Rod Hernandez: Making History Through Mentoring
When Rod Hernandez, assistant professor of English, introduces The Squatter and the Don in his classes, he does more than teach about the first novel written by a Mexican American in the United States. Written by Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton in 1885, the historical work of fiction mirrors the story of the Dominguez family that settled the area surrounding the CSU Dominguez Hills campus, which originally was comprised of 75,000 acres that make up the South Bay region.
“Although the events in the novel don’t pertain to the local history here, they have to do with the transition that California has made, being part of Mexico, and prior to that, part of Spain, to being part of the United States,” he says. “I ask the students to go into the archives that we have here in the University library, and compare what they see in there on the Dominguez family, with the family represented in the novel. This is an interesting way to study not just those two histories, but how a writer constructs from historic narrative.
“It’s something that I think is really important to know,” he says. “I’m a big proponent of knowing local histories.”
Hernandez hopes to make local history as the new president of the Latino Faculty and Staff Association (LFSA) on campus. As the sponsor of events such as the annual Cesar Chavez Tardeada, the organization seeks to encourage and retain Latina/o and Chicana/o students through mentoring.
“Clearly, the demographics of the University have changed over the last few years, and Latino students are more represented than in the past,” he says. “What hasn’t been the case is more representation in the faculty and administration. You can argue about whether or not that’s not important. I’ve had mentors who don’t necessarily share my ethnic background, who have been some of the most valuable mentors in my career. But there is also something to be said for having that kind of representation available.
“On a consistent basis, my students are somewhat surprised to see a Mexican American teaching in the English department,” he says. “I realize that they are looking at me as kind of breaking the stereotype or expectation that they have of themselves.”
Hernandez sees part of the LFSA’s mission as encouraging more Latina/o and Chicana/o students to pursue advanced degrees and to teach by getting them “to become as engaged as they possibly can in their discipline, and to get to know the faculty members and ask them questions to try to demystify the process. This is important, particularly for those who are first-generation college students who don’t know anybody who’s gone through a graduate or doctorate program. As a student myself, I saw the importance of knowing there were people who had a similar background and experiences, and have accomplished getting a Ph.D. We’re not saying that they can’t talk to anyone else about it, but they say, ‘This is really inspiring to see you doing this.’ Hopefully we can answer their questions about what it takes to be the next generation of teachers and scholars.”
The LFSA also intends to bolster the confidence of students who are also trying to break cultural barriers by their choice of major, according to Hernandez.
“Students feel like they can talk to me about their anxieties about majoring in something like English. They ask, ‘Can I do it? I’m not sure my English is good enough,’ or say, ‘I don’t know anybody else who is majoring in this. I should be doing Spanish or Chicano Studies.’ My approach is to say, ‘If this is something you feel drawn to, you should do it. You should have the freedom to do what you want, regardless of everyone’s expectations. This is ultimately about providing that kind of guidance, and being someone who the students can approach about this.”
Hernandez underscores the importance of the LFSA’s acknowledgement of gender diversity as well, in view of CSUDH’s majority of female students.
“When we talk about having a more representative faculty and administration, we’re going to be thinking about gender as well, and making that a key component,” he says. “Two of our new executive members, Monica Rosas-Baines (psychologist, Student Development) and Denna Sanchez (psychologist, Student Development), both started a mentoring program for Latina students, and I’m one of the mentors. This is something that would be valuable to our students, and might help us recruit more students, keep them here, and inspire them to go to graduate school and to be teachers and scholars.”
- Joanie Harmon