Alejandra Hernandez: Chicana/o Studies Major Gives Back to South Los Angeles Community
There are nearly a dozen churches within a two-block radius of San Pedro Street in South Los Angeles. Alejandra Hernandez, a case manager for the Personal Involvement Center at the Praises of Zion Baptist Church, says that the worse a neighborhood is, the more churches there are, and centers like hers help residents not only spiritually, but with the day-to-day necessities of life.
Hernandez, who is a senior majoring in Chicana/o studies at California State University, Dominguez Hills, returns to her former neighborhood to help reunite parents recovering from domestic violence and drug abuse with their children, who in most cases are under guardianship of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.
“We work hard to get them back to their parents,” she says. “At the time we work with most of our clients, the children are in foster care or with a family member. We deal with clients that have been in abusive relationships... if they’re not able to take care of themselves, they’re not able to take care of their children.”
Hernandez says that the most surprising thing she has learned on the job has been that the circumstances that her clients find themselves in are based largely on poor decision making.
“I just think a lot of people make the wrong choices," she says. "They get stressed because the community they live in is so low-income and drug- and gang-infested. They make bad choices about not being able to cope with that, so they get into drugs and alcohol. They have anger issues, so sometimes they hurt their kids.”
Having come out of an impoverished, single-parent home herself, Hernandez feels a responsibility to serve her community and does so with her work at Personal Involvement Center; she also aspires to become a college professor and to work with underserved students.
“A lot of people do come out of this ‘hood’ that we call it and they make it,” says Hernandez, who now lives in South Gate. “I think it’s all about decisions. My choice was to go to school, but not to get out [of here], because I continue to come back to work in this community because I think the need is here.”
“I think that if there were more people trying to help me the way I’m trying to help [this community], I wouldn’t have gone through the hardships that I went through,” she notes. “My father was never around. My mom struggled to feed us everyday. I had to deal with getting jumped in a gang-infested community... getting into fights, having to protect myself everyday coming home from school.”
The youngest of two sisters and two brothers, Hernandez began working at age 13 as a restaurant hostess and at various clerical jobs. She began her undergraduate education at CSU Northridge and transferred to CSU Dominguez Hills two years ago in order to live with her mother, as both were experiencing health issues and needed each other’s support. She says that she appreciates the university’s “tight-knit community.”
“One of the best professors I’ve had is Dr. [Irene] Vasquez, the chair of Chicano studies,” says Hernandez. “She is an extraordinary woman. She has so many balls in the air and she knows how to juggle them all. She’s so caring with her students and goes above and beyond anything we ask her help for.”
The first in her immediate family to earn her college degree, Hernandez is proud of one of her nephews who followed in her footsteps and attends CSU Northridge. A participant in Latinas Juntas, an annual mentoring activity presented by the Office of Student Development, she says that she looks forward to becoming a professor and helping students in a community like hers to navigate their path to a degree.
“That’s what I’m talking about, when I say I want to reach back,” she says. “It’s hard for some of these students because they don’t know what’s out there for them unless they have somebody in their family that is going to college or a friend [that can help them]. They don’t know what resources there are, how to apply for their financial aid, or even how to apply for college.”
Hernandez says that a former boyfriend, who was on his way to attend San Francisco State University, encouraged her to pursue college
“He made me realize that there was something outside of here,” she says. “He mentored me and inspired me to go to college because it was a way out.”
- Joanie Harmon