This Middle Georgia high school counselor wants to empower Latina women
Ana Hernandez always knew she wanted to go to college.
As a teenager in Brooklyn, Hernandez often heard the same six words: “That’s gonna be your way out.”
Hernandez was born in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to the United States when she was 14. Her father worked as a custodian until, after about five years, he’d earned enough money to buy his own small grocery store.
Hernandez’s family moved to the U.S. for the same reason immigrants have journeyed across land and sea for generations.
“For a better life,” Hernandez said.
The key to that better life, Hernandez was told, was education.
“It was instilled in me, ‘You have to go to college. You have to go college, because that’s gonna be your way out of poverty. That’s gonna be your way out of the stereotype,’ ” she said.
Hernandez has since earned a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees and an education specialist degree. She’s also counseled hundreds of students in her nearly 20-year career as a social worker, therapist, Spanish teacher and, most recently, Bibb County high school graduation counselor.
Mentors supported Hernandez through high school, college and the twists and turns of her career. She wants to do the same for Latina girls and women in Middle Georgia.
“I want to be that mentor,” Hernandez said. “I want to be that person telling them, ‘You can do it. Do not let anybody tell you otherwise.’”
Spreading Latina pride through Middle Georgia
Hernandez is proud of her heritage. It hasn’t always been easy, though, to appreciate what makes her different.
In college, Hernandez was self-conscious about her accent. When she moved to Warner Robins in her early 30s, the Dominican immigrant often felt others misjudged her based on her appearance or the way she spoke.
“People didn’t say: ‘Where are you from?’ They used to say: ‘Are you Mexican?’ Instantly,” Hernandez said.
It took about a year for Hernandez to adjust to life in the South. But even after more than a decade in Middle Georgia, Hernandez struggled to find resources for the Hispanic population outside of Atlanta.
So, she decided to take matters into her own hands.
About a year ago, Hernandez started the nonprofit organization, De Mujer a Mujer, which means “from woman to woman,” to empower a small but growing group of Hispanic women in the heart of the state.
“We motivate, we educate and we empower Latina women,” she said. “That’s our mission.”
De Mujer a Mujer launched in October 2017 with a day-long conference for Spanish-speaking women with workshops on topics ranging from mental health to immigration policy. Over 70 women attended both the first conference in 2017 and the second the following year.
“It’s just really wonderful to see Latina women come out and want to gain knowledge,” said Atlanta immigration lawyer Barbara Vazquez, a speaker at the annual conference who serves on the organization’s board.
Hernandez’s goal is to empower Latina women in Middle Georgia through knowledge, Vazquez said. At a time of uncertainty in the Hispanic community, she said, the annual De Mujer a Mujer conference serves as a vehicle to provide information to those who need it most.
It’s important for women to have opportunities to grow, said Monica Pirela, a Warner Robins-based Spanish-language journalist who attended the conference in 2018.
“The community needs events like this to show the importance of staying educated, the importance of growing – not only professionally, but also personally,” Pirela said in Spanish.
De Mujer a Mujer also provides opportunities for women to learn from one another throughout the year at monthly discussion sessions.
“When you listen to another woman going through some struggle, you’ll be like, ‘Oh, I’m not alone. Somebody else is going through that,’ ” Hernandez said. “And then you can get techniques, tools, strategies that can help you deal with whatever it is that you’re going through.”
The working mother of two wants women to know that “it’s OK not to perfect.”
‘Hispanic women need support in order to keep growing’
But even though Hernandez knows she can’t do it all, she’s dedicated to improving her community, Pirela said.
Through De Mujer a Mujer, Hernandez has given women power, she said.
“Hispanic women need support in order to keep growing,” Pirela said. “When you believe in yourself, you’ll carry that over to your family.”
Hernandez hopes to spread that message to a new generation of young Latina women. This year, she’ll award the first De Mujer a Mujer Scholarship to one female Hispanic high school senior.
“We would love to find that young Latina that is going to college, that is going to pursue their education, but not only that, that is also proud about her heritage and that will use this money to start her vision and growing and becoming better and then afterwards helping the community in some shape or form,” Hernandez said.
Even after decades in this country, Hernandez still considers herself a Dominican, first and foremost. She and her husband raised her two daughters to be fluent in both English and Spanish, and she keeps in close touch with her relatives who still live on the island.
Being an immigrant gives Hernandez the best of both worlds, she said.
“I have the best of America, the culture of America, the opportunities that this country have,” Hernandez said. “But, at the same time, I’m still rooted on my culture.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.