Amber Hernandez takes a few moments to think aloud of the five cities where she and
her two younger siblings grew up. Her father immigrated to the United States from the Mexican border state of Chihuahua, as did her mother from Coahuila. The family of six, she said, moved where there was work: California, Texas, Illinois, and New Mexico.
Her father toiled on construction sites while her mother cleaned houses, picking up jobs wherever she could. They made a living as unskilled laborers and supported the family as best they could. With each move to a new city and new state, Ms. Hernandez learned to persevere through difficult times. She also learned the value of hard work. “If you work, you can make it happen,” her parents told her.
She took those words to heart. A first-generation American, Ms. Hernandez was the first in her family to graduate from high school and earn a college degree. For ten of the twenty years while she served in the Dallas Police Department, she served in the Texas Army National Guard. Her unit deployed twice to Iraq, in 2007-08 as part of the tail-end of the U.S. surge, and in 2010-11 advising the State Department. She is a recipient of the Bronze Star.
Public service, Ms. Hernandez explained, allowed her to effect positive change, “Putting a domestic violence person in jail after seeing the partner be attacked or military-wise, helping a translator [Iraqi citizen] with their U.S. residency and U.S. citizenship paperwork because they put their lives and their family’s lives in danger for helping us [U.S. forces and American officials].”
“I feel very connected and very purpose-driven by having done those careers.”
When she retired from law enforcement and the military, Ms. Hernandez followed her interests into the travel industry. She bought a travel agency franchise in Bedford, Texas, and in November 2018, hung out a shingle.
The learning curve was steep her first year. As a small business owner, she learned how to market herself and prospect for clients from the ground up. She learned the finer points of her products not solely from marketing materials but by visiting the destinations at her expense. The investment of time and money, she hoped, would pay off in 2020.
Until March, Ms. Hernandez said, bookings steadily rose at the outset of 2020. Deposits were flowing in. Clients were eager to retreat to any one of Mexico’s beach resorts, relax on a cruise sailing to Jamaica or the Caribbean.
“They always say plan for catastrophic situations, or whenever you would be out of income for a few months,” she said. COVID-19 obliterated that sentiment. In a matter of months, the travel industry was left reeling and still is, by the coronavirus.
“In our industry, we do not get paid until after the trip is over.”
Trips she had already booked never set sail. Franchise owners like Ms. Hernandez struggled to survive as 2020 ground to a halt. No one was making a profit.
“They just cannot upkeep with the maintenance part of it,” she said of the monthly fee franchisees pay their corporate partner for marketing and sales support. “A lot of owners have gone out of business or have sold because they just cannot keep with it.” At the same time, she was also working towards a master’s degree in business administration paid for by the Post 9/11 GI Bill.
She and her partner, Misty White, a nurse at a Texas hospital, tapped into their savings and borrowed against their retirement accounts to keep afloat. Ms. Hernandez’s unemployment benefits helped. “You need to persevere in order to see the benefits of your work,” she said, “and if you persevere through hard times, that just makes you more successful in the future.”
In March, Ms. Hernandez applied to the Gary Sinise Foundation for mortgage assistance. In the time it took the foundation to contact her months later (an email and voicemail went unreturned), she was able to cover the costs with the help of friends. But between the summer and the end of the year, her business continued to struggle, unemployment benefits decreased. Her persistence wasn’t paying off.
Financial stress wore on her and Ms. White, what with four school-age children at home to care for, a business in crisis, time-consuming projects required for her MBA, and COVID-19 transmissions showing no signs of abating.
By December, Ms. Hernandez said, the financial picture wasn’t showing signs of improvement. “We’re not going to be able to make it through the spring,” she said about not having enough savings to pay the mortgage. Relief came weeks later when she learned the foundation would cover three months of her mortgage. The family also received grocery gift cards.
“I am not too proud to ask for assistance when I know I really need it. I’ve grown up being on government assistance, and I also know about doing hard work and doing everything you can — in your power — to be successful and to survive,” Ms. Hernandez said. “But also, not too proud enough to ask for help when I know that I need it.”
For now, assuming none of her clients cancel their bookings, Ms. Hernandez expects to draw a paycheck towards the end of summer. She and Ms. White, now two years into their engagement, hope to marry later this year. Unsurprisingly, they’re planning on having a destination wedding.