Ms. Hernandez Goes to Washington

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP News Service

When Janette Hernandez was 8 years old, she promised her father, who was dying from cancer, that she would grow up to become a social worker.

Hernandez, who is a member of the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo tribal community in El Paso, known as Tigua, wanted to pass on the same compassion and care that she received from the social worker assigned to her tribe, who got her family into counseling and her father into hospice care.Janette Hernandez, pictured with her daughter Kiona Paiz, recently testified in support of her tribal community, the Tigua, in Washinton, D.C. Her training in the UTEP social work program helped her prepare. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News ServiceJanette Hernandez, pictured with her daughter Kiona Paiz, recently testified in support of her tribal community, the Tigua, in Washinton, D.C. Her training in the UTEP social work program helped her prepare. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service

“She helped us out a lot and we really built a good relationship with her,” Hernandez said. 

This May, Hernandez is expected to keep her promise to her father when she graduates with her Bachelor of Social Work degree from UTEP.

As part of her training, Hernandez has been an intern with the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo Social Services Department, where she works with child welfare and general assistance cases and helps tribal members get back into school or find employment.

As a member of the tribe, she relates to her clients in more ways than one.

“It’s hard to define roles and boundaries,” said Hernandez, who received the Outstanding Social Work Student Award 2012 from the Rio Grande Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) in March. “I’ve grown up here on the reservation and we all know each other. So, I can be family, a distant cousin, friend or an acquaintance.”

Even though her relationships can make it hard for her to disassociate herself professionally from her clients, being a member of the tribe also makes it possible for her to connect with them.  

“Since we have a history of knowing each other, it’s easier to talk and to open up,” Hernandez said.

Faith W. Lucas, Ph.D., assistant professor and coordinator of the BSW program, said that Hernandez’s knowledge of the Tigua tribe is an invaluable asset that, at the same time, will also present her with distinctive challenges as a new social worker.

“Janette, as a member of the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, has unique insight into the rich culture, the strengths and challenges within and outside of her community,” Lucas said.

The tribe’s social workers address the critical needs affecting tribal members by working with families on topics including Indian Child Welfare cases, the elderly, troubled youth, drug addiction, barriers to education and economic development, and the Tigua tribal court. Social workers also deal with cultural and spiritual issues that go beyond the law, said Chris Gomez, YDSP Empowerment Department director.

“In order for our social workers to be able to advocate for our population, our needs and our services, it’s important for them to know what the tribe is about and the unique challenges facing our people,” Gomez said.

One unique issue for which Hernandez is passionate is bill HR1560, which seeks to amend the Texas Restoration Act to allow the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo Tribe to determine blood quantum requirement for membership in that tribe.

In March, Hernandez testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., sharing her story about how the blood quantum requirement has affected her family.

Hernandez’s first husband and the father of her 8-year-old daughter was not a tribal member. Therefore, their daughter is not a registered member of the tribe because she does not meet the minimum blood quantum of 1/8.

Hernandez, who has two younger daughters with her husband, Ysleta del Sur Governor Frank Paiz, said that her oldest daughter is the only one in her family who is excluded from the tribe because of the federal law and her little girl is often confused about her heritage.

“She’s not sure of who she is because she gets two messages,” Hernandez testified. “She knows she’s a tribal member because our community lets her know that she is a part of us, and yet she can’t receive the same benefits as a tribal member.”

Even though Hernandez was asked by the tribal council to share her personal story before the committee, she considered her testimony as a form of case management advocacy and she credits her training as social worker at UTEP with helping her prepare her written testimony.

“That’s just what social workers do on a micro level; it just all blended in,” Hernandez said.

Lucas said that Hernandez’s decision to testify before the Indian Affairs Committee reflects Hernandez’s commitment to her people and to social justice, which is a basic social work value. Although the social work courses may have enhanced Hernandez’s testimony in the policy formation process, Lucas believes that her testimony came from the heart.

“Good legislative testimony does just that, putting a human face on issues that might otherwise be just words on paper to policy decision makers,” Lucas said.

Hernandez received good news last week when she heard that the bill should hit the senate floor in May. In the meantime, she continues to advocate for the tribe on issues regarding education, employment and preserving the Tiwa language, which is the dialect of the Tiguas.

“Every time that I see a client I try to incorporate participating in our ceremonies or at least attending, so that we can identify ourselves as tribal members,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez’s internship ends in May. She is applying to the master’s program at New Mexico State University and she intends to continue her volunteer work with the tribe.

“It’s a close knit community. Everybody helps each other out. When somebody is in need, somebody else will step in. We’re pretty good at that,” Hernandez said.