Meet the Mexican-American Jewish Millennial Running for Office in Arizona
An unprecedented number of women are chasing political office in the 2018 midterm elections. This month, we're profiling several worthy candidates who are seeking to effect change.
This summer, Alma Hernández drove from her home in Tucson to her mother’s birthplace of Nogales, Mexico, in an SUV packed full of diapers, food, and toiletries. She was traveling with the activist group she founded, Tucson Jews for Justice, to deliver goods to a migrant shelter where dozens of asylum-seekers were waiting to cross into the U.S.
The 25-year-old Mexican-American Jewish woman, poised to win a seat in Arizona’s House of Representatives in November, is on a mission to unite minority communities on the border around activism.
“We're all immigrants,” says Hernández, a former healthcare lobbyist. “I wanted asylum-seekers in Mexico to know that the Jewish community cares and that we're here to support. At the end of the day, we're all very similar.”
Not everyone in her orbit has embraced that ethos. When Hernández was 14, a police officer broke up a fight between her and two white women by violently tackling the tween to the ground, resulting in a spinal injury she still suffers from today. She’s received digital death threats, which multiplied when the white supremacist David Duke tweeted her name with the the directive “Fellow (((Hispanics))) intensify,” employing the anti-Semitic triple parenthetical used by the alt-right to point Internet trolls toward Jewish social media users.
“I never thought that David Duke was going to harass me for being who I am,” she says. “But honestly, I don’t pay any mind to these people.”
Having placed second in the Democratic primaries in a district with two open seats and no Republican opponents, Hernández is almost assured she’ll be sworn into office in January, which will make her the youngest member of the the state’s legislature. (In true millennial form, Hernández celebrated her early victory in August by posing for a Facebook picture with metallic bubble-letter balloons spelling out LD3, the name of her district.)
But don’t mistake her youthful exuberance for newbie status. Hernández got her start in politics a decade ago, having tagged along while her brother Daniel Hernández Jr., a fellow Arizona House Representative since 2016, campaigned for Hillary Clinton in 2008 and later interned for Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. (He’s credited with saving Giffords’ life after she was shot.) “My father would drive us the 30-minute ride from my house to the Democratic party headquarters and drop us off there after school,” she says. Back then, Hernández’s duties were limited to “shredding papers, because they didn't trust me to do anything else.” Now, she has bigger plans to reshape healthcare, education, and criminal justice in Arizona.
“I see my brother as a role model,” Hernández says, adding that if they both win, “we'll be the first brother-sister duo to serve in the state legislature.” Her sister, Consuelo, is in the family trade too, running for the school board.
Find out more about Alma Hernández's aspirations, below.
Fighting discrimination: At 14, the same year Hernández began volunteering, she was the victim of a brutal attack outside of her school building. Two older, white girls were physically bullying Hernández, when a white police officer intervened. “The officer ended up body slamming me on the ground, putting his whole weight on my spine with his knees. Pulling me from my hair, slamming my head on the cop car — all these things I still remember vividly,” she says. “I went from being the victim to being the criminal.”
Hernández endured severe nerve damage and, 10 years after the injury, still wakes up in chronic pain. “I take seven medications every morning,” she says. “It's been a very long journey to get where I am today, but I'm extremely proud of not letting that control my life.” It’s one reason she’s fighting hard for criminal justice reform, she says.
Running as a Woman: “I know that women running for office, we're always held to a different standard,” says Hernández, who’s felt that first-hand. “People make fun of the way I sit down, and the way I walk, or the way I look. There are times where I’m in pain and maybe I make a face, and people say, ‘She has such resting bitch face.’ I don’t know why they don’t do this to men, but we women have to deal with a lot more crap than anyone else.”
Converting to Judaism: While Hernández wasn’t raised with a particular religion, her maternal grandfather was a Mexican Jew, and “I always felt more connected to Judaism than I did to anything else,” she says. “I never didn’t feel Jewish.” In high school, she began a formal conversion process — which, as a “Hebrew school dropout,” took her several years, she jokes. Hernández completed her bat mitzvah at age 23. “It’s probably one of my greatest accomplishments to this day.” Her sister Consuelo worked as a rabbi’s assistant, and brother Daniel considers himself an “honorary member of the tribe.” Their parents, who’ve joined a local synagogue, “are very supportive of everything we do,” Hernández says.
Beyond Borders: Hernández, whose mother immigrated from Mexico, recognizes that her dual heritage gives her a unique opportunity to bring people from different backgrounds together around common goals, like immigration reform. The trip down to Nogales was one of several successful border-support projects she organized on behalf of the Tucson Jewish community.
Hernández hopes she can use that skill set to bridge gaps in the House of Representatives too. “My first thing when I go into office is going to be building coalitions with the people from the other side of the aisle,” she says. “It's time for us to move away from the rhetoric of partisan politics. I would like to see things change when it comes to healthcare, education, and criminal justice reform in Arizona. And in order for us to get anything through, we need to be able to work together.”
For more stories like this, pick up the November issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download now.