Alfonso Hernandez, founder of the Chicano Youth Center in Fresno, died Tuesday morning of a heart attack.
Mr. Hernandez, 64, was a social activist and leader who spent 40 years helping low-income, at-risk youth in his hometown. He fought for social justice and equity, starting during a time when Latinos were dropping out of high school at a rate far higher than the national average.
Javier Guzman, the current Chicano Youth Center director, described Mr. Hernandez as mild-mannered and deeply committed. He established more than 45 MEChA clubs, a student organization that promotes Chicano unity and empowerment. He led marches with 3,000 people during Cesar Chavez month. He brought members of opposing gangs into the same room for peace talks.
Mr. Hernandez’s sudden death came as a shock to family and friends.
“The guy did incredible things,” said Guzman, who had worked with Mr. Hernandez since he joined the center’s board of directors in 1995. “We lost a great leader.”
Mr. Hernandez was born and raised in west Fresno, one of 10 children. He worked with his siblings in the fields, picking grapes and pruning vineyard lines from age 10.
“It was rough, you know,” said his brother Danny Hernandez. “He did that and then went to college.”
After graduating from Central Union High School, he attended Fresno City College then Fresno State, where he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work and additional graduate education in criminology. It was there that Mr. Hernandez developed roots in social activism, joining MECha and forming another Chicano student organization called Trabajadores de la Raza.
During the late 1970s, Mr. Hernandez began working closely with Chicano students on education issues, resulting in more than 20 student protests. He learned to organize people under John Anders, then dean of the Fresno State school of social work. As a graduate student, he asked Anders to help him secure grants for a center that would serve minority students.
“At that time it was pretty rare for a Mexican to trust a white person that much with such a crucial matter as financing an organization,” Anders said.
They became best friends.
Mr. Hernandez founded the Chicano Youth Center in 1977 to provide young Latino gang members an opportunity to participate in organized sports activities and develop leadership skills. He saw the center as a place to pick up where the city and school district had failed.
In 1978, the center operated out of a converted three-bedroom house on East Tulare Avenue. By 2008, Mr. Hernandez partnered with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department to build the current 12,000-square-foot Dicky Youth Development Center, just north of downtown. It was his biggest feat, featuring a water fountain outside the front doors in the shape of an Aztec pyramid.
Now it is his legacy.
“It was one of the first centers to actually develop the concept whereby city youth programs and not-for-profits could come together,” said Guzman, the director. “He was challenged by the powers that be in Fresno who didn’t believe that having sports leagues with high-risk kids would reduce crime and he proved them wrong.”
In 1992, Mr. Hernandez was named as a recipient of the Temple Beth Israel Social Action Award for his significant contribution to the community. Later that decade, he received a $50,000 fellowship from the California Wellness Foundation, which he donated back to the center.
Anders said Mr. Hernandez made a lasting impact on his community. He described Mr. Hernandez’s biggest lesson as this: “Despite everything that happens to you, despite every discouragement and every indignity that people impose on you, believe in other people. It may not seem possible, but they will change.”