They Call Me A Hero

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Playwright Guillermo Reyes and Daniel Hernandez, Jr., the former intern credited with saving the life of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords discuss the Borderlands Theater world premiere of “They Call Me a Hero,” based on the memoirs of Daniel Hernandez.

Jose Cardenas: Borderlands theater starts its 29th season with the world premiere of they call me a hero by playwright Guillermo Reyes, based on Daniel Hernandez's memoir. Hernandez is credited with responding first and helping save her life when congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in 2011. Here to talk about the play is Guillermo Reyes, playwright and also here is Daniel Hernandez. Gentlemen, thank you, both for joining us on "Horizonte." It was an awful moment that started about three years ago. And that's how the play starts.

Guillermo Reyes: Yes. It starts off with the reenactment of those events, seven actors play the various characters, including Daniel. And how they go about it, step-by-step, in that particular moment that seems to stop time. It's a very dramatic moment. It's painful, but then we get into the life of the character of Daniel, the main character, and then we see how this moment came to be. That's basically what the play is. It's a reenactment of events and then a reenactment of young Daniel's life and we get back to the present to the actual events of the shooting.

Jose Cardenas: Daniel, I know you've seen some of the rehearsals.

Daniel Hernandez, Jr.: Yeah.

Jose Cardenas: What did it feel like the first time you saw the reenactment of the shooting?

Daniel Hernandez, Jr.: It was really difficult at first to see this again. And obviously the set design wasn't there because it was just a reading that I've seen, but I think it brought back a lot of emotions, remembering what happened on January 8th, which was a really difficult day not just for me but for everyone in Arizona, especially those of us in Southern Arizona. It was five days into my congressional internship with Gabby Giffords when Jared Loughner, only six months old older than I was at the time, came to this constituent event and 10 minutes into it, in less than 90 seconds fired enough rounds to kill six people and injured 13 others. For me it was a really difficult thing and I was there with one of my good friends who used work in the office of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, Pam Simon, a survivor, who was actually shot in the knee and it was a little tense at times, especially when we played some clips of things that had happened in Tucson after talking about the shooting, but also hearing some of those 9-1-1 tapes briefly I think is something that is always kind of jarring to anyone that was on the scene to see some of the audio that was, you know, of people in the background saying this person's been injured, that person's been shot. So it was difficult for Pam and myself to listen to it the first time, but it's important to talk about, and as time has gone on, it's gotten a little bit more easy, not easy, but it's become a little bit easier to discuss some of the incidents that happened, including, you know, the 9-year-old girl who was there on January 8th who was murdered.

Jose Cardenas: Guillermo, The play includes some actual audio clips?

Guillermo Reyes: I took some quotes from some of the broadcasts that happened on that day, I'm thinking of newscasts where they interrupt a certain program to give us an update on Gabby Giffords. The most dramatic one was CNN announcing that she had been killed, for instance, and having to take it back. I included things like that because I felt I wanted us to feel that we are there and that we are witnessing these events as they are happening. And so that was an important part of the play to reenact what we all felt that day. I remember that day particularly. That was one of the things I wanted to do in writing the play is to do a docudrama and to find a way to reenact the events and put them in perspective. I didn't know how to start the play because there's so much involved in this, but when I read Daniel's book, I found that I had the focus.

Jose Cardenas: Had you been thinking about doing this?

Guillermo Reyes: My mind thinks dramatically. I don't know why that happens.

Jose Cardenas: You're a playwright.

Guillermo Reyes: My mind said I wanted to see how I could reenact this because there was such a dramatic event, but then I was stuck so the only way to find my way through the emotions and the drama was to find a focus and I couldn't find it until I read the book. I found that's the story that helps me dramatize the entire events.

Jose Cardenas: You're telling this story from Daniel's perspective.

Guillermo Reyes: Yes.

Jose Cardenas: How much of it, whether it's from Daniel's protective or otherwise, deals with the aftermath of the shooting and the debate that ensued regarding guns and what we do with mentally disturbed individuals?

Guillermo Reyes: The aftermath is a very important part of it. In the book itself, Daniel talks about how people are reacting to his -- I won't use the word heroism, his actions that helped save Gabby Giffords' life. And then the various postings that people put on the Internet and all those things. But also I wanted to deal with Gabby's recovery and her step-by-step process of the recovery. I felt that was important, as well. And then some of the aspects of Jared Loughner's mental instability and how that contributed to his getting a hold of guns and that brings up the issue of guns. I don't think I don't go into a deep debate on gun ownership.

