Second Chances: Miguel Hernandez

In life, there aren’t a lot of second chances. Usually you get what you put in—hard work breeds good opportunities, determination and perseverance reward you with accomplishments, and kindness often finds its way back to you. Life doesn’t come with a lot of do-overs or opportunities to start fresh to repair what was previously broken. When the rare second chance appears for those lucky enough to have it, it feels like striking gold—an impossible chance to make it right.

Perhaps no one knows that better than Miguel Hernandez, one of Bitwise Industries’ Online Marketing Analysts. At first glance, Miguel looks like a pretty normal 20-something, working hard at his job and taking care of himself along the way. But Miguel’s story includes one of those rare second chances—one that truly gave him the opportunity to turn his life around and begin again.

Miguel’s story begins in San Jose, where he was raised by his grandparents. Both his mother and father were not in his life, and his home was turbulent, with aunts and uncles cycling on and off of sleeping on the couch in the living room; a revolving door of family in and out of prison or rehab. “They had a lot of bad habits, and I saw all of that,” Miguel remembered. “Things like drug overdoses; dangerous stuff like that.” As he grew older, he became more and more aware of his environment. “I was always trying to figure out why I was in this situation—asking myself, Where are my parents at?’’ Miguel said. “I’d watch Full House on TV and see the characters hanging out with their parents. And I didn’t have that.”

But his grandparents were determined to raise him as a good kid, eventually moving with Miguel to Fresno when he was six. Without extended family nearby, things settled down and the home became quieter. “My grandparents were so tired of all of that—they were trying to raise me to not be like them,” said Miguel. “Like I was their second chance more or less.” But curiosity soon got the better of him, and he learned from his grandparents exactly where his parents were. “They told me my dad left when I was a baby, and that he was abusive,” shared Miguel. “And my mom’s going through a drug problem—they didn’t even know where she was; probably in and out of rehab.”

Eventually, Miguel’s mother was able to get clean and came back into his life when he was in middle school. “It was strange at first—meeting someone you’ve heard so much about,” Miguel said. “I was happy, nervous, scared. I wasn’t sure if I could trust her; I was analyzing her all the time.” On top of that, Miguel was beginning to traverse down a dangerous path—one that was unfortunately all he knew. A desire for self-control and independence led him towards drugs and alcohol at a young age.

“I wanted to just enjoy my own life, but I got carried away with it. One day I was getting drunk before going to school, then smoking during lunch breaks, and even popping pills before class.”

– Miguel Hernandez

After a few incidents, Miguel was kicked out of his high school and instead opted to finish his degree at Gateway, the local continuation school. The structured environment was helpful—smaller class sizes, dedicated teachers, and little opportunities to start making a change for the better. He ended up getting decent grades, graduating on time, and even thought college might be a possibility. But everything changed when Miguel’s grandmother passed away from cancer—a diagnosis she had been fighting for over a year. Even though her passing was inevitable, it felt like the last strong structure holding Miguel up had suddenly shattered.

“When my grandmother passed away it felt surreal,” Miguel said. “I was in a good zone; on a good path. Then suddenly I didn’t have anyone watching over me and my morals and what I do. I just snapped.”

The following summer, Miguel’s life began to change for the worse. “I started getting introduced to rougher crowds,” Miguel shared. “People who carried guns on them all the time, people on the run, and that’s when I knew I was done playing limbo—walking this line between hard crime and regular life. This was like, real crime.”

Each day, Miguel would sell marijuana with his partners, and if they didn’t make enough, would rob houses at night to make up the difference. “It felt so ugly,” he said. “When I realized what I was doing—it just felt ugly.” Miguel often speaks of karma—that he knew what was coming for him after all of the bad stuff he was doing. And in December of 2018, after Miguel was caught on a home security camera stealing an electronic keyboard from a Clovis home, that karma caught up with him. “I had to give it up, because they caught me on the videotape,” he remembered. “It was a wrap. And I got locked up.”

Miguel was arrested on charges of residential burglary and placed in Fresno County Jail, where he began awaiting his trial and subsequent sentencing for his crime. “It was horrible,” remembered Miguel. “I was just waiting in there. It felt like there was this grey Instagram filter over my eyes. Everything around me was so depressing.” Surrounded by fellow criminals, Miguel was forced to look at the reality of his life right in the eye.

“You meet all these people—they tell you you’re lucky you only got two to six years ahead of you. And you hear their stories: extortion, kidnapping, sex trafficking. I met a guy who was in a sex traffic ring serving forty years. And he was younger than me.”

– Miguel Hernandez

While awaiting trial, Miguel spent most of his time in his “pod” at Fresno County jail, where other inmates were either serving sentences or awaiting their own trials. It was a community of people working towards a second chance at life, or grappling with the reality that they would never get one. “A lot of people related to my story,” Miguel said. “They felt bad for me. It was interpersonal; they watched over me and taught me a lot of stuff—how to behave in a courtroom, what to say to the judge, stuff like that.”

But even in the midst of a tiny sliver of hope, Miguel was still forced to finally understand the consequences of his actions in life thus far. “The first time I heard the amount of years I might be locked up for, I went back to my pod and sat on my bed,” Miguel shared. “I put my blankets over my head and just cried.” The mental toll incarceration can take on a person is unimaginable. The same routine, day after day after day, with the looming fear of a poor sentence can chip away at a person’s hope far quicker than we realize. “What helped me is remembering that I’m still me,” Miguel said. “I’m still alive. I’m a good person, more or less. I have someone who cares about me on the outside. You just repeat those things to yourself every day.”

