Jacob Hernandez is experienced in navigating new environments.

Hernandez, a first-generation Mexican-American, was born in Kansas, grew up in Phoenix and joined the United States military at age 17. But in 2020, Hernandez decided to settle in College Park with his family.

“I fought to live here,” Hernandez said. “I just knew that that’s where I wanted to set down roots.”

On Tuesday, more than three years later, Hernandez was inaugurated as one of the city’s District 1 council members.

“Today I look forward to shifting to government with my colleagues,” Hernandez said during the inauguration ceremony. “I am optimistic about our city government and its institutions.”

Hernandez, who had never run for public office before running for the District 1 seat, replaces outgoing council member Kate Kennedy, who did not run for re-election.

[Incumbents re-elected, Jacob Hernandez wins District 1 seat in College Park city election]

Hernandez is the city council’s first Hispanic representative since current Maryland House of Delegates member Joseline Peña-Melnyk served on the council from 2003 to 2006, according to College Park Mayor Fazlul Kabir.

Hernandez said his Mexican-American identity drew him to public service.

“Being a first-generation Mexican-American … it was always pushed on me by my parents to really appreciate the opportunities that we had,” Hernandez said. “They always provided the perspective that ‘this could be so much worse, there are so many opportunities here for you to make it your own.’”

Hernandez said it was “a family decision” to run for the council seat this summer. Hernandez, who lives with his mother, brother and sister, said he and his family have a very close bond.

Hernandez’s family was engaged throughout his campaign, according to Kabir.

“It was very touching to see his mom, his sister and his brother, some of his close family members, they all worked very hard going door to door and putting the signs on the lawn,” Kabir said. “That is something we actually don’t see very often.”

Hernandez said he made an effort to knock on every door in his district. While he wasn’t able to achieve that goal, he still reached every neighborhood in the district, he added.

“Every neighborhood in District 1 has its own personality,” Hernandez said. “It’s incredible to hear everybody’s stories.”

As a city council member, one of Hernandez’s primary goals is to expand Spanish outreach in College Park.

During his campaign, Hernandez aimed to reach out to Spanish speakers by printing his campaign signs in both Spanish and English, according District 1 resident Arelis Pérez.

When Pérez moved to the district 30 years ago, there weren’t a lot of Hispanic residents in the area, she said. But this population has significantly increased in recent years, Pérez added.

Catering to this diversifying population will be important moving forward, Hernandez noted.

“Every single policy, every single thing I’m pushing for is going to be bilingual,” Hernandez said. “We’re doing a disservice by not leveraging the talent, the skills, the expertise because we’re not reaching everyone.”

Hernandez took his oath of office at Tuesday’s inauguration in both English and Spanish.

“I’m going to ask [city leadership] to take active steps for making it city policy that all communications be available in both languages,” Hernandez said on Tuesday.

Kabir believes that Hernandez’s efforts could help close the gap between the city’s Spanish-speaking community and the city council. Hernandez is the only member of the council to speak or understand Spanish fluently, Kabir added.

Hernandez also hopes to promote community involvement during his time in office.

Hernandez said he plans to implement routine community-wide information sessions where he can discuss the concerns of residents in his district.

These information sessions could be more informal one-on-one sessions to discuss ideas or projects proposed by his constituents, Hernandez said, which he hopes will create more future leaders for the community.

[College Park City Council discusses economic development, business improvement district]

“Anyone who wants to get involved I want you to get involved,” Hernandez said. “I’d love to see some new faces involved in the process because none of us have all the right answers.”

During the campaign, Pérez said Hernandez placed an emphasis on speaking with city residents.

Hernandez reached out to Pérez and arranged a one-on-one meeting to discuss her concerns for the city, Pérez said.

“I actually gave him three hours of my time, which is more than I give anyone,” Pérez said. “He was very open, he listened to the concerns, he took notes so I was very impressed with that.”

Pérez said she first met Hernandez at a city council meeting. At every meeting Pérez attended, she said she saw Hernandez also sitting in the audience, taking notes.

Moving forward, Hernandez is optimistic about College Park’s future for the duration of his two-year term.

“I am ecstatic for the future of College Park,” Hernandez said. “We’re gonna do some incredible things in these two years. We really, really are.”