This article was originally published in the July 2017 Trenton Downtowner.
Roberto Hernandez’s normally upbeat voice was grainy with emotion as he spoke of his father, whose example propelled Hernandez to a 35-year career in social services — including his current position as director of El Centro, the Trenton-based resource center for immigrant families.
Carolino Hernandez was a World War II and Korean War veteran. He was a Borinqueneer — a member of the 65th Infantry Regiment known for its brave feats as the only active-duty segregated Latino military unit in U.S. history. Carolino was brave, proud, and humble. He fought not only for his country, but for his children to have a prosperous future on United States soil.
In 1954, just before Hernandez was born, Carolino moved his family from Puerto Rico to Hightstown, where he got a job on a chicken farm. They lived in a 12-by-20-foot cinder block building with no heat. That November, Hernandez’s elder brother came down with pneumonia. Carolino walked nearly 10 miles with his bundled child until he reached the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital. When he got there, his 2-year-old son was already gone.
Carolino spoke no English and tried to explain that his son had been sick. But the staff, unable to understand him, called the police to have him arrested. An Italian man heard the conversation and was able to clarify the confusion and prevent Carolino from being incarcerated. Carolino and his family, however, were heartbroken. They moved back to Puerto Rico and did not return to the U.S. until Hernandez was 10.
In 1966 they returned to the United States, where Hernandez started on his mission to develop a community that welcomes and supports immigrants. Since 1999 Hernandez has worked as executive director and founder of Trenton’s El Centro, a resource for local and immigrant families to prosper in the community. In April the Mercer County Commission on Abused, Neglected, and Missing Children honored Hernandez for his years of service to area families by giving him the Professional Award. The commission, in a press release, cited Hernandez’s dedicated, committed, and compassionate approach to his work.
‘We’re about helping families. Helping them to communicate, respect, and love each other.’
Hernandez and his family did not receive the welcome clients of El Centro do. When his family returned to the U.S. in 1966, Carolino obtained employment at a bumper factory in Trenton. One day he gave his son the responsibility of delivering $20 downtown to pay the gas and electric bills. Then a young boy, Hernandez lost the money.
“Oh, Robito, how could you do this?” Carolino had said, and returned with his son to try to mend the situation. Speaking the best English he could, Carolino asked the man to not shut off the gas.
“I was very proud of [my father]; He was a good man —” Hernandez broke off resisting tears. “But the man said, ‘Get your stinking immigrant butt out of here.’ My father apologized, and we left.”
Hernandez’s father taught him to believe in people’s resiliency. Hernandez’s commitment to social work stems from the philosophy to not only give, but to teach those in need to be self-sufficient.
“Everyone deserves decency and respect,” Hernandez said. “It’s what I try to make the center about.”
El Centro offers Spanish and English services to help the community. Programs range from ESL, computer courses, and job training to children’s services like mentoring and afterschool care, parenting classes, and anger management. El Centro is accredited through the Department of Justice and Homeland Security to have immigration counselors provide citizenship help.
“I’m trying to be a conduit for the community that trusts me and that I trust and I love. We’re here to serve,” Hernandez said. “At the end of the day, I feel so good when I am able to help someone, when you see the fruits — the guy who was, maybe, short-fused has patience with his child and hugs his kid and encourages him; moms who have built their self-esteem and then feel good about who they are as a woman, person, mom, or wife.”
Isabel Madrid discovered El Centro eight years ago after moving to the area from Colombia. She enrolled in an ESL class, during which her 12-year-old daughter enjoyed one of the center’s yoga classes.
“Roberto is a good person. He helps so many people who go to El Centro,” Madrid said. “When I came from my country, I went to high school but didn’t finish. At El Centro, I learned to speak English. Now I can speak English to my kids and at their schools.”
While El Centro has become known as a major resource for the Latino community its doors are open to everyone and invites individuals to utilize its resources for completing a GED, improving English, or working on family issues. According to its mentoring program coordinator, Maria Paz Duarte, El Centro has clients from all over the globe.
‘Every time we thought the doors were going to close or something happened, I swear there were angels.’
Duarte first joined the El Centro “family” for a social service internship with Mercer Community College. She knew she wanted to work with the Hispanic community but did not yet know in what capacity. Hernandez guided her into what became a career working with children. It has now been 10 years that Duarte has worked with at-risk youth at the center.
“Roberto is not only a good boss; he is a good human being,” she said. “He is my role model. I learned from him most everything I know. He loves his community and tries to give everything to that community. It’s a good atmosphere here. It feels more like a second home than a job.”
Duarte’s position is one characterized by the stories of those whom El Centro has helped. She spoke of a single mom with three children who came to the center for refuge from domestic violence and alcoholism. At the time, the eldest son was six years old and often struggled in school because of the traumas at home. He joined the after-school programs and, now at 15, has spent his youth at the center with Duarte as one of his mentors.
“Last year he came in and shared he’d made the Honor Roll for the first time,” she said. “He was so proud. It made me realize that we are doing something for change. If it wouldn’t have been for El Centro, perhaps, he never would have found that support. So much here happens over time and it’s hard to see sometimes on a day-to-day basis what difference we’ve actually made.”
In addition to its daily programs, El Centro also hosts an annual Health Fair to help individuals and families get access to medical information. The center also hosts religious events such as a Three Kings celebration. The center is a division of the Catholic Charities Diocese of Trenton, where Hernandez became rooted in social work under the mentorship of the late Monsignor Leonard Toomey.
Toomey, whom Hernandez describes as the “pastor and character everyone knew,” helped El Centro open its doors in 1999. He owned its original building — the old Irish Catholic Men’s Club — and rented it to Hernandez for only $1,000 a year. Another affiliate of the Catholic Charities, Daniel Lundy, gave Hernandez $50,000 for the first few years until he got El Centro off the ground.
“Every time we thought the doors were going to close or something happened, I swear there were angels. It’s a very special place,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez lives in Hamilton with his wife, Aida, where they raised three sons. Carlos, 31, works with the government as an investigator. Alexander, or “Alejandro,” 25, is an actor who resides in Hamilton but often travels nationally working on different projects in film, television, and theater. The youngest, Roberto — whom Hernandez calls “the little feller” — stands at 6’3” and is an excellent swimmer.
“He is my inspiration — they all are,” Hernandez said. “Roberto is autistic — pretty high functioning. ‘I’m very high functioning,’ Roberto will tell you. He is gentle. He’s just the best — a big kid with a big heart.”
In addition to his work as El Centro’s head honcho, Hernandez is a swimming and basketball coach with the Special Olympics. He also volunteers to help facilitate dialogue and remediate the potential consequences of youth who are in local gangs.
“We’re about helping families,” Hernandez said. “Helping them to communicate, respect, and love each other. The family is the nucleus of everything — of community, of society. That’s it. Support all families to reach their best potential.”
El Centro, Sacred Heart Church, 343 South Broad Street, Trenton. 609-954-7487 or catholiccharitiestrenton.org.