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Silhouettes profiles Dr. Mario Hernandez

By Tiffany Razzano
Published January 7, 2022

Like many Ybor City natives, Dr. Mario Hernandez has Cuban, Spanish and Sicilian roots and, of course, connections to the historic cigar industry.
His Cuban father was born in Key West after his family immigrated first from Spain and the Canary Islands. At the time, Key West was a growing community thanks to the success of the cigar industry there. But the island was hit by powerful hurricanes, which ended the cigar trade there, Hernandez said. “And so they started bringing the tobacco here to Tampa.” And his father’s side of the family followed the industry as cigar factories opened in Ybor City.
His father met his mother, a Tampa native, here. She was part Spanish – on her father’s side – and Sicilian – on her mother’s side. “So, I’m Italian, Spanish and Cuban,” he said.
It was a different time growing up in Ybor City, one he remembers fondly. “I grew up, as a kid, right there, at what is MLK and 15th Street. It was actually Buffalo. It used to be called Buffalo Avenue,” Hernandez said. “And, you know, I grew up in a time when, you know, you ate breakfast and the doors of the stable were open, and the kids would just run out and come back when your mother screamed for you to come and eat. That was the kind of neighborhood that I grew up in.”
Like many families, much of their socializing happened around good. “Everything was always centered around eating,” he said. “My mother being, you know, having a big Italian influence, would cook. On Sunday, she would cook spaghetti…My mother was not really religious; we weren’t religious. I would say we were spiritual…So, our church on Sundays was my mother’s kitchen, cooking spaghetti sauce.”
It was such a powerful memory for the family that when she died he printed her recipe and the story of her sauce on Sundays on the back of her prayer card.
“That was really fun,” he said. “And, of course, the recipe was, how much garlic do you put in? And the answer would be, ‘Well, it depends on how good the garlic is.’ If it’s really good garlic, you put in less. It’s like, well, what is good garlic? She had this recipe based on how good the ingredients were. It’s so funny.”
His parents ran a store in Ybor City. Hernandez spent a lot of time there as a child, but one of his most vivid moments decades later was hiding from the Ku Klux Klan. A biracial couple had moved about a half a block from the shop and one day his father saw KKK members in white robes marching toward the couple’s home. He and his parents locked the door, pulled down the shades and turned off the lights, and the three of them hid behind the meat counter while the KKK burned a cross in the nearby yard.
“I’ll never forget it, because I saw how concerned my parents were. I never saw my father like that. I can still remember it,” Hernandez said.
He was just a little boy and the gravity of what was happening – and the racism and hatred behind the KKK’s actions – didn’t fully hit him until he was older. “We lived in a Latin community where we were, to a certain extent, living in our own world with other people like us,” he said.
As he grew older though, he noticed things were different when his family traveled outside Ybor City. “When you went out a little bit, like we would try to rent motels at the beach, I remember, ‘Sorry, we don’t rent to Latins. Sorry, we don’t rent to Latins,’ and we’d go place to place to place to try to find a place,” he said. “There was prejudice and my father was always very concerned about where I would go to hang out and do things. He says, ‘Some of these places you go, we’ll never find your body.’ Well, that’s a scary thought. That was just a reality I grew up with. But within the Latin community, you know, it was different. It was like our own world. Tampa was a beautiful, protective kind of bubble.”
Growing up, there was only one person in his family who attended college. Higher education wasn’t the norm for his parents, and though they had a lot of confidence in his abilities, he didn’t have much guidance as far as schooling or his career path.
Access to WEDU’s programming was influential and life-changing for him at a young age. “I didn’t have like a role model for a whole lot, you know, outside (Ybor City,) and so, to me, the window to the outside world, the thing that made me go like, ‘Wow, what is that job? How did that person get that job?’ was WEDU,” he said. “I would watch WEDU all the time…And that’s where I’d see these jobs. You know, I’d see a professor. I was always into animals and plants, I still am.”
Initially, he wanted to be an animal behavioralist and WEDU drove those dreams. After high school, he went on to the University of South Florida. The early research he completed was working with crows and tools. “Crows are amazing creatures,” Hernandez said. “They’re very intelligent.”
