Presenting NHI’s Person of the Year: Anita Fernández
By Isabella Sada-Nieto, December 31st, 2023
The National Hispanic Institute is closing out a transformational 2023 by naming Anita Fernández the NHI Person of the Year.
NHI annually bestows this award on an alumnus who, during the year, exemplifies its core values and fundamentals. Anita serves on the board of several local, statewide and national organizations including NHI, continues to invest in the future of NHI at San Antonio, and celebrates her 14th year working with her five other partners at OCI Group (Our Community Incorporated).
Daughter of Dan and Mindy Fernández, Anita was guided by the community service example of her parents. Her dad was a firefighter for 35 years and in his retirement, took over a community food pantry. Her mother worked in the medical field and currently serves as a school secretary. Growing up, both of her parents were very involved with her school and church.
“Whenever you want to get something done, you don’t sit on the sidelines and talk about it,” says Anita. “You get involved and you engage yourself to try to make whatever change you want. It makes sense to be involved.”
Fernández graduated from Incarnate Word High School in San Antonio, Texas, where she says she learned the foundational skills of accountability and time management, and was also introduced to the National Hispanic Institute leadership programs by a family friend, the mother of NHI alumnus and friend, Analysse Escobar, who today works in the Biden Administration in Washington D.C.
“Most people don’t know this about me, but when I was first intrduced to NHI, I didn’t want to do it. At that age, I didn’t see the full picture. My culture and heritage were always part of my upbringing as a Mexican-American in the United States. NHI exposed me to more, it exposed me to Latinos from all over the world!… The confidence-building and the public speaking were great, but the culture, community and learning more from andwith like-minded people, that’s what drew me in. I realized it was a direct fit with my life, with what I believed and how I was raised… once I understood that there was no going back.”
In 2000, while attending NHI’s tenth-grade Texas LDZ at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Anita found her future college home. She recounts her beginnings at Southwestern as an athletic training student, which for people who know Anita, might sound surprising. She explains that after a discussion on Latino identity hosted by the college, the entire trajectory of her university experience changed. Faculty would soon encourage her to shift her course of study: to one that would introduce something new to the institution.
“I worked very closely with my professors to build my Latin American Studies program. Soon after, there would be a major in Latin American Studies adopted by the university as a full program,” she explains. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but now see my younger self not going along with the status quo. If the available majors weren’t going to serve me or my vision, then it wasn’t something I wanted to do. I created my major, instead of others teaching me what they thought they should teach me. I created my own spaces to study abroad in Oaxaca, Mexico, [something that wasn’t ordinarily offered]. I wanted to see those experiences through a lens of my own making – my culture and my community.”
Ms. Fernández was also asked about the influences NHI and Ernesto Nieto’s Third Reality: Crafting a 21st Century Latino Agenda ideologies had on her journey.
“It was just a different space, everything we did through NHI: the questioning, looking at what I wanted to do for my community – not being told by others what I should value or what I should want – it was inquiry learning versus instructional learning. When you’re in a space where your perspective is not the majority, someone might say: ‘What do you mean?’ ‘What are you talking about?’ ‘That’s not how it works.’ I would always say, ‘For you, it’s not, but for me it is.’”
Anita goes on to say that for her, it’s easy working with NHIers, who are “on the same wavelength” but that the real beauty is applying her skill sets outside of NHI.
“When I’m in the rooms with people who I know it [my point of view] may not resonate with, that’s when I push harder. It is who I am, what I believe, and the vision I have for our future and the future of our community.”
Both during and after her undergraduate studies, Fernández dedicated time to the National Hispanic Institute as a John F. Lopez Fellow, pursued a Masters in Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and worked with the Museo Alameda, one of the first Latino museums of Texas. In the meantime, she regularly met with five NHI friends: H. Analco González, Luis G. González, Ixchell González, Olivia Travieso, and José Vidal for their newly assembled book club at the University of Texas at Austin campus. Together, they would eventually form the OCI Group. Anita recounts:
“We were all being recruited to go to places and work. One day, we thought: ‘What if we put our expertise and resources together? We’d be able to be more specific about the terms.’ That was important to us. We knew we were doing the right thing.“
In one of our discussions, we asked, ‘Why are we going to continue to do this [work] for someone else when we could do it for our community?’ People would tell us [that] social purpose, doing good… nobody is going to understand that. At NHI, we talk about community equity building: investing in your community AND creating wealth, you can have success doing both. Despite pushback, difficulties, and sometimes mistakes, we pushed through.”
One of Anita’s OCI Group partners, Analco González, explained that “the OCI Group was born on the relationship the six company founders have with one another, their NHI connection, and our commitment to our community (what the O and C stand for in OCI.)” He went on to say that their work, particularly at the legislature, carries a huge responsibility for their clients and community.
“Anita and I handle most of our firm’s legislative work – which can be some of the most stressful parts of the year – traveling back and forth to Austin, late nights, and early mornings, it all can take a toll. The relationships, trust, reliance, and faith we have in one another are what make it all possible. The grit that Anita has, having worked both inside the Capitol as a Chief of Staff, and with OCI Group is what keeps me motivated and energized…It’s not only a testimony to her passion and commitment to impacting others but to the rearing she underwent from her parents and family and the training that helped to shape her with NHI.”
Anita was a force in contributing to the continued development of NHI@San Antonio through the work of the González family, led by Dr. Hector and Mary Helen González, the alliance’s President and Vice President. After years of supporting the organization’s growth, she succeeded then Project Administrator, Ixchell González, and was named the next San Antonio Project Administrator where she led efforts to engage hundreds of students in the NHI journey.
“Anita is the epitome of the new generations founded on Third Reality,” said Dr. Hector and Mary Helen González. “NHI is about building a community based on our assets, resourcefulness, creativity, vision, and entrepreneurship that develops our youth. She exemplifies what we aspire to – [that] all new generations of Latinos/Chicanos continue the legacy. She is committed to passing the baton to another generation…Yet she has also remained a daughter and sister to her family, always being there for them. These characteristics never stray from NHI standards/foundations, long before they were formulated in writing.”
Beyond her leadership roles at NHI and as a partner with the OCI Group, Anita also serves her community in numerous capacities in San Antonio and Bexar County. Anita has worked towards creating more accessible healthcare for all (University Health Board of Managers and work at the Texas Legislature), collaborated on opportunities for education through scholarships for high school and college students (Marianist Urban Student Program & United Negro College Fund), and demonstrated passion for arts, culture, and anthropology, while also advocating for equity and parity in the trades (TX Women in Trades).
“I am able to be involved in a lot of different things, in large part because of NHI: the training, experiences, exposure, and the network. It comes easier – I know with everything that’s around me: my family, my region in San Antonio, or NHI’s national and international network: I will be connected & supported.”
When sharing her successes, Anita talks about the influence many people have on her life. She thinks about her parents, brother, nephews – who she’d do anything for – OCI Group, who are both business partners and lifelong friends, the González family, NHI founders Ernesto & Gloria, and the 1000+ NHI students she has worked with.
“My closest friends are all NHIers. It always goes back to NHI. You’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with. If you want to talk about how great I am, you cannot do that without talking about how great others are, too.”
Even when busy, Fernández shares that she still makes time to read, travel, and hang out with her favorites: Cata, her Corgi, and Boots, her “adopted” cat. She also loves to watch horror films.
“I have known Anita for many years. She stands out as someone true to herself. She is big-hearted and has faith in her community. She has been one of the members at the heart of NHI in San Antonio.” – Nicole Nieto, Executive Vice President.