Latina Engineer Blasts Off, Inspires Next Generation of STEM Stars
Spacecraft engineer Zaida Hernandez is a multi-faceted Latina. She’s an engineer, a children’s book author, a STEM advocate, and a content creator. She’s also a wife, sister, and mentor.
Zaida Hernandez is the daughter of Salvadoran immigrants, a first-generation American born in the U.S., and a first-generation college graduate.
Her parents fled El Salvador during their civil war in the 1980s. “My parents had to leave their own dreams behind in a country under civil war,” Hernandez told mitú. “They sought asylum in the U.S., a land of opportunity but also many barriers for immigrants. They did not have the opportunities that I am blessed with.”
Zaida Hernandez, who grew up in Houston, Texas, is proud of where she comes from. She is grateful for all the sacrifices that were made to get her where she is today. That’s why she’s on a steadfast mission to help future generations of Latinas navigate their path to STEM careers.
Hernandez spoke with mitú about her journey, the obstacles she faced, and the importance of representation in STEM.
For Zaida Hernandez, the journey to the stars began with the healing of generational trauma
“I am part of the healing generation,” she explained. “The generation that sometimes might not feel American enough and other times not Latino enough, but that truly belongs to both. The generation trying to heal from generational traumas and help our parents heal from their own traumas.”
Hernandez’s journey to become The Space Latina, a nickname and persona that suits her in every way, began in high school.
Zaida Hernandez was accepted to her first (of seven!) NASA internships when she was a senior in high school. When she was first accepted to that internship program, a few friends and family members referred to her as “the NASA girl” or “space girl.” And the nickname stuck.
Not only did she accept the title, but she has embodied it in all her endeavors as The Space Latina.
She would go on to complete seven internships at NASA. Ultimately, she was offered a full-time position after she graduated college and received her master’s in engineering.
Her first full-time position was as an engineer in the structural engineering division at JSC. Her work consisted of supporting the VIPER (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover) mission and the Orion spacecraft.
Since then, she has continued her work in space engineering at NASA, supporting the Artemis missions with a focus on thermal systems of the Orion spacecraft.
Bringing a passion for the stars to the pages of a book
During the pandemic, when Zaida Hernandes had more time to sit down and focus on passion projects, she realized her dream of becoming an author with an educational, community outreach, STEM spin, of course.
“I wrote and illustrated my first STEM children’s book and soon after received my first contract with the largest bilingual children’s book publisher, Lil’ Libros, to publish my second book,” she told mitú. “This was really important to me because, as a Latina, I want to encourage multiculturalism and inspire Latinos to keep teaching children the Spanish language and simultaneously teach them about science and engineering concepts from a young age.”
She also regularly volunteers for STEM programs, primarily targeting minorities or girls. She uses social media (The Space Latina) and online communities to connect with them and share her journey, scholarship information, and other resources.
“The content I share online is focused on STEM, primarily about space, and I enjoy sharing about my journey as a Latina in STEM,” she said.
And so began her journey as not only a spacecraft engineer but also as a dedicated advocate for engaging more Latinas in STEM
Zaida Hernandez spends much of her free time sharing her journey with students, focusing on the Latino community and encouraging them to pursue STEM careers.
“I have always seen value in motivating the next generation, our future leaders,” Hernandez said. And a big part of that motivation is showing future generations of STEM leaders that there is a space for them in the STEM fields.
Young Latinas need to see people who look like them and who have similar stories in the roles that they aspire to occupy. It’s hard to be something or someone you can’t see, and Hernandez wants to be a part of that shift in representation.
According to Pew Research Center analysis of federal government data, Hispanic workers comprise 17% of total employment across all occupations but just 8% of all STEM workers.
“I am very proud of my culture, and I hope my story inspires others and brings the message that Latinos do belong in engineering and science, and we belong in the space industry,” she said. She always comes back to the words: “Remember where you came from; appreciate where you are; focus on where you’re going.”
However, for Zaida Hernandez, it hasn’t always been an easy road
Zaida Hernandez struggled with merging her engineering expertise with content creation once she launched The Space Latina and began to focus on her online community outreach. And then, when she added children’s literature into the mix, it became even more complicated.
But she stayed the course and stayed true to herself, even in moments of self-doubt. She quickly realized that “everyone evolves and takes on new challenges and opportunities and that I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do or how I wanted to do it overnight.” And where her social media content is concerned, there will always be supporters, and there will always be negativity.
“Videos that went viral would get a combination of encouraging messages or the exact opposite — hate. I’ve learned to keep being myself and ‘ignore the haters,'” she explained — a skill most definitely linked to her inner strength as a Latina, she explains. “Strengths I gained from my Latino culture are perseverance and the si se puede attitude.”
Even when professors doubted that she would graduate with an engineering degree or when publishers rejected her book ideas, “my family always came around with ‘si se puede,’ ‘we believe in you,’ and other words of encouragement.”
And speaking of encouragement, Zaida Hernandez encourages anyone interested in starting their own business or embarking on a new venture to do their research and take the time to really learn everything they can about their project or career. Never underestimate the power of information in helping you get started on your journey.