Alfred J. Hernández, Sr., Mexican American attorney, judge, civil rights leader, and three-time national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), was born in Mexico City on August 23, 1917, to José Hernández and Josefina (Guzmán) Hernández. To escape the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution, the family fled north—first to Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico, and then to Laredo, Texas, before finally reuniting with relatives in Houston, Texas, in October 1921. The family settled permanently in Houston’s Fifth Ward, and Hernández’s father opened a watch repair and cobbling shop. Hernández attended Houston public schools and graduated from Jefferson Davis High School in 1935.
Hernández showed early signs of leadership ability while in high school. Responding to a lack of recreational and extracurricular opportunities for Mexican American students, who faced de facto segregation in public schools, he organized El Club Tenochtitlán, which helped sponsor numerous recreational and cultural activities intended to present the Mexican community in the best public light. He also attended social functions organized by El Club Cultural Recreativo México Bello, where he first met Felix Tijerina, a future confidant, civil rights leader, and fellow LULAC president. Hernández excelled academically as well and demonstrated a strong aptitude for mastering languages. Having spoken only Spanish as a small child, with the help of a dedicated tutor, he overcame his lack of English language skills and eventually lost his accent entirely. He also became known for his public speaking ability in both Spanish and English. After graduating from high school, Hernández joined his father’s watch repair business and worked part-time as a radio announcer for both English and Spanish-language radio stations.
Hernández married Herminia “Minnie” Casas on April 26, 1942. The couple had one son and one daughter. Soon thereafter, on August 13, 1943, he entered into the U.S. Army. After basic training at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Hernández was sent to Aberdeen, Virginia, for technical training. The army, aware of his background in highly technical mechanical repairs, trained him to work with safety equipment and fire alarm systems. Hernández was then deployed to North Africa as a member of the 2615th Technical Supervision Regiment. He eventually served in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and France. While in North Africa he learned to speak both French and Italian. His superiors were so impressed that he was assigned secondary duty as a translator and was promoted to sergeant. Later, while serving in Italy, he was sworn in as a U.S. citizen. Then, he was sent to France to supervise POWs working at an oil refinery. After the war, he was stationed in New York City before being discharged on February 3, 1946, with the Bronze Star and the Good Conduct Medal.
Upon his return to Houston, Hernández continued his previous work as a watch repairman and as a host of KATL’s Rancho Grande radio program. With assistance from the G.I. Bill he attended the University of Houston and the South Texas College of Law (now Houston College of Law) at night. He graduated and began his solo law practice in 1953. During this time Hernández became heavily involved with the Houston-based LULAC Council No. 60. Initially drawn to LULAC due to his concerns over educational and employment opportunities for Mexican American youth, he eventually served as an officer and president of the local chapter. Additionally, in 1950 he was one of several members of the council who helped get the first ever Houston Mexican American police officer. Seven years later, Hernández was appointed judge in the Houston Municipal Courts where he served for ten years. He was later appointed alternate judge in the Harris County Criminal Courts of Law and in the County Juvenile Courts.
Hernández remained an active figure in the struggle for civil rights as the national LULAC legal counsel and president for three terms, from 1965 to 1967. During his years in LULAC, he played an important role in establishing the organization’s Little School of the 400, an initiative that served as the basis for the Head Start Program established during the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Hernández achieved a level of notoriety in 1966. In March of that year, he joined with other LULAC members in a walkout during a meeting of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and accused President Johnson’s agency of discrimination against Mexican Americans. He also helped organize the 1966 farmworkers march from the Rio Grande Valley to Austin, Texas, a protest action that accompanied a strike in Rio Grande City and a call for minimum wage legislation for the farm workers (see STARR COUNTY STRIKE). The march drew much public notice when Governor John Connally met the marchers in New Braunfels to avoid a confrontation in Austin. Hernández was also the founder and chairman of the board of SER—Jobs for Progress, Inc., and a member of Houston’s Crime Commission.
Alfred J. Hernández, a World War II veteran, judge, and a prominent civil rights activist associated with LULAC, passed away on September 4, 2010, in Houston. He was survived by his wife Herminia, his son Alfred Jr., his daughter Anna, and several grandchildren and great grandchildren. A funeral Mass was held at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Houston, and he was buried in Forest Park Lawndale Cemetery in that city.