Young Playwrights' Theater inspires young people to realize the power of their own voices.

Manuel Hernandez

Amazing Alumnus, October 2014

“It was just like, ‘Okay, so I have a voice. I’m writing 
something—I have a voice.’”

The incredible journey of Manuel Hernandez began with pots and pans. Born in El Salvador and raised mostly by his grandparents, Manuel discovered a passion for percussion at a young age. “I would just take my grandma’s pots and just beat them up,” he says, “because I didn’t have the money to buy a drum.”

Manuel’s mother left El Salvador for DC when he was four, fleeing the Salvadoran Civil War and seeking a better life in America. Manuel followed nine years later, enrolling at Bell Multicultural High School as an ESL student the following fall. “My English was not good at all,” he reflects, “so when YPT got there [in 10th grade]...I was learning English and writing.” There to guide him was Teaching Artist and current YPT Board member Miriam Gonzales, who taught Manuel play structure and character development while helping him translate his thoughts into English. “I remember Miriam—I remember her name clearly,” he says. “She helped me out with the whole thing.”

Under Miriam’s tutelage, Manuel wrote a play called Letter of Hope, which we produced in the 2005 New Play Festival. “It was...about my grandma, and me leaving the country,” Manuel remembers. “And being, like, a bad son...” Though the play grapples with Manuel’s ambivalence about his new life in America, he felt no ambivalence toward seeing his work performed by professional actors. “It was just...something phenomenal,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it: my play, that I wrote, was being performed! That was just amazing to see.” Manuel left his time with YPT not only stronger in English, but also more confident in his abilities and voice. “At the end [I], ‘Okay, I can write something. I can be an inspiration.’”

The drive to inspire, coupled with Manuel’s ongoing love of music, led him to earn a degree in Music Education from the University of the District of Columbia. He is now the music teacher at DC Bilingual Public Charter School, part of the CentroNía system, and glows when he speaks about his job. “It’s my favorite,” he says. “Every time I interact with kids, you see a different personality from me. ...Most of these kids are from low-income families, and I was [from] a low-income family as well—it just reminds me of who I was and who I’ve become.” Manuel also offers his students piano lessons after school, has organized a DC Bilingual choir and last year wrote a short musical about Rosa Parks that his second graders performed in class. “I try to give these kids the opportunity that I didn’t get when I was little,” he says, “I give them the whole view of the world.”

Manuel Hernandez has seen more of the world than many of us ever will, and it brings us such joy to see him giving back to DC’s young people now. “I always remember YPT,” he concludes. “Thank you for encouraging...young people to write and have a voice.”