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East Austin activist Paul Hernandez dies at age 74

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
Paul Hernandez, seen here at his home in 2008, died on Sept. 24. The longtime East Austin activist was 74.

Longtime East Austin activist Paul Hernandez died peacefully at his home on Sept. 24. He was 74.

“Paul was an influential, dedicated Chicano activist for many years, beginning in the late 1960s,” said longtime Austin resident Chula Sims. “One of his many organizing campaigns focused on the Aqua Fest boat races, held on the east side of what was then Town Lake.”

Born in East Austin on Sept. 20, 1946, Hernandez, grew up on Haskell Street as the oldest of eight children. He participated in wave after wave of activity in the Chicano political movement in Austin and beyond. During the breakthrough Economy Furniture Company strike in the late 1960s, he tried to organize fellow workers at the ring-making company where he worked. He was fired.

In the early 1970s, he helped form a local chapter of the Brown Berets, a group that pledged to support, protect and defend the Mexican American community. He also founded El Centro Chicano and operated it out of a tiny house on San Marcos Street. That group grappled with problems such as housing, employment, drug abuse, mental health and police brutality.

Hernandez was twice beaten by police, including the time when, in 1978, police broke up a noisy but peaceful protest against the speed boat races that were held on Town Lake (now Lady Bird Lake) during the annual Austin Aqua Festivals. One officer was suspended for using excessive force.

A well-known photograph shows Hernandez surrounded by uniformed and plainclothes law enforcement. An incisive media documentary distributed by the Austin History Center in 2017 revived interest in that incident.

Not long after that, Austin City Council by one vote ended the ear-splitting races that particularly affected East Austin residents.

Hernandez attended Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic School, St. Edward’s Prep School for Boys and Johnston High School. Recuperating from a bout with pneumonia as a young adult, he was drawn to the liberation theology of Father Joe Znota, who brought Hernandez books to read.

Hernandez once called his outlook a “‘mentality of resistance’ against repression, suppression and oppression — and all the other ‘presses.’”

He sometimes clashed with Latino elected officials, but they agreed that he got things done.

In 2008, former Mayor Gus Garcia, who died in 2018, said of Hernandez’s place in the East Austin community: "He's the Gandhi, the César Chávez, the Martin Luther King of that particular community. The force that has kept that community together."

Early on, Hernandez witnessed the effects of segregation, then later gentrification. He helped put together Rainey Street Neighborhood Association, East Town Lake Neighborhood Association, East Austin Chicano Development Corporation and Barrio Unido, as well as the Buena Vista and Govalle neighborhood associations.

Beyond East Austin, Hernandez worked as a state legislative aide and a local coordinator for President Jimmy Carter. He also he ran for state representative.

In the 1990s, Hernandez suffered a brain hemorrhage that left him partially paralyzed. Living in the Bouldin neighborhood by the early 2000s, he still had “fire in the belly” about his causes, but he lacked the physical ability he once had.

According to a 2008 profile in the American-Statesman, many in East Austin missed the community leader’s clarion voice.

Hernandez is survived by Leslie Hernandez, his wife of 25 years, as well as children and grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be said at 11 a.m. on Friday at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. Pandemic safety restrictions will be observed.

“Paul Hernandez's work mitigated many inequities,” Sims said. “The work's not completed, but I think Austin is better because of it.”

Paul Hernandez was beaten by police during protests more than once, including in 1978, while protesting the ear-splitting powerboat drag races on Town Lake during Aqua Fest.