Carlos Hernandez was born in Camaguey, Cuba, but his formative years were spent in the verdant embrace of Hialeah, Florida’s many parks and public green spaces. The connection to nature and community he formed there held strong into adulthood, with the 53-year-old father of two now serving as mayor of his adopted hometown. Before embarking on his political career, Hernandez served the Hialeah Police Department for more than 22 years, eventually retiring as commander of the Sector 4 substation. In 2005, he earned a post on Hialeah’s City Council. Hernandez was later elected council vice president in 2007 and council president in 2009, his final post before being appointed mayor May 23, 2011. Just five short months later, Hernandez was returned to office by public election, where he continues to serve today. Mayor Hernandez took time out from his busy schedule to speak with Parks & Recreation Magazine about his continuing commitment to the health and well-being of his community through partnerships with public parks and NRPA.
Parks & Recreation Magazine: You grew up in Hialeah, playing in the city’s parks. How has this influenced how you think about parks and green spaces? Why do you believe parks and recreation is important to the health of both your city and its individual citizens?
Mayor Carlos Hernandez: Growing up in the City of Hialeah and in our parks had a great influence in my life. Not only was I staying actively fit, but I was in a safe environment where I was surrounded by people who were a positive influence. As an elected official, I’ve always believed that there are two groups that are very important for a city to progress: the senior citizens who took care of us when we were young and our youth who will care for us when we’re older and will become the leaders of our community. I strongly believe that parks and recreation is the backbone of the health of a city and a community. It supports the physical, mental and communication skills that we develop for our future as adults. I can’t reiterate enough how much being part of the park and recreation environment has helped me throughout my life.
P&R: Hialeah is part of the NRPA Commit to Health initiative that involves committing to healthy eating and physical activity standards. Why is this a priority?
Mayor Hernandez: Drawing from the great influence I received growing up in Hialeah parks, physical fitness and healthy eating habits were very important. Today that’s one of the biggest problems we have throughout the country where our youth are not exercising enough and have bad eating habits, and as a product of this, we see the problems this is creating with obesity and diabetes so early in their life. The City of Hialeah takes this very seriously and makes it a priority in working closely with our community and NRPA to create these health initiatives to inform and create a clear commitment to our children staying healthy, having good eating habits and exercising.
P&R: Hialeah has one of the largest Spanish-speaking communities in the country — 92 percent of residents are fluent in Spanish. How do you incorporate the culture of the community into your outreach efforts around physical activity and healthy eating?
Mayor Hernandez: We do have a large Spanish-speaking community, and as such, all our information is in English and Spanish to make sure the message is understood by all. We’re very fortunate that the majority of our department heads and employees are bilingual, so that allows us to use that strength as a strong tool of communication.
P&R: You spearheaded the Early Prevention and Intervention Youth Program initiative that targets at-risk youth in the community. Why is that program so important to the City of Hialeah and the teens you serve?
Mayor Hernandez: If we don’t take care of our youth now, we won’t have a very successful community, city or country in the future. Early prevention and intervention through our youth program is something that is very important to us because it gives us an opportunity to help those children who are taking the wrong step toward their future. By us assisting and working with them, we aid them in attaining a very productive and successful life. The Early Prevention and Intervention Youth Program goes hand in hand with healthy eating habits and physical activity standards, and that is why the City of Hialeah puts such a high priority in our park and recreation department.
P&R: We also asked Joseph Dziedzic, director of Hialeah Parks and Recreation: Why is Mayor Hernandez’s support for parks and recreation so important for the city?
Dziedzic: The support from our mayor has always been paramount to our success as a department. The high standards that he has set forth in parks and recreation has enabled us to provide the residents of our great city a wide variety of activities and programs for both adults and children. Mayor Hernandez consistently challenges the park and recreation department to come up with creative ideas that will allow us to continue to evolve in addition to adapting to the many needs of our diverse communities.
Mayor Hernandez: I’m glad that question came up to Mr. Dziedzic. I’m a product of the parks in the City of Hialeah, so I know the importance the park and recreation department had for me and my brothers growing up. I see that same meaning it had for me in a lot of our youth, and that’s why it’s a top priority to me and all the employees in the city. Parks and recreation is one of the most important departments. It will always have my support and be one of my top priorities.
Sage Learn is NRPA’s Government Affairs Manager.