Yuri Hernández Osorio: Past and Present
Living > Yuri Hernández Osorio: Past and Present

Yuri Hernández Osorio: Past and Present

Hernandez hopes services she provides can reach the growing number of students of color on campus.
by Andrew Gotshall / The Beacon

The musky smell of sweat, hypnotic dribbling of a basketball, deafening cheers of a passionate crowd, the squeaking of sneakered feet up and down the basketball court. For many Pilot Alums, these may have been the familiar sensations of a basketball game against BYU in 2014.

For Yuri Hernández Osorio ‘15 though, the fact that the Pilots beat BYU is the least significant moment of that January night. For Hernández Osorio and her friend Jaclyn Sisto ‘15, what sticks out most is the anger and disgust of witnessing a group of UP students mocking Mexican culture. The students, adorned in sombreros and Mexican flags, shook maracas and swore in Spanish.

When Hernández Osorio told them how she felt and asked one of the students to put the items away, the student crumpled the Mexican flag into a ball and threw it in her face. She remembers crying at the time, but seven years later, she reflects that the incident was a sign of a larger trend.

Yuri Hernandez center, stands in solidarity at a silent protest in 2013.
by The Beacon / The Beacon

“That was very traumatic for me as a student on campus,” Hernández Osorio said. “Prior to that we were saying, ‘Oh well, we have Obama, everything is progressive, we have a black president, everything's great, racism doesn't exist.’ That was very much the tone and then that incident happened. And that shed light on an issue that students of color knew — we knew UP was racist, we knew it was unwelcoming, we knew we were minorities on this campus — and yet no one believed us.”

Her time at the University of Portland was punctuated by this racist encounter in Chiles. It, in part, motivates the work she does now as the university’s coordinator for Diversity and Inclusion Programs and as chair of the Student Affairs Committee on Diversity and Inclusion.

“Because of that incident, I realized people in power are never going to listen or understand the experience of minority communities, unless we are at the table,” Hernández Osorio said. “And so that's when I made that vow to myself, that I'm gonna one day, come back to University of Portland and I want to change it, and I want to make it better. And I realized that I needed a seat at the table.”

Hernandez is the university’s coordinator for Diversity and Inclusion Programs and chair of the Student Affairs Committee on Diversity and Inclusion.

by Annika Gordon / The Beacon

That encounter in the Chiles Center, while formative, was far from an unfamiliar experience. It was a grim reflection of discrimination Hernández Osorio had suffered growing up in Coos Bay.

Coos Bay is a rural town nestled along Oregon’s southern coast. The town, shaded by cedars and fog, seems pastoral and peaceful. For Hernández Osorio, that physical beauty betrayed the racism she experienced there. The town has a history steeped in racism. It is the site of Oregon’s only documented lynching, and had significant ties to the KKK in the 1920s. Hernández Osorio’s childhood was an acute expression of how that history still bears on the present.

Being one of the few Latino families in the area was difficult in a predominantly white community. Despite being fluent in both English and Spanish from a young age, Hernández Osorio was placed in classes alongside children with disabilities, based solely on the assumption that she didn’t speak English. 

At home Hernández Osorio spoke Spanish with her sibling and parents, but while attending a local catholic school, teachers would routinely hit her for speaking the language.

“When I was in high school I was told that I wasn't going to amount to anything,” Hernández Osorio said. “Even though I was top of my class, playing sports, doing community service, the leader of so many clubs, I was told I wasn't going to go to college just because of the color of my skin. And so I remember very, very vividly, being told that I was just going to work at McDonald's and get pregnant like all the Mexicans do.”

Coordinator for Diversity and Inclusion Programming Yuri Hernandez speaks passionately about her experience working closely with immigrants in 2019.
by Jennifer Ng / The Beacon

When she had those hard days though, her mother would act as a counterbalance for the overt racism and abuse she would suffer at school. A Spanish phrase her mother loves to repeat is “Todo se puede,” which means ‘Anything is possible.’

