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Travis County judge inspires others to stand in their truth

Judge Denise Hernandez wants to help foster a more inclusive and culturally competent judicial system.

AUSTIN, Texas — Every now and then, you meet someone who leaves a lasting impression. Someone whose story is nothing short of amazing. As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, we're introducing you to an Austin woman who is breaking the mold and inspiring others to do the same.

Denise Hernandez doesn't follow in anyone's footsteps. She paves her own path.

“I was the first person in my family who graduated high school and then went to college,” she said. 

She’s also her family’s first lawyer. 

It’s a far cry from her childhood. Growing up in Houston, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, Hernandez became all too familiar with courtrooms.

“My dad [was] in the immigration system but also in and out of the criminal justice system. My mom, experiencing eviction and these interactions with the legal system were really hard and they were traumatic,” Hernandez said.

She felt her parent’s couldn't get fair representation.

“My dad has a really thick accent. My mom was really timid in these spaces, and it's really easy in those situations to just forget that people are human," she said.

Both have a lasting impact on Hernandez. In fact, it's exactly why she became a lawyer.

Fast-forward to January of this year. She became known as the Honorable Judge Denise Hernandez, presiding over Travis County Court of Law #6. She handles misdemeanors and leads a youth diversion program called Transformative Youth Justice that helps 17 to 20 year old individuals who are in trouble and have pending cases.

“Just because someone gets arrested for an offense at this young given age, we can do something to help them, to help change the trajectory of their lives and to remind them that they have the ability to believe in themselves,” she said.

That's something she's had to personally learn throughout the years. 

“You know, I didn't come out until I was like 26 years old," she said.

Hernandez is also the first openly gay Latina to serve a county court bench in Travis County – a title she proudly holds.

“Especially as queer women of color, it is important to say, 'I'm not hiding any part of myself to be accepted. I want to be accepted for the wholeness of who I am,'” she said. “The first time my wife met my family she was like, 'Why is everyone yelling?' And I said, 'Oh, actually, this is not yelling. This is quite normal. We we all talk very loud.'"

Hernandez dedicates her career to public service and breaking generational cycles, specifically when it comes to education.

“Once I broke through that ceiling, then my sibling went to college and then my younger cousins began to go to college. And it's really just about believing in yourself and knowing your story, your lived experience can create a lot of impactful change,” Hernandez said. 

During Hispanic Heritage Month, Hernandez said she wants to continue to remind people that what brings everyone together, no matter their race, is community.

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