Latino activist honored with North Bay Spirit Award
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.
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.
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.