Miguel’s second chance at life began in a courtroom, in front of a judge—who for the first time since Miguel got locked up, looked at him as a human being, and treated him as such. Six months after his initial arrest, Miguel received a sentence of three years probation, instead of six years behind bars. The moment the gavel slammed onto the judge’s desk, Miguel knew his life had changed significantly. He had a second chance.

“It felt like I just jumped off of a treadmill that was going 600 miles an hour. Finally, my life felt comfortable for a second.”

– Miguel Hernadez

A few deep breaths, and a few big hugs later, Miguel started his probation—out in the world instead of behind bars at Fresno County Jail. “I’m grateful, but now I have to do the ‘actual real time’,’’ he explained. “That’s what a lot of people call it: ‘actual real time’ because now you’re facing all the demons and stuff you left behind.” Life after incarceration is a beast—one that rears the ugly heads of stereotypes and prejudice, with acclimating to “normal” life and everyday routines. Every good deed you try to do is served with the disclaimer that you’re on probation; that you’re a criminal. “When you go to a job interview, it’s the worst feeling in the world,” Miguel said. “You’re doing the right thing now, you’re making the right choices, but all anyone ever sees you as is this person who stole a keyboard and got caught.”

After a slew of lost job interviews, Miguel was referred to Fresno Workforce Connection, who specializes in working with those who were recently incarcerated. Through them, Miguel was able to get a contracted job doing manual labor for Habitat for Humanity, where he spent a hot, Fresno summer loading and unloading trucks full of donated items. It was hard work—but it was good work, and Miguel was truly focused on doing good work.

“At the end, they gave me my last check and said ‘thanks for working with us, if you need any recommendations, let us know,’ and I felt great,” Miguel recalled. “I made my mark there; I did good work. I was never late; never missed a day. Everything was perfect.” Miguel’s probation required him to be working, so back at Workforce Connection, he began searching for a new job. And that’s when Stephanie Moreno, Workforce Training Student Success Specialist, walked in with flyers for a technology class at a place called Bitwise Industries.

Miguel, who had played video games and been around computers his whole life, once thought he would have a career in technology. Mildly interested, he decided to take the chance. “At first, I didn’t want to do it,” laughed Miguel. “I didn’t think I belonged in a technology class or at a place like Bitwise. The first day of class felt like the first day of middle school.” But Miguel found comfort in learning, alongside peers who also had been previously incarcerated, and been given a second chance. Between bonding with his classmates, and working on new computer projects, life was moving fast—and Miguel was enjoying every single day of it.

Towards the end of his class, Miguel was preparing to give a presentation with a few other classmates. With shaking hands and sweaty palms, he stood on the stage at the theatre inside Bitwise South Stadium, and detailed his group’s project to a small audience in attendance. Inside, his emotions were running wild, but he knew the opportunity in front of him was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. “I kept telling myself, It’s career time—this is your career, Miguel. Forget emotions; they aren’t necessary right now. It’s game time.

Afterwards, he was approached by Alex Gutierrez, Workforce Training Community Outreach Coordinator, who told Miguel they were looking for someone exactly like him for a new Workforce Apprenticeship, focused on online marketing. He encouraged him to apply and interview for a spot. It was a no-brainer, and soon Miguel was selected for the new Online Marketing Apprenticeship, a paid internship experience handling actual marketing accounts and doing real work for a large company.

“I couldn’t believe it. Life never worked out this easy. I always thought there would be a catch, but there wasn’t.”

– Miguel Hernadez

There was no catch—in fact, this opportunity was the result of a young man who was given a second chance, and put everything he had into it. Despite being dealt a myriad of negative factors outside his control, the rough environments and experience, people who judged him or saw him as nothing other than a criminal—Miguel found a way to push through the clouds of self-doubt to a new beginning. One that afforded him an opportunity he could never imagine; the chance to support himself and his girlfriend, and now a career at Bitwise Industries.

Miguel knows he’s gotten a rare second chance at life, and he doesn’t take that for granted. In fact, over the past year, he’s been reconciling his past with his new future. “First things first, I want to reconnect with a lot of my family that I never got to know because of all the problems we had growing up,” Miguel shared. “I did some therapy, so I know how to communicate and handle emotions better now. Life gave me a second chance, so I’m giving my parents a second chance too.” He’s working hard, finding ways to build his skillset to continue shaping his new career in technology with Bitwise Industries. “I want to keep working on my career skills,” Miguel shared. “I tell myself, How can I improve on what I did last year?

It’s hard to believe that the expressive, confident, young man that Miguel is today was sitting in a holding cell at Fresno County Jail just a few years ago, unsure of whether he’d have a future at all. When he reflects on the moment his life changed—it wasn’t a job opportunity or a coding class that gave him the first surge of hope. It was when the world saw beyond his past experiences and tough upbringing, to the person Miguel truly wanted to be.

It was the moment a county judge looked beyond the prison jumpsuit and shackles, and saw him as a human.

When his supervisors at Habitat for Humanity treated him as a hard working kid, not just another teen on probation. 

When Alex saw an intelligent, young man speaking on stage, who had a bright future ahead of him. 

And ultimately, when Miguel saw himself as someone worthy of a second chance—and decided to make the most of it.

Leah Sadoian is a writer for Bitwise Industries, digital content creator, and Central Valley native. She primarily writes marketing material, website content, and narratives for the Bitwise Stories series. In her free time, Leah enjoys a cold IPA, Law and Order SVU reruns, and spending time with her cat, Marge.