“What is your instead?”
The question forms the backbone of the speech Xóchitl Hernandez will deliver to the classes of 2020 and 2021 when she serves as Commencement Speaker for the Mike Curb College of Arts, Media, and Communication at an unprecedented dual-year ceremony. Spoiler alert: In the year since her spring 2020 graduation, Hernandez has blazed a formidable path, modeling for her classmates what’s possible when you meet the unexpected with adaptability and grace. After earning her Bachelor of Music in vocal arts along with an interdisciplinary minor in Spanish-language journalism, Hernandez was set to do some postgraduate work in Europe. The classically trained opera singer already had some performance opportunities in sight. But the pandemic interrupted her final semester, canceling her senior recital, her third-generation CSUN grad commencement ceremony, and her anticipated year abroad. To find her own “instead,” the singer looked to the versatility of her voice and the resilience of her family line.
Hernandez likens the story of her family to the reunification of Mexico. Her paternal grandparents both emigrated from Guadalajara when her father was just a little boy; the family settled in the San Fernando Valley and took on the backbreaking agricultural work available to the newly arrived. Hernandez’s maternal grandfather also emigrated from Guadalajara as a child, and his family settled in the Valley, too, where he would eventually meet and marry a woman whose family roots in Northridge went back to when the land was still part of Mexico. “They didn’t cross the border,” Hernandez says of her maternal grandmother’s family. “The border crossed them.”
Hernandez’s maternal grandfather would become the first in her family line to graduate CSUN; he was among the university’s earliest recipients of a bachelor’s degree in Chicana/o Studies. The lifelong activist and organizer was involved in the student group MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán), the civil and social rights organization LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens), and the Migrant Education Program, aimed at uplifting families who had emigrated to the United States in pursuit of better lives. The latter program would directly benefit Hernandez’s father, giving him the financial aid and encouragement needed to attend college. He chose CSUN, where he met his wife. He graduated in 1996 with a degree in kinesiology, and one year later his wife earned her bachelor’s in psychology, walking the commencement stage pregnant with Xóchitl, their firstborn and oneday third-generation Matador.
“I truly wouldn’t be who I am today without CSUN,” Xóchitl says with a radiant grin. She reminisces about a childhood spent in the cradle of the university. She rode her bicycle around its campus paths while her parents, both hired as emergency teachers by the L.A. Unified School District after graduation, took classes toward their credentials. Her mom, who would later return to CSUN to earn a master’s degree in education, taught early elementary. Her dad taught physical education at secondary schools. When Xóchitl ran cross-country as a student at James Monroe High School in North Hills, her father—and coach—sent the team on long runs to CSUN. “I practically grew up on campus,” she says with fondness. “CSUN is my jam.”
Graduating James Monroe in 2016 as Valedictorian, Xóchitl entered CSUN that fall, following the family legacy. She credits those generations with modeling for her not just how to survive but how to thrive, and she’s at no loss for words when asked about professors who helped her along the way. “How long do you have?” Hernandez says with a laugh. There was David Sannerud, since retired and named Professor Emeritus, who was head of Vocal Arts for Xóchitl’s first couple of years at CSUN. He helped her overcome doubts in her freshman year that, as a Chicana, she even belonged in a classical music program. She admits that she seriously considered changing paths, but “every time I’d go to voice lessons with him, I was like, this is why I’m doing it.” Reinforcing that sense of purpose and belonging were Chicana/o Studies professor Fermin Herrera and Opera Music Director Mercedes Juan Mussoto in CSUN’s Music department. Professor Herrera taught Hernandez regional Mexican music and helped her develop proficiency in the Uto-Aztecan Nahuatl language. She’s since performed songs in the indigenous language and produced a popular series of TikTok Nahuatl lessons. As for Professor Mussoto, the first woman opera director ever appointed at CSUN, Hernandez says, “I was like, oh my gosh, a brown Latina woman and she’s, like, badass and she’s a conductor!” (Xóchitl then politely asks me to excuse her language, but many of our readers will agree that Mussoto is totally badass.)
