Alexandra (Alex) Hernandez (B.A. ’08, M.A. ’10) tears up when she tells the story of visiting Poston, a Japanese American confinement site in Arizona.
In her first official “work trip,” Hernandez joined two former Japanese American incarcerees and park service staff to learn more about the site. As they drove onto the site, one of the former incarcerees demanded they stop. She dove out of the car and ran into nearby fields, leaving Hernandez and the other travelers rushing to keep up. They finally caught up with the woman in a clearing, standing near the remnants of a foundation in the sweltering Arizona heat.
“I was born here,” she said to Hernandez. “This was the hospital for the camp.”
Hernandez traveled with the former incarcerees because she serves as the assistant program manager and historian for the Japanese American Confinement Sites (JACS) Grant Program, which provides federal funding to preserve and interpret WWII Japanese American confinement sites. She manages funds and advises 10 large Japanese American confinement sites and dozens of smaller ones.
“The emotions I experience when I hear people’s stories – and the healing and therapeutic effects of sharing stories – is what gets me out of bed and into the office every day,” said Hernandez.
A project like those associated with the Japanese American Confinement Sites, however, can bring up painful emotions for communities.
“World War II veterans often had very different reactions to these projects than Japanese American communities, as you can imagine,” said Hernandez. “They could feel uneasy by this different story about WWII, even though that was never the intent.”
Bringing communities together for historic preservation
The Japanese American confinement sites are only one part of her job in the National Park Service (NPS). As the acting program manager for the Heritage Partnerships Program in the intermountain region, she works with the National Historic Landmarks Program, JACS Grant Program, HABS/HAER/HALS, and National Heritage Areas Program. She oversees historic preservation projects from Texas to Montana.
“People have often never heard of National Heritage Areas, but there are a lot of them, including the Cache la Poudre River National Heritage Area in Fort Collins,” said Hernandez. “The NPS helps communities and organizations interpret and preserve nationally-significant places that are important to them. We provide funding, but we also help with planning, historical documentation and surveys, and education. These projects come from people in the area. Communities decide what they want. They build the local support and we help them achieve their goals.”
Building local support isn’t always easy. A recent river bank restoration project for the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area in Arizona needed support from farmers, tribal representatives, and the city — groups that often disagree with one another.
“But they all had memories of the Colorado River,” Hernandez said. “And they all wanted their families to reconnect with that. So a really diverse group agreed to a project to remove the invasive species along the river, open it up to recreational trails, and create the Yuma East Wetlands. The Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area was instrumental in bringing the people of Yuma back to the Colorado River.”
Her experience at Colorado State University in the Department of History and the Center for Public Deliberation prepared her to facilitate the hard conversations historical preservation requires.
“Reading and discussing books like History Wars about the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay exhibit controversy was great preparation,” said Hernandez. “It helped me consider all sides to the story and made me realize the importance that memory plays in interpreting the past.”
For Hernandez, bringing communities together, letting them tell their stories, and helping them hear each other even when those stories are hard to hear makes her work meaningful.
Finding a career at the National Park Service
Though she loves her job, she didn’t set out to work in the National Park Service. A few twists of fate changed her course.
Hernandez graduated from CSU with a bachelor’s degree in social studies teaching in history in 2008 during the height of the recession. Jobs evaporated, so, like many others, she decided to go to graduate school to make herself more competitive in the market.
Remembering a class she enjoyed as an undergraduate, Introduction to Public History, Hernandez enrolled in the graduate version of the course, The History of National Parks. The instructor, Jeff Pappas, worked for the park service and had shared his respect and inspiration for every part of his job – from the mission to the uniform he wore.
“I remember he even described the meaning behind the Sequoia cone belt on his uniform,” Hernandez said, laughing. “His love for his job impressed me. It made me want to be part of that agency.” Intrigued by that class, she pursued a master’s degree in public history at CSU.
During graduate school, Hernandez landed a NPS internship at the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site in Montana through a partnership the agency had with the Public Lands History Center. There, Hernandez got her first taste of field work.
“Grant-Kohrs Ranch was a long way from California, where I grew up,” she said. But the dedication of the interpretive rangers, even at a park that didn’t get a lot of visitors, inspired her to apply for an internship with the NPS Student Career Experience Program.
Then fate struck again. Hernandez joined the NPS Intermountain Regional Office in Denver as a historian intern which she successfully leveraged into a full-time job. After earning a full-time position with the NPS, she’s been able to work with communities and parks across the region.
Working for the National Park Service isn’t just hiking in the mountains, though. “I work for the National Park Service, which is a federal job,” Hernandez explained. She manages the budgets of the preservation programs which means she has to clock time at a desk, and juggle bureaucracy and paperwork. The drawbacks are worth the rewards for Hernandez.
“Bringing to light what has happened in our history, helping people understand that it could happen again, and trying to create a space where people can talk. This is what I do.”
-Story originally published in the Winter 2017 Liberal Arts Magazine