Well before the pandemic arrived, community organizer Natalie Hernandez faced challenges that left a mark on her life.
“I grew up knowing that my parents weren’t citizens, that they couldn’t travel outside of the country, and that they couldn’t vote,” Hernandez said in a Spanish interview with the Cafecito con Luz y Michelle podcast. “But I never exactly understood what that meant.”
In 2011, when Hernandez was 19 and a student at UNLV, she got word that her parents had been apprehended by immigration officials. Her father was deported and her mother was allowed to stay in the U.S. through the end of the month.
In the middle of the ordeal, her mother had a stroke that left her in the hospital long-term. The delay to deportation brought about by the hospitalization turned out to be something of a blessing in disguise — by the time Hernandez turned 21, she was able to petition for her mother to have permanent residency, and in November, her mother was able to become a U.S. citizen.
But the heartbreak has permanently changed her life trajectory.
“This opened my eyes to the injustices that were happening daily in my community,” she said. “I told myself, ‘I never want to feel this way again. If I educate myself and get involved, at least I can help more. Then I’m going to fight so this doesn’t happen to anybody else.’”
Hernandez has since found her place at Make the Road Nevada, a progressive advocacy organization where she’s worked for the last three years. She now serves as the co-deputy political director, where she advocates for policy changes such as affordable housing and immigration reform.
“I never expected a career in politics,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine being on the other side.”
The pandemic has brought all new challenges. Although the group is still fighting for its policy goals, it has sharpened its focus to meeting more basic and immediate needs — making sure people have food and shelter at a time when many immigrants are left out of government aid packages.
“The fight now looks a little different. The fight now is to ensure our community has what it needs to survive,” she said.
That effort has included helping administer grants from the Esperanza Fund, which serves undocumented immigrants who are ineligible for stimulus checks, unemployment and other government aid that has been a lifeline for many Nevadans during the economic downturn. Make the Road is one of several groups distributing $300 grants to families through the privately funded program.
The pandemic has also changed the way the group maintains connections to those it serves. When shutdowns prompted members of the organization to work from home, one of the biggest concerns was ensuring that Make the Road didn’t lose communication with members of the community.
Before the pandemic, the group’s office was bustling with meetings and information forums, and young people gathered to take part in after-school activities.
With the closures, the organization began to help members who didn’t know how to use a computer or the Zoom videoconferencing platform.
Make the Road also got creative in order to ensure members of the community stayed up-to-date during a year marked by coronavirus, major changes to immigration policy, an election and the census.
“We had a program called ‘Census and Supper.’ We sent a free dinner to families and a link so they could join on Zoom,” Hernandez said. “We explained the importance of the census and that they should feel safe to participate, although they weren’t U.S. citizens.”
Although 2020 has brought challenges and lessons, Hernandez knows that next year the organization will also have to pick up the pieces left by the pandemic. This includes advocating in the Legislature for the community they serve and closely following any changes brought about by the administration of President-elect Joe Biden.
“We are hoping that Biden’s team passes immigration reform,” she said. “Not just for DACA recipients, but for millions of other immigrants that don’t have any other way to become U.S. citizens.”