For Antonia Hernández, UCLA has always been about opening the door to possibilities and opportunities. In recognition of her lifelong legacy of keeping those same doors open to others and fighting for social justice, UCLA recently bestowed upon her its highest honor, the UCLA Medal.

“A trailblazer in so many areas, your legacy touches the lives of countless Americans in countless ways,” said Chancellor Gene Block as he presented Hernández with the special honor for her accomplishments. “Your journey’s an inspiration not only to Bruins but to anyone with dreams for a better future.”

The oldest of seven children, Hernández, who was born in Torreón, Mexico, and grew up in East Los Angeles, became politically active from a young age as her father drove her to civil rights and Chicano movement protests during the 1960s. Her father had been born in Texas but was forced to move to Mexico during the early years of the Great Depression when racist federal government policies led to the deportation and expulsion of more than 1 million U.S. citizens of Mexican descent.

Hernández attended Garfield High School and East Los Angeles College. After graduating from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in history, and later a juris doctorate from the UCLA School of Law, she dedicated herself to the fight for civil rights, justice and equality.

To Hernández, law “was the tool that I understood, that I could do what I wanted to do: to change the laws, to make life better for Latinos and my people.”

While at the nonprofit Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice, she worked on behalf of Mexican American women in Madrigal v. Quilligan, a 1978 class-action lawsuit against Los Angeles County–USC Medical Center for the forced or involuntary sterilization procedures done on them after giving birth. The case may have ended in a loss in court, but it led to reproductive justice reforms that would stop forced medical procedures like sterilization on poor and immigrant women from occurring in the future. It was also documented in the Emmy-nominated 2015 documentary “No Más Bebés.”

Antonia Hernández holds up UCLA Medal letter from Chancellor Gene Block.
Paul Connor/UCLA
Antonia Hernández holds up UCLA Medal letter from Chancellor Gene Block.

Hernández continued to break new ground, becoming the first Latina to serve as staff counsel to the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. Senate and later joining the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, MALDEF, where she would eventually become president and general counsel. There, she worked on cases and campaigns related to voting rights and gerrymandering, census participation for Latino communities, immigration, language rights and educational equity. This included the fight against California’s Proposition 187 in 1994, which sought to deny access to public education, hospitals and other services for undocumented immigrants.

Hernández would later move on to the world of philanthropy, serving as president and CEO of the California Community Foundation for nearly two decades before stepping down last year. During those years, she worked to improve the lives of residents of Los Angeles County and the entire state, with the foundation granting $2 billion to initiatives related to education, immigration, health and housing.

“I have been blessed – every job I have had, I have loved,” Hernández said at the medal presentation ceremony, which was held at UCLA’s Royce Hall in April.

The impact of Hernández’s passion and work stretches far and wide, encompassing education, community organizing, reproductive justice, law and philanthropy. Ceremony attendees celebrated her accomplishments, and invited speakers — former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, fellow UCLA Law alumnus Stewart Kwoh, UCLA distinguished professor of film, television and digital media Chon Noriega and UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center director Veronica Terriquez — shared their own “Antonia story.”

Terriquez, a professor of Chicana/o and Central American studies and urban planning, first met Hernández at her high school graduation in the Pasadena area, where Hernández had been invited to give the commencement address. For Terriquez, it changed her life’s course, and she decided she was a Chicana feminist and wanted to be like Hernández, who inspired the audience with her moving and powerful words and experience.

Hernández’s own journey was sparked by the connections she made throughout her life. She went to UCLA after her friend suggested they apply. After her history professor, the late E. Bradford Burns, noted her curiosity and penchant for asking questions, he encouraged her to go to law school. She went, after almost missing the application deadline and without even knowing a single lawyer.

Reflecting on her time at UCLA, Hernández said, “It’s what public education should be. And for poor people, for immigrant people … this is the vehicle where we we’re going to make society better. This is the vehicle with which we're going make our democracy real and significant for everybody.”

Her advice to students: “Embrace all that UCLA has to offer you.”

Left to right: Chon Noriega, Veronica Terriquez, Antonia Hernández, Chancellor Gene Block, Antonio Villaraigosa and Stewart Kwoh at UCLA Medal ceremony for Hernández..
Paul Connor/UCLA
Left to right: Chon Noriega, Veronica Terriquez, Antonia Hernández, Chancellor Gene Block, Antonio Villaraigosa and Stewart Kwoh at the medal ceremony.

Hernández herself made the most of every door and every opportunity, asking more questions and making her voice known at UCLA Law and beyond. She was not afraid to get to know her professors or to talk to deans and chancellors. She would be in the ear of community, government and academic leaders, “reminding you to stay on track, reminding you to focus on the task ahead,” Villaraigosa shared.

Noriega recalled how Hernández would push for collaboration and community, calling on him when he was the director of the Chicano Studies Research Center to remember that “those of us addressing the critical needs of the Chicano community can help each other. We all need to work together in ways that strengthen each other.”

Hernández’s commitment to justice and equity has strengthened the work of many organizations and movements. By focusing not just on the current moment but on creating a better future and more opportunities for the generations that follow through law and philanthropy, she has, Terriquez said, helped “shape the course of history for Latina and Latino, Latinx, and other communities.”

Echoing the sentiments of all in attendance at the ceremony, Villaraigosa affirmed the immense reach and impact of Hernández’s accomplishments.

“All of us,” he said, are here on your shoulders.”