While working with the crows, though, his research assistantship funding ran out, forcing him to switch gears. He was pointed in the direction of Dr. Robert Friedman, a clinical psychologist and USF staff member who eventually chaired the psychology department. Friedman was hiring people to work with teenagers with emotional issues at the Florida Mental Health Institute.
Hernandez wasn’t sold on changing his career path, though. He told his wife, “I’m not gonna work with teenagers. You know, that’s not what I want to do.”
She told him, “Well, why don’t you go check it out? We need the money.”
He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology from USF in 1975, followed by a master’s degree in clinical/community psychology from the university in 1978. While working toward his Ph.D. in clinical/community psychology, also at USF, he headed west to complete his required internship at Camarillo State Hospital in California in 1980. “That’s where all the movie stars go,” he said.
It was a big move and adjustment for Hernandez and his tightknit family. He recalls his sister moving away from their Ybor City neighborhood before him. She didn’t go very far, moving to Lutz. “My mother was crying, because it was like she was moving to France, you know. They might never see her again,” he said. “But that’s how the families were. Everybody stayed right by each other. So, then, you can imagine what it was like when the son moves to California.” The first plane trip his parents ever took was to visit him on the West Coast.
His connection with Friedman at USF gained him many admirers at Camarillo State Hospital and the area. “He’s nationally famous for his way of thinking about how children’s services should be,” Hernandez said. “It’s not all just therapy based. It’s more about how we support kids and families in a more realistic way as opposed to just always thinking in terms of treatment. It’s about how agencies can work together to help.”
He added, “Well, it turns out that where I moved to, the county was replicating and trying to put his ideas into a real situation. So when they found out that I knew him, it was like a golden key for me. It was like, ‘You know this guy? You know Elvis.’ ‘Yeah, he’s my friend.’”
After earning his Ph.D. from USF, he remained in California operating a private practice and working with various agencies. But the late 1980s, he took on the position of chief of children and youth services with Ventura County Mental Health. His work focused on reforming and overhauling the system.
“Part of the work that I did in California was we helped to close the state hospitals. Our work was to make sure that no children ever had to go there,” he said. “We emptied them. We emptied them out of our county and then we did five counties and then it went statewide.”
With the success in California, Hernandez has consulted in many states on children and youth services, helping to reform their systems. “It was an incredible ride. I mean what were doing in California to replicate what (Friedman) was one of the designers of here just opened up the whole world,” he said. So from a guy who never left his neighborhood, I can’t believe everything I’ve been able to see and do just through my career in advocacy and reform.”
By 1993, he returned to Tampa. His mentor, Friedman, recruited him back to USF, offering him a position as a research associate professor and director of division of training, research, evaluation and demonstrations for the university’s Department of Child and Family Services. He’s been there ever since, working his way up.
Life came full circle for him when Friedman retired. USF asked Hernandez to take over the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences as chair in 2007.
The interdisciplinary department is the largest at the university with 267 employees. It’s also responsible for bringing in around $60 million in grants for various research projects.
“We have psychologists, sociologists. We have educators. We have business majors, anthropologists,” he said. “So, we are really interdisciplinary and whenever we approach a problem, we approach it from all those different perspectives, which really lends a lot.”
The department continues to grow, Hernandez added. “We have the rehab and mental health counseling program. We just added a marriage and family therapy program. We have five certificates. We have a new minor in addictions counseling, which is totally popular. We also have an applied behaviors minor.”
He added, “And we still have more ideas.”
Most university psychology departments are driven by accreditation standards. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences, with so many professions associated with it, it’s adopted a “more unique” mission and vision statement, he said.
“And we did that on purpose because we would no matter what you are, that’s what we’re about. We’re about that first. We want to support everyone and everything they’re doing, while meeting accreditation, of course,” he said. “But we have a real mission statement. It’s not just a slogan that was thrown together. It’s real and has purpose, and that’s what drives us.”

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