This is the music of Jalisco – his music – going out live to attendees far away. As real and as relevant as it ever was.

Ramón feels the beauty of it. He picks up his cat and dances with her until his livestream ends.

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