Just six months before Hurricane Katrina, Carolina Hernandez, then 28 years old, opened her first business: an architectural interior design firm in the French Quarter. She could not have predicted at the time that 10 years later, instead of designing buildings, she would be helping design systems of support for the Latino community through Puentes New Orleans.
Born to parents from Mexico and El Salvador who have lived in Louisiana since the 1960s, Hernandez has deep roots and a strong commitment to the Latino community in her hometown of Kenner, a suburb of New Orleans. In fact, her thesis project at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette was the design of a community center for the Kenner Latino community.
Starting her career, Hernandez lived with her parents in the community she had always called home. When Hurricane Katrina displaced her entire family, they relocated to Houston to the home of Hernandez’s best friend, who subsequently opened her home to six other families who lived together for two weeks.
Hernandez remembers a community of Latino families bound together after the disaster by resilience and togetherness. “Houston was a beautiful time,” she said. “I thought about starting over there, but then I thought about my city. I would be abandoning her if I didn’t return home.”
She returned to a New Orleans with no vehicles in the streets, many fallen trees and electrical poles and an overwhelming smell that took more than a year to fade. She and her family moved into a hotel bought out by a client and lived there for three months before being placed in a one-bedroom apartment where she lived for five years.
Hernandez then took on an enormous task. “My job was to make it so that other businesses could move back into their office spaces and begin to operate again, so that more people could return to New Orleans and have their jobs back,” she said. She worked tirelessly, helping to reopen 12 office buildings, bringing back thousands of jobs.
“The Latino community was very present and energetic in their efforts to clean up and rebuild, in a way that I had never seen before,” Hernandez said. “For me, in those moments, there wasn’t any distinction among those coming back about whether or not they were Latino. You were just glad to see people returning to New Orleans.”
Inspired by what she calls the “energy in the city,” in 2007, Hernandez began volunteering for Puentes New Orleans, a young organization that was leading voter registration efforts in the rapidly growing Latino community.
Puentes formed after Katrina in response to the influx of Latino workers who came to New Orleans to work in jobs rebuilding the city. The founding board members recognized the need to ensure that the growing Latino population, many of whom were undocumented, had access to housing, homebuyer education and public safety programs.
Five months later, Hernandez became a board member. “I saw Puentes as an opportunity for my community to have something it never had before: an organization that would advocate for their rights and make sure they flourished,” she said.
Managing a fully staffed architectural firm while serving as a volunteer board member kept her extremely busy, until 2013, when a sluggish economy forced her to cut staff and consider closing the doors on the business she had built from the ground up.
At about the same time, the executive director of Puentes stepped down, leaving the organization without someone to manage its youth leadership, housing, health and civic engagement programs. Seeing the opportunity to put her passion to work for the community she dearly loved, Hernandez closed her business and stepped into the management role she holds today.
Puentes has made great strides in expanding economic opportunities for the Latino community. The organization has helped many Latino entrepreneurs overcome barriers to economic security and move out of the “hidden” economy to establish legal business entities that can grow successfully.
“Today, I’m an architect trying to build a better future for all communities: a future that includes the complete and authentic inclusion of Latinos. In 10 years, I hope that my community has a sense that, not only do they belong, but that they are an essential component of what makes New Orleans, ‘New Orleans,’ and that our racial harmony will be a prime example for the nation. If any city can get there, New Orleans can get there.”