When Jorge Hernandez graduated from Roberto Clemente high school a decade ago, he was among the distinct minority in his class who went straight to college. “A lot of kids dropped out. They did drugs, got pregnant, or ran with the gangs,” he recalls. “And that was, and still is, the public’s perception of the school. They tend to think of the bad things. What they don’t realize is that a lot of kids do graduate and start on respectable careers. We don’t ever hear about their stories.”

So in 1990, with a diploma in TV production from Columbia College in hand, Hernandez decided to do a documentary about 1980s Clemente graduates who’ve succeeded in their own ways. A Look Back and its companion piece, a TV-show episode Hernandez made a year later featuring other accomplished Clemente alumni, will receive their first public screening Thursday at the Chicago Cultural Center as part of the city’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month.

Like many Clemente students, Hernandez grew up in a lower-middle-class Humboldt Park household. “I’m a first-generation Puerto Rican,” he says. “My dad worked as a bartender, and my mom was a homemaker. They taught me to stay focused, to set goals. My mom always used to say, “Jorge, you can do whatever you want if you set your mind to it.”‘ Hernandez got interested in TV production when he was about eight. “There was a fire across the street from our apartment. A Channel Seven truck showed up, and two cameramen jumped out to take pictures. Then the reporter got in front of the burning house and let the whole world know what was happening. I was very impressed.”

At the time Hernandez entered Clemente, the school boasted an active TV and film department run by John West and Chris Bailey. Hernandez signed up for all of their classes. “I carried a camera every chance I could. Hey, I even shot the proms, which I showed at my recent reunion.” Hernandez’s thorough preparation garnered him a scholarship from Columbia College. While in school he got an internship with Chicago Public Access, which evolved into a part-time job as a technical assistant. Since 1990 he’s worked as a master-control operator at Channel 66.

It didn’t take him long to carry out his labor of love. A mutual friend put him in touch with Aldo Gandia, a Clemente alum and ex-gang member who had worked as a news producer at Channel Two. “Aldo was already famous when I was at Clemente,” Hernandez says. Gandia readily agreed to participate as a writer and on-screen narrator. With the help of Clemente’s alumni network, Hernandez then picked five worthy yet typical graduates as his subjects: Delwin Rosa (class of ’81), a salesman for Orion Pictures; Evelyn Amador (’83), a grass-roots organizer; Martha Varela (’84), an assistant administrator at WTTW; Juan Gonzales (’80), a paramedic; and Rigoberto Montes (’82), a K-9 officer.

Their interviews were conducted ad hoc, with Gandia posing questions about their backgrounds, role models, jobs, and how to stay on course. The half-hour video, produced for $500, is heavy on inspirational homilies, but its sincerity is unmistakable. “It would’ve been stronger if we had included former gang members,” Hernandez concedes, “but we couldn’t find anybody.” A Look Back first aired on Channel 66 two years ago–“in prime time,” he points out, “and it did quite well in the ratings and was nominated for an Emmy. The station later aired it 14 more times.”

Since then Hernandez has followed up with an episode of the Chicago Public Access show Orgullo Latino (“Latino Pride”) in which he profiles Gandia; Barry and Clifton Garrett, the baseball-playing twin brothers; and Sam Clemente, a popular gym teacher. These days he’s busy prepping his next project. “My partner and I,” he discloses, “want to do a documentary on the life of Roberto Clemente through the eyes of his widow. Most kids don’t know who the man was and why the school named after him should be something special.”

The screening of A Look Back and the Orgullo Latino episode starts at 5 Thursday in the theater of the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington. Hernandez will be on hand to discuss his work. Admission is free. Call 346-3278.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Barreras.