Vendor Esmerelda Hernandez ‘really would like to connect with the community’ | Nov 16-22, 2022

Esmerelda Hernandez has been selling Real Change on Broadway East and Denny Way — either at the Starbucks there or in front of the nearby light rail station entrance — for about two months. However, she’s not new around here. She’s sold Real Change “off and on” for quite a while but recently took a pandemic-induced break, prompting the new spot.

Hernandez moved to Seattle from Texas, where she was born, in the ’70s. Her parents decided to come here, she said, because she was born blind. She has just enough vision to see blurry shapes and their movement. Her parents, Spanish-speaking migrant workers, were told by friends that Washington had better resources for children with disabilities.

“They came and started working in the fields and took me to doctor visits and everything to try to find out what was going on,” she said.

They settled in Vancouver, Washington, which just so happens to be home to the Washington State School for the Blind (WSSB). The WSSB is one of the oldest schools for the blind in the country, established by the Washington Territory Legislature in 1886. Her parents, she said, “needed help,” so they sent her to WSSB as a residential student.

How did you like the boarding school experience? A lot, actually.

“I had a lot of fun because at the time, before budget cuts, I went to symphonies, I went snowmobiling, I went snowshoeing and I went tubing in the snow,” she said. “It was fun [doing] all these things that I didn’t think I could do.”

Hernandez later attended Hudson’s Bay High School in Vancouver. After high school, she spent a year in Seattle attending a program designed to help blind people adapt to life in the city.

“I went to a program sponsored by Services for the Blind that taught me how to live independently by myself, even though the school already did that. I gained more skills, like how to use the bus system here in Seattle,” she said.

After completing that program, Hernandez began attending Yakima Valley Community College. She landed an associate’s degree there before moving on to pursue a bachelor’s degree in special education and elementary education. Unfortunately, a learning disability prevented her from completing that degree. She then lived briefly in Kirkland but eventually moved back home to Vancouver.

After all that, she came back to Seattle, this time for good.

One of Hernandez’s passions is art, which she does in mediums such as collage and painting, among others. Her interest in it ultimately led her to Real Change. A friend named Catherine Taylor told her about the paper during an art group they both attended. She tried it out, did it for several years until the pandemic and is happy to be back at it.

Her one gripe is that, because of her disabilities, Hernandez finds that customers have difficulty connecting with her in the same way they do other vendors.

One issue is that she has diabetes, which can cause her blood sugar to fluctuate. High blood sugar causes drowsiness, and she’ll occasionally doze off while selling, which she does while seated in her walker.

“They think that you’re on drugs or something. And … it’s not that. It’s just my health,” she said.

The other big one is something sighted people tend to take for granted: eye contact.

“I have a hard time selling it because of my vision. I feel like people have a hard time connecting with me. They can’t see me [because of the] eye connection,” she said.

She hopes more people will get past those initial barriers and get to know her so she can reach her goal of saving up money. While she’s already housed, she has some important expenditures coming up. And some fun ones, too.

“I really want a service dog for mental health reasons and for medical reasons. […] I’m also part of our leadership team in my recovery program and there’s opportunities for me to travel,” she said.

But money’s not the only reason she’s out there, Hernandez said.

“I think that’s why I’m doing this today, because I really would like to connect with the community,” she said.

Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor at Real Change.