Diego Hernandez, right, with his mother, Clara Gaytan, and brother Fernando, 1996.

Diego Hernandez, right, with his mother, Clara Gaytan, and brother Fernando, 1996.

Courtesy of Diego Hernandez

When Diego Hernandez was 11, his mother asked him to hold the ladder.

Today, Hernandez is a newly elected Democratic state representative from East Portland, House District 47. Back then, he was a kid helping his immigrant mother on weekends as she tried to support four kids, alone, on minimum wage jobs.

Clara Gaytan was cleaning the upper windows in a fancy new house in Happy Valley, Oregon. She worried about scratching the floors, so they put a rug under the ladder. Diego’s job was to keep it steady.

The ladder slipped. His mother fell.

Backstory: Defining Moments

This conversation is part of an occasional series about the pivotal moments that shape the lives of people in the public eye. If there’s someone whose story you want to hear, write to us at opbnews@opb.org and put “Backstory” in the subject line.

Part 1: Then The Ladder Slipped: Oregon State Rep. Diego Hernandez
Part 2: Sen. Ron Wyden: ‘He Was Constantly Afraid.’
Part 3: Portland Commissioner Chloe Eudaly And ‘The Bad Tenant Story’
Part 4: Oregon’s Secretary Of State On Faith, Race And Same-Sex Marriage
Part 4: How The ER Shaped A Multnomah County Commissioner’s Mental Health Policies

“For me, that was a pretty traumatic experience,” Hernandez said, “because my first assumption was that she had died.”

She didn’t, but her injuries meant she couldn’t work. They created a cascade of events that show how easily a family can slip from subsistence into poverty.

Hernandez’s mother left him with relatives in a small town in Mexico while she got back on her feet. He attended a school so modest that he had to walk his own desk to school.

State Rep. Diego Hernandez took the oath of office in Salem Monday, with education his top priority. To hear his backstory, click on the audio player above.