Latino activist honored with North Bay Spirit Award

The North Bay Spirit Award

The North Bay Spirit award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

To nominate your own candidate go to

There may be a more eloquent way to describe how a Guerneville real estate broker came to play such a central role in the movement to engage and empower Sonoma County's burgeoning Latino community.

But clichés are tried and true for a reason, so it comes down this: Herman J. Hernandez picked up the ball and simply wouldn't put it down.

A Sonoma County resident for close to five decades, Hernandez, 68, has been a devoted community volunteer since Day One, when, as a newcomer to Guerneville at age 19, he asked his dad for advice about how to meet people, was handed a newspaper and was instructed to “read it, and see who needs help.”

As a founding member 40 years later of Los Cien Sonoma County leadership group and now its president, he considers it part of his personal journey to have stepped out of his comfort zone in the lower Russian River and inserted himself in an ambitious effort to boost civic involvement among Latino residents countywide.

It took a certain amount of confidence to assume he could inspire enough people to make a difference when he was not particularly comfortable even speaking in front of large groups.

But there was also a more profound transition in the offing for a man of mixed Salvadoran and German ancestry and a largely “mainstream” life devoted to raising a family, building his business and volunteering on behalf of local causes like youth sports, Rotary Club and other community organizations.

Breakfast meetings

It wasn't until he was invited to participate in some informal breakfast meetings in Santa Rosa around 2008 that would inspire the Coalition for Latino Civic Engagement and, later Los Cien, that Hernandez began to involve himself more deeply in Latino issues.

“I'm kind of a late bloomer,” said Hernandez, whose wife of 36 years, Guillermina, is Mexican. “I lived my Latino heritage when I'd go to Mexico or Central America - El Salvador, where my dad was from - with my family. But I didn't live it at its fullest potential.”

These days, he leads Sonoma County's pre-eminent Latino advocacy group, providing a platform for discussion of pressing issues, facilitating communication with political, civic and business leaders, and engaging young people in conversation designed to inspire the next generation.

Famously launched in the back room of a Mary's Pizza Shack, Los Cien claims about 1,500 members and associates, and last year hosted more than 600 people for its fifth annual State of the Latino Community forum.

The group has inspired similar movements initiated more recently in Marin, Napa and Mendocino counties - now allied with the nonprofit through the Northern California Latino Leaders, Los Cien board member Lisa Carreño said.

It also commands the attention of anyone seriously seeking to win or retain public office in the area and has helped to cultivate several candidates, as well.

Great listener

They include Hernandez's once apolitical son, Herman G. Hernandez, now a second term member of the Sonoma County Board of Education who credits his political awakening to attending Los Cien meetings with his dad.

“I think he's found his purpose and he's found his true passion through that platform of Los Cien, because he's naturally a connector,” Herman G. Hernandez, 32, said of his father. “He's a social butterfly. He talks to everybody. But he's also a great listener.

“He's always very passionate, and he's really authentic, and I think people really respect that about my father.”

Herman J. Hernandez is this month's recipient of the new North Bay Spirit Award, a joint project of The Press Democrat and Comcast. The awards honors everyday heroes for hands-on community service that goes above and beyond normal volunteering. The award puts a spotlight on people who come up with creative solutions to community problems and go all-in for a cause with a leadership style that inspires others to step up.

Hernandez's volunteer resume was notable even before Los Cien was created and includes stints with the Russian River Park and Recreation District, the Sonoma County Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission, the county Health Action Board, the county Family Justice Center and the North Bay Association of Realtors.

Hernandez said it goes back to his father's early advice about finding community by going where help was needed - which, one day in 1969, meant schlepping straw bales and lumber for the Guerneville School Halloween carnival.

“I loved it,” Hernandez recalled.

The carnival project led to an acquaintanceship with the school's longtime superintendent, Sam Pullaro, who offered the budding community college student a job coaching youth sports. Hernandez earned $90 a month then, though he would continue coaching for decades, free of charge.

The North Bay Spirit Award

The North Bay Spirit award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

To nominate your own candidate go to

“That was the beginning,” Hernandez said.

In the meantime, he was preparing to follow in the footsteps of his father, who had run a real estate office in San Francisco since 1953 but had for years spent weekends on the river. Hernandez helped his father set up a new office in Guerneville in 1971 and earned his own real estate license in 1973, followed by his broker's license in 1978, a year after losing his dad. His daughter, Daniela Hernandez, now works with him at Zephyr Real Estate.

Growth in a bubble

Hernandez was invited to join the Russian River Rotary Club at just 23, becoming its first Latino member and beginning a long relationship with the service club. Alongside the North Bay Association of Realtors, it would absorb much of his time and energy for decades to come, while providing fellowship, business networking and personal development.

But to a large degree, “my growth was in a bubble,” Hernandez said. “My growth was in the Russian River. I learned from being a Realtor and a Rotarian.”

Change was afoot, however, and it lured Hernandez out of the river region into the county seat, where a small group of Latinos had begun meeting over huevos rancheros sometime around 2007 to talk generally about civic issues, including frustration with the limited input their community had in public policy and its lack of representation on appointed bodies, not to mention elective office.

Juan Nieto, now a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker in Santa Rosa, knew Hernandez through real estate circles and invited him to join the breakfast group at Chelino's on Fourth Street. Part of the impetus for the meetings was the recognition that public officials continually looked to the same three or four people to provide the voices of the growing Latino population, because they “didn't know where to go, where to look” to get a broader perspective, Nieto said.

Hernandez also remembers profound dissatisfaction within the group when the Santa Rosa City Council appointed a non-Latino to fill a vacant council seat despite the interest of several Latino candidates.

Civic engagement

The group continued to meet and grow, drawing in more concerned citizens who in 2008 formed the Coalition for Latino Civic Engagement, or CLACE, which obtained funding to survey the Latino population of the Roseland neighborhood and conduct voter registration.

By then, two prominent local Latinos, Efren Carrillo and Ernesto Olivares, were engaged in what would be successful runs for Fifth District county supervisor and Santa Rosa City Council.

But the survey revealed what organizers already knew: The larger community needed to know Latino votes and voices mattered.

“It created a vision in my mind of saying, ‘Hey, let's get Latinos together and talk about the issues that we deal with on a regular basis,'?” Hernandez said. “How do we overcome issues, obstacles that occur on a daily basis?' “It was really to kind of create a group of individuals to support each other, believe in each other, that we can go out and make a difference,” he said.

Early lunch meetings at Mary's Pizza included meetings with people like the sheriff, chief of police, district attorney, elected officials and others, including frank discussion about perceptions and misconceptions, improving relationships and better outreach in the Latino community, participants said.

Growing participation among business people and nonprofit representatives created synergy and cross-pollination that resonated with a wide group, Nieto recalled. “Herman made it very welcoming,” he said.

The meetings moved from Mary's to Sam's Cafe on Cleveland Avenue and finally to the Flamingo Hotel, where the seven lunches each year now draw between 150 and more than 300 people, including sponsored high school students, to hear about topics from education and health care to law enforcement and immigration.

The group also has worked to build bridges and create partnership with non-Latino individuals and organizations and worked to reflect the interests of rural communities, as well.

“We are all in this thing together,” said Carreño. “Our shared prosperity really depends on our capacity and our willingness to recognize that, and that's the thing that I think Herman does so well, is he's able to grasp that, communicate that and invite lots and lots and lots of different players to come and share.”

Said Nieto: “It was his energy and his drive and determination to continue to make a difference, and it's evolved. Now it's huge, and there's a board and some financial support from all areas, and he's elevated the conversation. He ran with it, took and made it what it is.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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