Audubon Spotlight: Mike Fernandez Is Creating His Own Path in Conservation

Audubon's video producer reflects on his relationship with birds, wildlife, and his Latinx identity.

Mike Fernandez is a video producer for the National Audubon Society and has been with the organization since 2012. Though he works at the organization's headquarters in New York, Fernandez spends most of his time out in the field, collecting and documenting the stories of the people that make up Audubon. Fernandez came to Audubon at a time when there were big changes happening in the organization. He knew he wanted to be part of the change he was seeing and wanted to be able to create his own path within it. Although Fernandez didn’t grow up a bird lover, he did grow up in nature and a deep love and appreciation for it was instilled in him from a very young age—birds included.

“I didn’t have a lot of background in nature photography but I thought I was a good match to come into Audubon. A new lens to look at birds and wildlife through,” says Fernandez. 

Fernandez is originally from South America. He left his childhood home in Lima, Peru, for the United States when he was 14. This was not just his first time traveling to the United States, it was also his first time outside of Peru. The trip from the airport to his new home in Picabo (pronounced "peekaboo"), Idaho, is one that has forever been imprinted in his memory. Fernandez remembers seeing field after field blanketed in moonlit snow, peppered with herds of cattle. The smell of manure and chimney smoke that wafted through the cool night air is one that has stayed with him since. This was his first time ever seeing snow, outside of the snow-capped mountains that make up parts of Peru’s topography, and he’d only seen those once as a young boy.

The drastic change in culture was rough on Fernandez. He spent three days in bed when he first arrived, not wanting to do anything or see anyone. But Norka, Fernandez's mother, was certain that this move was the right one. She knew that this decision would be life-changing for her and her family. Norka had been in Picabo once before. She had visited a couple of years back to attend her brother's wedding and had loved it. Although there was little to no Peruvian community there (most of the Spanish-speaking community was made up of Mexican migrant workers), Norka was confident that Idaho was the right place to call home. She even considered naming Fernandez's little brother Picabo when he was born. They eventually settled on Eddy Jr., after Fernandez's stepfather.

Norka recognized an opportunity for all of them in this move and sacrificed everything to make it possible. She worked, saved, and borrowed, and then worked, saved, and borrowed some more to be able to afford the move. They went as far as selling all of their belongings, leaving with nothing but the clothes on their backs and a few pieces of luggage. But it was all worth it to her; the city of Lima was riddled with crime at the time, and she worried about how her teenage son would fare in that environment. Norka was also fighting lupus and felt that she would have more medical resources available to her in the United States. “There was no cure or treatment in Peru, and it was new in the States, too. But it worked, part of research was done at the University of Utah,” says Fernandez. 

As for Fernandez, he started to become more comfortable in his new surroundings once he joined the soccer team at school and became friends with kids with similar interests.

Another major interest that helped Fernandez's transition was creative arts. He started his path in the arts back home in Peru. “It came naturally since I was a kid, I would paint and draw. I would spend time at my grandfather's shop. He was a shoemaker, handmade leather shoes. I just enjoyed being around him and seeing how he worked. We weren't rich but I had bespoke leather shoes.” Those skills in fine arts eventually evolved into an interest in photography and documentary filmmaking.

“I knew early on that I would be in the arts. I went to school for fine arts, photography, and documentary filmmaking in Florida and New York. Film brings all these elements together: sound, cinematography, emotion, editing, characters,” says Fernandez. 

But Fernandez never truly disconnected from his Peruvian heritage or the Latinx culture. Though sometimes he felt like “he left the tribe, or the tribe left [him],” he stayed connected through language and literature, and through an instilled work ethic. Norka spent most of her life cleaning houses to support her family and her son's dreams. In fact, with the encouragement of one of her clients, she was able to get Eddy into Stanford on a full scholarship to study neuroscience.

“Being Hispanic/Latinx is with you at all times. I come from a modest family, had a modest childhood so it’s a given that you have to give your all at all times. You have to perform at your best. You have to work hard...It’s already in you, in your genes, that you have to go the extra mile to get that opportunity. So, to me, that sort of encapsulates what being an immigrant is,” says Fernandez.

The bird that Fernandez identifies and remembers the most from his early life in Peru is the Andean Condor. This iconic bird was immortalized in song by Simon and Garfunkel in the 1970s. “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” was a hit song with music originally penned by Peruvian musician Daniel Alomía Robles in the style of traditional Andean folk music; English lyrics/verses were authored by Paul Simon. The song tells the tale of someone wanting to be free and powerful, yet still grounded. It tells the story of an unknown journey and the aspirations that help you continue on it, a journey not so different from Fernandez and his family’s.

In Loving Memory of Norka Rivera