At 23, Tiajuana Hernandez is a teacher, musician, and owns and runs three online businesses – quite an accomplishment for someone so young.
But not as impressive as her back story and the odds she has had to beat to get to where she is, and the struggles she knows are ahead to get where she wants to be.
In 2018 Hernandez was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) – the most common type of lupus, which affects many organs, especially the skin, joints and kidneys. Lupus occurs when the body's immune system attacks its own tissues and organs.
“I experience severe joint pains, fatigue, I lost my hair. Sometimes I get shortness of breath and chest pains, swollen ankles if I stand too long, brain fog and headaches. Before, when I had flares, I’d get rash mainly on my face, hands and feet. It got so bad that at one point I had open sores,” Hernandez told WMN.
At the time of her diagnosis she was a student at the UWI, St Augustine pursuing a degree in Musical Arts Special. She said this prevented her from playing her instruments – a key part of the degree requirements. Additionally, the disease caused her to black out several times during her studies and the medication she was prescribed affected her eyesight.
“I had to get glasses, and because I was so tiny, I had to try to gain weight to take the lowest dose of the meds, which was difficult because I had no appetite.”
But her story of perseverance began long before she even knew she had the autoimmune disease. Hernandez comes from a very modest home in Maracas, St Joseph and admitted it was something she was ashamed of.
“We were so poor that when it rained the roof would leak and my bed would get wet. Daddy used to have to use flash band to close off leaks. I never had friends visit me because I was so embarrassed…We lived near a river and it was always so cold, I used to get joint pains. At the time I didn’t know it was because of the lupus. I used to cry myself to sleep lots of nights and decided to work really hard to make a better life for me and my family.”
Despite the pain, the thinning hair and unexplained weight loss, Hernandez was balancing school, playing pan, singing calypso and parang. The former Tunapuna Government Secondary and St George’s College student said there were many times when she wanted to give up, but her love for music and her need to make a better life for herself kept her going.
“I play tenor pan with Supernovas Steel Orchestra as part of the stage side. Before that, I played with Revelation Institute for Performing Education (Ripe), and before that I was a member of Exocubs, the children’s arm of the Exodus Steel Orchestra.”
“At St George’s I was a member of the school’s parang group, Los Buenos Parrandos.”
And even when she was accepted into UWI she said she felt there were times when her love for music couldn’t sustain her and the urge to give up was strong. But Hernandez said while she struggled physically and mentally, she pressed on.
“In 2017 I remember I was playing with Ripe and I fainted on stage mid-performance. Music takes a lot out of you. That and the fact that I was still comparing myself to my friends who all had their own instruments. I had to use the instruments in the pan yard and borrow books because we couldn’t afford to buy. It was a lot of adapting.”
Hernandez said she may have still been undiagnosed if one of her aunts, who was visiting from the US, didn’t notice how sickly she looked and convinced her parents to take her to see a doctor.
“Dad used to say I just needed a worm out,” she chuckled.
“But mom took me to see a doctor and after several tests I was diagnosed with lupus…Then everything came tumbling down with my diagnosis. I got to a point where I couldn’t walk, my toes were sticking together, I was too weak to carry my own body weight.
"I didn’t want to use a wheelchair because I didn’t want to be viewed as disabled, so as hard as it was, I kept trying to do things for myself. My family and friends helped me out as much as they could.”
Eventually, Hernandez went to the US for treatment at the Lupus Foundation in New Jersey and returned home in a better condition. She is now a UWI graduate, a youth ambassador for The Voice of Lupus Foundation, a member of the parang band, Los Alumnos de San Juan, teaches at the Maloney Government Primary School, and is the owner of Styles by Juana – selling mainly female and children’s clothes, electronics, customised masks, T-shirts and key chains; D’Pansticks Plug TT – selling pan sticks and other pan accessories; and Tiajuanna Treats, making and selling cupcakes.
She joined Los Alumnos last year and said it takes its toll on her at times, but it’s more than worth it.
“It is a different level of parang because you have a dance routine, a lot of co-ordination and body movement. Sometimes I get tired, but my love for it keeps me pushing. It’s a dream come through, and I ignore the fatigue and pain I feel after because it’s worth it.”
She said of her three businesses, D’Pansticks Plug TT is her “baby.”
“I love the steel pan. I sell sticks, pans, pan stands, and customised T-shirts. Initially my dream was to open a music store because I love being surrounded by instruments…I buy and resell from local pan-stick makers. I am now a retailer for eight different brands of sticks, and there are more on the horizon. I’ve started shipping things abroad and partnering with steelpan makers as well.”
Apart from being a vocalist and pannist, Hernandez gives private classes in steel pan and music theory, is a beginner trumpeter player with the TT Youth Philharmonic, and plays the maracas and toc tocs.
“I also did African drumming, but had to stop because of the lupus."
Eventually, Hernandez said she will open the music store and music school of her dreams.
“It took a very long time and a lot of effort for me to achieve what I did. I really want to see my businesses grow and get to a place where I can hire people…At the beginning of my journey I was very depressed, but now I have learnt to adjust.
"It’s hard to stay positive when you’re always in so much pain, often feeling like you’re going to collapse, but sometimes you just need to take a little break. My greatest fear is that people will never choose me first because I’m sick and cannot fully commit. But I’ve accepted that these are the things I have to face.”
Follow Tiajuanna Hernandez @dpansticksplugtt on Instagram and on TikTok.