Written by: Kylie Ora Lobell
Hernandez went into politics to give a voice to those who don’t have one.
Spending time in juvenile detention doesn’t typically turn out well for most people. But for Alma Hernandez, it ended up being a blessing.
Hernandez was only 14 years old when her school resource officer lied about an incident that happened at her high school. Two 19-year-old seniors outside of her school assaulted her, and then she was brutally attacked by the SRO who intervened. She was injured with spinal damage, and the SRO lied about what happened, blaming her.
“I was arrested and booked into juvenile detention on a Friday and could leave that evening, as my parents were able to get me out,” she said. “The experience was terrifying for me. It impacted me to the core.”
Hernandez’s whole world was flipped upside down.
“I went from being an honor student to being deemed a ‘criminal’ and a danger to society the next day for something I did not do,” she said. “I realized how many injustices there are in the system.”
#Five years ago, Hernandez was elected to the Arizona House of Representatives, becoming the first Mexican-American Jew elected to office in the US.
After this experience, Hernandez didn’t want this to happen to anyone else, and she resolved to become a public servant one day.
Five years ago, she got the chance to live out her dream: she was elected to the Arizona House of Representatives, becoming the first Mexican-American Jew elected to office in the U.S. At age 25, she was also the youngest person ever elected to the House.
Alma Hernandez with a Holocaust survivor
“I used my terrible situation to turn it around and make it positive,” she said.
The 29-year-old is going on her third term this year serving her constituents in Tucson. She is also currently in law school because she wants to continue working for the public.
“I decided to go to law school to further my career in politics,” Hernandez said. “I know that my degree will be helpful.”
The young politician spends her mornings in classes in law school. In the afternoons, she goes to the House of Representatives in Phoenix, a two-hour drive from her home, to work.
Along with standing up for people in need, one of Hernandez’s goals is to bridge the divide between her party, the Democrats, and the Republicans, in Arizona and beyond. She is on the bipartisan caucus and has worked with her Republican colleagues on many issues to improve their state.
“When you work in a bipartisan way, you’re able to get more done,” she said. “It’s critical when you want to create change. I wish we had more people willing to do that on both sides. It’s something that is very important. Our parents always told us to do the right thing, even if it wasn’t popular.”
Politics is a family affair for Hernandez. Her brother Daniel is a former state representative who represented his district for five years, and her sister Consuelo currently works alongside her in the House. Together, they are on the Jewish caucus.
“There are four members of the Jewish caucus, so we are literally half of it,” Hernandez said.
The two sisters also host Moishe House, an organization that brings young Jews together, out of their place in Tucson. Hernandez used to be president of the AIPAC club on her college campus, too.
When she was younger, Hernandez knew that she had a Jewish grandfather on her mother’s side. His last name was Cohen, and he changed it to Quinonez to fit into Mexican society. He was raised in Cananea, in Sonora, Mexico.
“My grandfather passed away when I was younger, so unfortunately I never had the opportunity to learn a lot of detail from his family or life,” she said.
Hernandez’s mother is from Nogales, also in Sonora, and her father is from California. Growing up, Hernandez had Jewish friends and said she, “felt connected to Judaism more than anything else… there was always part of me that felt Jewish.”
When she was a freshman in college, she decided to learn more about Judaism, so she went to a local synagogue. Right away, she found that she connected with her heritage.
“My mom was very emotional about it,” she said.
Hernandez and her sister ended up converting, and the rest of her family was supportive. When it came time to pick a Hebrew name, she chose something that perfectly fit her personality and reflected her family.
“I decided to honor my great grandmother, whose name was Mercedes, by using the M for ‘Malka,’” she said. “Her mother’s name was Librada, which means liberated in English, and when I got my Hebrew name, I added the extra name, which is Malka Librada, or ‘queen of liberation.’”
Judaism is a “really big part of my life every day… I am so loud and proud.”
Hernandez wears her Magen David necklace and calls herself an Unapologetic Mexican Jew on her Twitter bio. When she first ran for office, she received a huge amount of antisemitic messages online as well as death threats after notorious antisemite and former KKK grand wizard David Duke went after her.
“I got so many hate messages and emails,” she said. “It was all directly related to who I am.”
Hernandez logged off of social media for two weeks to take a break from it all. While she still receives some hateful messages, she can handle them now.
“I’m kind of used to it,” she said. “It doesn’t bother me as much. I don’t let it shake me anymore.”
Despite the anti-Israel sentiments all over the internet, Hernandez isn’t afraid to vocalize her support for the Jewish state.
“I’ve been to Israel five times, and I spent a whole month there in August,” she said. “Everything Jewish or Israel related, I am 100% wanting to be involved. It would be nice if I could live in Israel at some point in my life or at least vacation there for longer than a few weeks.”
Jewish values are directly tied to Hernandez’s work. According to the representative, people who run for office do it because they want to create change. And for Hernandez, that means being there for other people and making the world a better place.
“Whether I’m working on legislation or I’m voting, I think: How can this help people, uplift them, and make sure they are taken care of?” she said. “That’s a big part of who we are as Jews.”