“I would come home and I would get told by my mom ‘You're going to accomplish so much,’” Hernández Osorio said. “‘You're going to go to college. You're worth two people because you speak two languages.’ So, every time I was being shut down, she would be there to support me. I don't think women of color get this acknowledgement enough but they are the backbone to so much, and my mom is my hero.”

This history, while painful, strengthened Hernández Osorio’s resolve for change. She applies that resolve to make changes for students of color at UP, and support them in the ways they might not get elsewhere. According to Adeline Paguirigan, a diversity collaborator for Diversity and Inclusion Programs, that support and leadership alone are one thing, but receiving it from another woman of color reinforces its importance.

“The way that she leads, she makes sure that we are mindful about knowing that we can't be it all, we can't do it all, and to practice self preservation, which is really important to women of color and she does that with such grace,” Panguirigan said. “Even though all the work that we're doing is very ‘Go go go’ and things run quickly, she does a good job in making sure that she's taking care of herself. And I think seeing that model from your supervisor is just a testimony to how things should roll.”

Though her job is tough at times, she does see the fruits of her labor, even when others might not.

“We’re more diverse than we’ve ever been,” Hernández Osorio said. “We're at 53% of students who identify as students of color. That's huge. That didn't happen on accident. That happened because of my labor, that happened because of what I attribute 100% to labor of women of color: myself, Cassie Esparza, countless other women of color who don't get the recognition we deserve, don't get the titles that we deserve, don't get the compensation that we deserve, but because of us, we're seeing the strides that the university has never had before.”

WOC, DIP and Latinx Student Union collaborated for an Ofrenda Building Workshop in preparation of UP's annual Día de Los Muertos celebration in 2019.
by Molly Lowney / The Beacon

Hernández Osorio tries to rectify and repair the broken systems and modes of thinking that caused, and continue to cause, her so much pain. She hopes to put herself out of work one day, to create a world where equity is the fabric of society, not just one person’s job.

That work is difficult and the road to that world is long. In a society dominated by instances of discrimination and disregard, whether it be racism, sexism, or xenophobia, Hernández Osorio says that, along with her mother, it is the QTBIPOC students she works with that encourage her to persevere. Their energy and ideas, she says, amaze her.

“You have those moments where students say ‘It's because of you that I stayed,’ or it's ‘your office impacted me in this way,’ or they become leaders around campus because they were influenced or touched by my mentorship or by the support that I provide. That drives it home. Especially on those tough days where I'm like ‘Why am I doing this? This is so hard, it's me against this whole system’ and then I work with the students and I am reminded of why I keep doing this work.”

Besides her mother, Hernández Osorio had the counsel of Dr. Alejandro Santana. The two became friends after she was a student in Santana’s introductory philosophy class her freshman year, and he was there after the racist incident at the Chiles Center. Coming full circle, the two are now colleagues and Santana has similarly felt the impact Hernández Osorio has had on the UP community.

Hernandez shares DACA information at vigil in 2017.

by The Beacon / The Beacon

“She's a guerrera, which is a warrior,” Santana said. “Which means she's someone who really fights for what is right and fights for all the people in our community. UP is very lucky to have her. It's very, very important that we cherish her the way she deserves to be cherished.”

Paguirigan echoed Santana’s sentiment, describing how valuable Hernández Osorio’s work is, and how it can often be more than enough for one person alone.

“She is so valuable to the university, most importantly to the students, and she should be supported in the way that she needs it. It’s a lot of pressure to put on one person. It's also not her job as the diversity and inclusion program coordinator to fix the University of Portland.”

In addition to the work she does for UP, Hernández Osorio has hobbies and side hustles to keep her busy. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, she learned to bead and now makes earrings, necklaces and bracelets by hand. She sells them on an Instagram page called @guachitas.creations

On a trip to Mexico last summer, Hernández Osorio visited her paternal and maternal family members over eight different states. While there, she formed a relationship with a community of Mexico’s indigenous people wherein she distributes their artisan products at fair trade prices in an effort to combat the exploitation and commodification of these small communities.

