Alma Hernandez doesn’t fit the description of a traditional politician. She’s Jewish, Latina, 25 years old, and she’s fundraising for migrant families at the border.
Which is why last month, David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, spotlighted Hernandez on Twitter. To his nearly 50,000 followers, the white supremacist tweeted, “Fellow (((Hispanics))) intensify,” invoking the triple parentheses used as an antisemitic symbol to highlight the names of individuals of Jewish background. (The Anti-Defamation League quickly condemned Duke.)
“I’m the perfect target for him,” Hernandez says, who is running for a seat in the Arizona House of Representatives. “Knowing that this man has me on his radar shook me to my core, but also empowers me to continue fighting for what I believe in,” she says, “As Paul Newman said, ‘If you don’t have enemies, you don’t have character,’ and today I will show the [David Dukes] of the world that my fellow Hispanics will indeed intensify.”
Hernandez’s dual minority background makes her double the target–but it also enables her to bridge two communities that aren’t always aligned in mutual interests. A longtime activist and community organizer, Hernandez is using her unique positioning to get both Latinx and Jewish residents of Tucson, Arizona’s second-largest city, to come together for progressive causes.
“I’m trying to make people understand that just because we practice different religions doesn’t mean we’re different,” Hernandez says. “We’re all human. We’re neighbors.”
“It’s Our Duty”
Alma Hernandez was only 14 years old when she first got her taste for politics. Her older brother, Daniel Hernandez Jr., then campaigning for Hillary Clinton in 2008, bribed his sister with free snacks.
“He said, ‘We’ll make sure you’re fed,'” recalls Hernandez with a laugh. She spent the majority of her freshman high school year volunteering alongside her brother.
Daniel Hernandez later interned for Gabby Giffords, whose life he was credited with saving during an assassination attempt against the former congresswoman in 2011. Now openly gay, he was elected to the Arizona House of Representatives in 2016, and works to educate his constituents on LGBTQ issues.
His sister Alma converted to Judaism in 2015 and now attempts to connect the Latinx and Jewish communities. She previously served as a coordinator of Tucson’s Jewish Community Relations Council, and this past year cofounded Tucson Jews for Justice, a progressive activist group that aims to get Jews and non-Jews alike to rally for a number of issues, such as gun control, healthcare, and immigrants.
“I felt that there was a lack of engagement within the community as far as going, actually doing things, and being vocal about them,” says Hernandez, stressing, “It’s our duty to stand up and say something.”
Hernandez connects the two communities so that they can take action together. Despite Tucson’s diverse makeup, most groups haven’t had much contact with other groups, says Hernandez. “A lot of people haven’t been out of their area. Exposing them to different groups of people is a great way to build these relationships and have these conversations,” she says.
Both Jewish and Latinx Americans have experienced their share of immigrant struggles and discrimination, which could serve to link the two communities. Last month 26 Jewish groups signed a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions opposing the “unconscionable” government policy of separating children from their immigrant parents. Numerous Jewish religious leaders restated the line from Deuteronomy, which reads, “You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
While Hernandez applauds such public outcry, she doesn’t think it’s enough: She asserts that we cannot simply rely on agencies or rabbis to right what’s wrong.
“That really relies on the shoulders of our community members,” she says.
Hernandez has experienced discrimination personally. She says she was brutally attacked by a male school resource officer as a teenager, and afterward was “exposed to a criminal justice system rigged against people of color, especially those without means.” To this day, the young politician suffers from severe spinal issues that resulted from the attack. Such experiences led her to serve with the Young Democrats of America Hispanic caucus, along with helping to establish the Jewish Latino Teen Coalition, a subgroup of the Jewish Federation that plans events for Hispanic and Jewish teenagers.
Today, Hernandez focuses on taking action: She has organized rallies protesting the current administration’s family separation policy, among other other issues. Tucson is a majority-minority city, with Latinx residents comprising 41% of the population.
With Tucson just 60 miles north of Mexico, Hernandez also coordinates fleets of cars to deliver necessities to poor families in the border town of Nogales, Mexico. In mid-June, she led Tucson residents in SUVs packed with diapers, food, medical supplies, hygiene products, and toys for children. Hernandez’s mother is from Nogales, which serves as a gateway to the U.S.
“They come with nothing. They don’t have anything,” says Hernandez, noting that many families have been waiting weeks to be able to cross and seek asylum. According to the American Immigration Council, the asylum process can take years to process. As of March 2018, more than 318,000 affirmative asylum applications were pending with USCIS.
At one shelter, Hernandez and her fellow volunteers met multiple families with roughly 30 collective children who were eager to connect with supporters. That’s a big motivating factor for the group, which raises funds and provides assistance, and “wants to let them know that we care,” says Hernandez.
The children especially tugged at the group’s heart. The young refugees were barely interested in the abundance of toys Jewish Jews for Tucson collected on their behalf. “The kids were asking if we had any books for them,” recounts Hernandez. “They wanted to read.”
Judaism is another huge component of Hernandez’s identity, having been drawn to the religion after discovering that her maternal grandfather was Jewish. She is involved in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and, on numerous occasions, publicly addressed issues within the Jewish community, including more controversial topics, such as the Palestinian-Israel conflict. She ends many of her Tweets with hashtags that demonstrate her multicultural leanings: #IStandWithIsrael, #ImmigrantHeritageMonth, or #Dreamers.
Straddling two identities can, at times, raise minor conflicts. For example, being a progressive Democrat who vocally supports Israel’s right to defend itself is “hard right now,” concedes Hernandez. “But you need to stand up for what you believe in.”
For the most part, Hernandez thinks her unique identity makes for a stronger, more compassionate point of view. If anything, it’s an advantage, says Hernandez. “I feel like I can see things through a different lens.”
At the same time, she laments the current political atmosphere that has, in some ways, affected how the public potentially views her alliances. President Trump repeatedly made inflammatory statements about Mexican immigrants, claiming they bring drugs, crime, and rapists to the country. Meanwhile, Russian president Vladimir Putin told NBC News’s Megyn Kelly that Jews may be responsible for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. Numerous groups called on Trump to denounce the libelous statement, but to no avail.
“I don’t think that some of the things the president has done or said has made my situation or my cause or what I stand for any easier,” says Hernandez. “It makes it more difficult.”
Regardless, Hernandez is adamant that, despite oncoming hurdles, Jews, women, and Latinx Americans can sway the political climate. The last year alone saw record numbers of women and minorities running for office, with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent win in a New York primary a tide-shifting example. Bloomberg reports that women running for U.S. House and Senate races saw a 67% jump from 2016. In Arizona, specifically, women make up two of the top three positions in the state’s Democratic party.
While some credit Trump backlash for the increase in minority campaigns, Hernandez reminds the public that plenty of groups have been involved in politics, though perhaps not as recognized or given the proper amount of national attention. She, for example, has campaigned or run campaigns for the last 11 years.
“We just haven’t had a seat at the table like many others have had,” says Hernandez.
Come August, Hernandez is hopeful she will win the democratic primary and will go on to fight for a seat at the table in a predominantly red state. In the meantime, you can find her week after week, organizing fleets of cars to the border. With her Mexican and Jewish neighbors, she’s intent on making a difference, even if it’s just a local one.
“There are many things we do together,” says Hernandez, encouraging minority groups to band together. “But if people are going to say anything, they have to actually be doing something–not sitting at home writing on their Facebook page or on Twitter. They have to step up and do something themselves. That’s really the only way to change what’s going on.”