Daniel Hernandez, Jr.: To his credit, I think that was kind of by design because the book itself is not about gun violence. It's not about how can we change some of these laws to prevent people from having access to guns. The book was written about public service, where we use the shooting as an anchor to talk about the importance of people getting involved in their communities, especially young people. So to Guillermo's credit, so it's not that he didn't include it because I didn't give him the material because we wanted to make sure that the book wasn't pigeonholed as an anti-gun book, and I think immediately after the shooting there was a lot of hesitation on my part and the part of Congresswoman Giffords to wait to talk about the issue of gun violence, to be better informed about the issue and not be reactionary. So it wasn't until two years later when Sandy Hook happened that I even started getting involved in the issue of gun violence prevention. And I know that the same is true of Congresswoman Giffords and Mark Kelly. They formed an organization after Sandy Hook. There was a lot of hesitation by those of us directly involved to talk about the importance of some of the reforms that needed to be done because we didn't want to politicize what had happened in Tucson and we realized how awful this issue of gun violence was with over 80 Americans being affected by it each and every day.

Jose Cardenas: The book is about the importance of public service. How do you a convey that coming out of a tragic event like this?

Daniel Hernandez, Jr.: We start with the shooting in the play and in the book but we go back to my childhood growing up in Tucson in southern Arizona, talking about some of the challenges that I had and really having to overcome things, like in 2000, the state of Arizona banning bi-lingual education and becoming very ill and almost failing out of all my classes and in spite of all the challenges I had, my drive to help people and get involved, first in healthcare and eventually in politics, which I think was one of the things that he highlight in the book, regardless of what you want to do and how you want to get involved, each of us has a pathway that we can help other people, not necessarily saving lives, but we can do things to help our communities, whether that's through art, music or teaching. All of us have our own path that we need to find to public service and there's not a guide that says this is considered public service and this isn't, but that's one of the things that I think was really important to highlight both in the play and in the book that we all have things that we can contribute to society and they may not be big things, things that affect a lot of people but we can all in our own way do something to help change and improve our community.

Jose Cardenas: You said at the beginning of the interview that you think dramatically. Your play starts with one of the most dramatic moments in American history. How do you maintain that and talk in an effective way about some of the things that Daniel just described in terms of his upbringing and the challenges he's faced?

Guillermo Reyes: Fortunately, the book gives the guidance because I felt that once we have such a big public event. We need to slow down and then go back into childhood, go back into memory, and seeing how this young man grew up and I think all those family stories are important to dramatize because it gives it a more intimate sense of what happened here. So I feel that the story, it's a big public event, it's also very intimate. It's about family life and it goes into public service as Daniel says, but I also feel that it is a family story, it helps us digest all these things and helps us put it into perspective. It's a form of growing up in Tucson type of story that then gets -- in which a young man gets thrown the limelight and it's a local story, but it's also a national event. And so I think that the two things are a part of that.

Jose Cardenas: Daniel, let's talk about that family story. In the introduction I should have mentioned that you're a Jr. Talk about your mother and father, and your upbringing in Tuscon.

Daniel Hernandez, Jr.: My mom met my dad a few years before they had me and they got married after they met at a family event. When my mom and dad met, they didn't speak the same language. My mother was only Spanish and my father was only English, but because my father wanted to pursue a relationship with her, he started learning Spanish in his late 30s, early 40s. So he is a redneck from California, even though he's Latino, he grew up a bunch of farmworkers and a bunch of other folks that owned their own little plots of land so he grew up and they were excited to find a new place to call home and that happened to be Tucson and I've been very fortunate to have two younger sisters and grow up in the old pueblo down in Tucson. Was there anything else that you specifically wanted me --

Jose Cardenas: A part of your story that came out, especially when you attracted all this attention is the fact that you were gay. What was it like growing up gay in a Latino neighborhood in Tucson?

Daniel Hernandez, Jr.: It's one of those things that we talked about in the book, where from a very young age, I was very adamant about usage of words and how they could hurt other people. And there was an incident that I remember where one of my cousins said that's so gay and I came back with a retort, well books don't have a sexual preference, they don't have an orientation. And I think it was difficult because there was a lot of teasing that happened when I was growing up and it really came to a head when I was in college and I got to see that there was other people who didn't have a supportive family like I did and I was very fortunate.

Jose Cardenas: This is all captured from what I understand in the play? We're out of time right now and we can't talk about it any further here but it airs again, it starts --

Guillermo Reyes: On the 27th, borderlands theater.

Guillermo Reyes:Playwright; Daniel Hernandez, Jr.:Former Intern, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords;

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