On the Journalism side Hernandez can’t say enough about how much José Luis Benavides helped her find her way. While she was interested in the Spanish-language journalism minor, she lacked prior media experience and worried that her Spanish proficiency wasn’t adequate. Benavides, who founded the interdisciplinary minor and established CSUN’s El Nuevo Sol newspaper, has a gift for recognizing raw abilities in students. He took her under his wing, accommodated her intensive rehearsal schedule in music, and helped her develop the confidence she needed to be a reporter. In turn, Professor Benavides introduced Hernandez to fellow journalism professor Ben Davis, who asked her to sing something for him. Hernandez was surprised but delighted by the request, and her impromptu performance must have demonstrated some charismatic potential. Davis went on to advocate for her, helping her catch up on some journalism basics and eventually appointing her as lead anchor of Valley View News.
In this pandemic year, journalism has meant everything to Xóchitl, who sees reporting and presenting as powerful ways to use her voice and make an impact. Over the spring and summer she started doing freelance work, just responding to what she saw happening around her. On the day CSUN’s campus shut down last March she was on her way home and noticed an enormous line of people snaking around the local Costco warehouse. She didn’t know why at the time, but recognized a story when she saw it, so she parked her car and got out to talk to people. Soon after, when protests erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Xóchitl hit the streets to cover the movement from within and counter the sensationalist negative slant she was seeing in some popular press. She had stories picked up by the San Fernando Sun, with one article making the front page. She also started contributing to FIERCE by Mitú, a digital platform for Latinx culture and creative content. Applying to journalism jobs based on her freelance reporting and academic experiences at El Nuevo Sol and Valley View News, she landed work with KNDU, an NBC affiliate station in the Tri-Cities area of Washington State. She currently serves as a field reporter for NBC Right Now in the afternoons, then shifts gears—and languages—to anchor in the evenings for Telemundo. She found her instead.
“God never leaves you with nothing,” Hernandez says. “You’re never left empty.” Hernandez, who honed her vocal chops from age 4 singing in choirs at Shepherd Church in Porter Ranch, emphatically credits her resilience to her faith. She has seen some dark and challenging times, noting a period bridging her junior and senior years during which consecutive experiences of loss and grief led to intensive struggles with anxiety and insomnia. But that period coincided with positive developments: She was chosen as a Presidential Scholar, a program that pairs outstanding students with faculty mentors and financial backing to develop an original project; she landed a dream internship with the Los Angeles Opera as an education and community engagement liaison; she had a leading role in CSUN’s production of Orpheus in the Underworld. Of the latter she notes wryly, “Here I am, not sleeping and singing in French!” It still surprises her a bit that she somehow made it all work. With the Presidential Scholarship she produced the podcast Notes From Her, focused on highlighting women of color in classical music and helping audiences from all backgrounds to appreciate the tradition’s multicultural roots and contours.
“Good things and horrible things happen at the same time, and I didn’t know at first how to make room for both,” Hernandez says. “But the experience taught me how to make that room.” She points to her Presidential Scholarship as a high point of her time at CSUN, as well as the honor of being named an Outstanding Graduating Senior for 2020. And yeah, not getting to walk the commencement stage was a blow. That the preceding generations of Hernandez Matadors wouldn’t get to watch her process was heartbreaking, even if Xóchitl had technically already crossed that proud stage in her mother’s pregnant belly. But in John Lennon’s words, “Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans.” Hernandez has spent these last months reporting on the pandemic and protest, on vaccines and hope—on life—and she knows she’s making an impact, in English and Spanish.
As pandemic restrictions are lifted, Hernandez is looking forward to resuming her long-suspended travel plans. She wants to spend some time in Europe to learn about other cultures and perform abroad. And she’s thinking about pursuing a master’s degree in vocal performance. In the meantime, she’s using her voice in all of its multiplicity and power to inform, to entertain, and to advocate for change, and that means everything to her right now. “My voice is my instrument,” Hernandez says. “It’s my tool of change, my tool of survival, my tool of victory. Because when you sing it brings you out of your own head and the darkness or the struggles you’re going through. It changes your perspective and makes you see the big picture.”
CSUN will broadcast a University Commencement Ceremony officially conferring degrees on more than 22,000 grads from the classes of 2020 and 2021 on May 15. The Mike Curb College of Arts, Media, and Communication will broadcast a ceremony recognizing all MCCAMC grads individually on May 21 at 5 p.m. To watch Xóchitl’s commencement speech and honor all Mike Curb College grads from the classes of 2020 and 2021, please tune in to the MCCAMC ceremony. Watch the CSUN Commencement page for links to be posted in mid May.