Hispanic Caucus to honor former NASA astronaut

Former NASA astronaut José Hernández will be among four Latinos in the nation to receive the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's highest honor in September.

"I consider it a great honor to be recognized by the (CHCI)," Hernández said in a phone interview. "It's a great organization. They bring in students from all over the country to basically intern with members of Congress. They get great experience in how our country works. I think it's just a marvelous organization."

Hernández, who was born in French Camp, will receive a 2011 Medallion of Excellence for Leadership and Community Service at the institute's 34th annual awards gala Sept. 14 in Washington, D.C.

Hernández will be part of a powerhouse of recipients. The others:

Legendary Latin vocalist and four-time Grammy award-winner Vikki Carr, who also will receive a Medallion of Excellence for Leadership and Community Service.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who will receive what is known as the Chair's Award.

U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solís, also receiving the Chair's Award.

"To be named among those recipients is a great honor," said Hernández, a graduate of University of the Pacific and Franklin High School.

He has been a lifelong advocate of Latino youth pursuing their dreams, often offering his own life story as an example that hard work and education offer lasting rewards.

Hernández, who was a field laborer in San Joaquín County as a child, was the first person to use Spanish language in space through his tweets during the 2009 Space Shuttle mission STS-128. He founded the Reaching for the Stars Foundation to provide scholarships to students pursuing careers in science and engineering. His foundation mirrors the assistance he received as a student through the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement program, which helps students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds attain degrees in science, technology, engineering or math.

Hernández also made another significant contribution in the health care field. He and a colleague developed the first full-field, digital mammography imaging system, which has had long-term positive effects in aiding the early detection of breast cancer.

"The 34th Annual Awards Gala honors Latinos who have had groundbreaking careers and whose leadership is demonstrated by their commitment to giving back to the community," said Institute Chairman Rep. Charles A. González, D-Texas.

Vikki Carr: singer Carr has captivated audiences across the nation and abroad for more than 50 years with her melodic voice. The El Paso, Texas, native has performed for the queen of England, five U.S. presidents and U.S. troops in Vietnam.

Carr established the Vikki Carr Scholarship Foundation in 1971, which offers scholarships to Latino students in Texas to pursue their dreams of a college education. Carr has performed benefit concerts to support Holy Cross High School in San Antonio.

Hilda L. Solís, secretary of labor: Solís has been serving the public since 1985. Her most recent position -- which she has held since 2009 -- marks the culmination of her political career.

Solís was the first Latina elected to the California State Senate, and while in that position, she served as chairwoman of the California Senate Industrial Relations Committee where she led the 1996 battle to increase the state's minimum wage from $4.25 to $5.75 an hour. She also authored a record 17 state laws aimed at combating domestic violence.

Ken Salazar, interior secretary: Salazar has served the public through various elected positions. Prior to being confirmed as the 50th secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2009, he served as Colorado's 35th U.S. senator. He served on the Finance Committee, which oversees the nation's tax, trade, Social Security and health-care systems. He continued his service by volunteering on the Agriculture, Energy and Natural Resources, Ethics, Veterans Affairs and Aging Committees.