Hernandez hopes to eventually take her jewelry to the Portland Saturday market.
by Andrew Gotshall / The Beacon

“I'm selling it at a price where I can still gain profit but also honor that I paid them what they deserve,” Hernández Osorio said. “Versus, a lot of people go to Mexico and buy things cheap and then sell it here really expensive and then that's exploiting people. So that's what my business is built on: I make stuff and I'm trying to learn more about my culture and how to do new things, but in the process I also have a partnership with Mexican women.”

At the same time, Hernández Osorio has also started a podcast with some friends. The podcast is called “Hijole,” a Mexican slang word primarily indicating surprise or annoyance, though the meaning varies depending on who’s speaking. The idea came from what Hernández Osorio saw as a lack of diverse voices in the podcast landscape.

“I was listening to some podcasts,” Hernández Osorio said, “and I thought, my friends are more funny and my friends are way more interesting than these people who are interviewed. I was like, y’all are missing so many stories by not interviewing diverse people.”

Hernández Osorio has recorded three episodes of the podcast so far. Those episodes have not been released yet, but they cover topics like growing up as a person of color in predominantly white spaces and the experiences of men of color in higher education.

On top of an already demanding job, a small business and a podcast, Hernández Osorio is also pursuing an MBA at UP in the hopes of accomplishing a longer term goal: starting her very own tequila company. 

Her dream is to move back to Mexico to run the business full time. As much as this business would be about tequila, Hernández Osorio explained it would also be an effort to reclaim an aspect of Mexican culture that is often appropriated.

“I'm really passionate about businesses that are for a cause and not just for profit,” Hernández Osorio said. “And so that tequila company stems from the racist incident that happened to me at UP. Folks love to appropriate our culture. People love the fun aspects of our culture like chips and salsa and guacamole and they want to water it down to ‘tequila and sombreros’ and this caricature of us, and so it really bothers me. You'll notice in the jewelry business like people steal from us. This is a direct response to that, buy ethical products, if you love our culture so much, buy ethically, not cheap.”

Hernández Osorio’s story is more complex than the cliche of a simple ‘success story’. Her successes are not purely her own, but a representation of the dedication and sacrifices of her parents and those that have supported and mentored her along her journey.

Hernandez says that each piece takes 1-2 days to create.
by Andrew Gotshall / The Beacon

“It’s not just me making it,” Hernández Osorio said, “It’s my mother making it. It’s my community making it. It’s people in my hometown who were experiencing the same racism and maybe one day they can see a girl from Coos Bay got out of here and she’s doing so much better. They can aspire for that and more.”

“The essence of my story is that I'm here because people believed in me, people invested in me and people sacrificed for me,” she continued. “And I carry that with honor and grace and it's a big burden for me to carry, but it's the least that I can do because nothing is done in a vacuum.”

Though she has weathered many storms, her deep roots have kept her upright and grounded. She prefers not to focus on those storms and struggles. Rather, she wants to share the things she has done in spite of them. By sharing her story, Hernández Osorio hopes to create a space for healing and acknowledgement.

“I want to live a happy, healthy and fulfilled life,” Hernández Osorio said. “But that doesn't mean anything if I'm not sharing that with others, if I'm not creating a path where others can get to where I am. I'm very vulnerable with my story. I share it out a lot because I know that when I share my story, others can relate to it and have an opening to talk about it. Because when I talk about the racism that I experienced as a young child I get another person who says ‘That happened to me too, and it showed up in this way.’ And then we have a conversation and we have this healing space where we can say, well look at us now!”

Look at her now indeed.

Will Mulligan is a reporter with the Beacon. He can be reached at mulligan22@up.edu.