“Justice for Juan Hernandez”: Mexican-American mother honors son by giving back to community

By Alma Villegas
Vigil attendants at La Placita Olvera listen as speakers reminisce about their favorite memories with Juan "Cookie" Hernandez, Los Angeles, Calif., Dec. 6th, 2020. (Michael Rodriguez/ Sur Central Times)

She answers the phone with a weary but firm voice: ‘Today is not a good day,” she says. “I just picked up my baby’s ashes a couple of days ago.”

Every day on social media, the 41-year-old mother shares updates on how she’s doing, knowing that an entire community of people are bearing witness to her grief. “I’m taking it one hour at a time.”

At 21 years old, Juan Carlos Hernandez was highly regarded and loved by his community-- marathon runners, former retail colleagues, church members, college classmates, cousins and neighbors. Even in death, he continues to befriend strangers who have opened their hearts to his story-- one that his mother, Yajaira Hernandez, vows to keep alive through acts of service for others.

“He was the one that encouraged me to leave [T]arget and better myself[,] the most amazing friend anyone can have,” read one of the numerous messages that Yajaira Hernandez said had fueled her unrelenting search for her missing son.

For nearly two months, the Mexican-American mother had led an aggressive search campaign throughout the county, which concluded in the FBI and LAPD locating Juan Hernandez’s body in a desert area of San Bernardino County on November 15, according to a news release by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.

“We wouldn’t have been able to find my son if it wasn’t for the community support and people need to understand this,” said Yajaira Hernandez who is seeking justice for her son’s death, an ongoing case in which two suspects--Ethan Kedar Astaphan, 27, and Sonita Heng, 20--have been charged with one count of murder and one count of accessory after the fact, respectively.

On the night of September 22, Juan Hernandez had texted his mother to say he was on his way home from work.

When Yajaira Hernandez, a South Central resident, awoke the next morning to find her middle child had not come home, she immediately sought help from the LAPD.

Officers at the Southwest Community Police Station had in turn shut down her concerns, telling the worried mother that her adult son had no obligation to come home, Yajaira Hernandez said.

According to the LAPD, the Missing Persons Unit investigates per month up to 350 reports of missing adults, 80 percent of whom are found or voluntarily return within 48 to 72 hours.

“It angers me to know I was right and we could have done something about it,” said Yajaira Hernandez who had pleaded with four different officers that her son not returning home the night prior was completely out of character for him.

Within days of Juan Hernandez’s disappearance, several community members had joined Yajaira Hernandez’s efforts and were conducting search parties, calling city government officials, distributing flyers and fundraising for printing costs, tape and gas.

“I want to see Juan back home safe so bad,” read another message Yajaira Hernandez received throughout her search. “We...as managers still talk about how positive that young man is. You’re doing a great job as a mother.”

Artists with Classroom of Compassion created the altar (center) in Juan Hernandez's memory, Los Angeles, Calif., Dec. 6th, 2020. The altar rests against a mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe outside Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel. (Michael Rodriguez/ Sur Central Times)

Standing in La Placita Olvera--the historic main square of the city-- Danny Perez, 26, listened as others took turns reminiscing about their favorite memories with her friend. “I can’t think of any reason why someone would want to hurt him,” she said.

The community vigil on December 6, organized in part by The United Brown Coalition, brought about 60 people together to honor the life of Juan “Cookie” Hernandez.

All attendants were encouraged to wear face masks and keep six feet apart as the county continued breaking daily records of COVID-19 cases, surpassing 10,000 reported cases by day’s end, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

Kevin Godoy arrived at the vigil with Perez, and said he remembered “Cookie” as a carefree spirit who could go with the flow. Whenever the 26-year-old got the impulse to go somewhere, he could count on Juan Hernandez to respond approvingly with, “I’m down.” His propensity for socializing would also lead them both to “party with random people.”

Each time Yajaira Hernandez addressed the crowd, Godoy and Perez agreed that they saw Juan Hernandez’s reflection. “His mom is very vocal, very nice, opinionated, responsible and confident,” Perez said.

Both single mothers, Alejandra Ortega, 37, and Yajaira Hernandez met through parties hosted by mutual friends. Ortega said she’d immediately seen someone who was “full of life, animated and funny.” At the vigil, she stayed behind others and said that her friend was exhausted by this loss.

Although Ortega never personally met Juan Hernandez--who was a child when these parties had occurred--she feels that she did in fact come to know him. “She talks about her boys a lot. She’s a very proud mom.”

Sheny Espino, of Anytime Runners, spoke at the vigil in Spanish as someone who’d known Juan Hernandez since he was a 15-year-old high school student. “One thing I always noticed about him is that when he started running with the group, he brought his mom. He said, ‘My mom also needs to start running.’”

The marathon trainer said she remembered Juan Hernandez as someone who faced running challenges with enthusiasm and willpower, pushing and helping his mother to do the same. “Positivity, always. I learned that from Juan,” she said.

Miriam Dominguez also spoke at the vigil, and said she had different goals before she met “Cookie.”

“I wasn’t the type of person that would go running or hiking, but he was the type of person that would motivate you,” she said. “He would always push you: ‘Come on, come on! You got this! One more mile! You can do it!”

The 31-year-old said she developed a bond with Juan Hernandez so special that he came to call her a “big sister.” Dominguez’s voice trembled with emotion as she remembered their favorite place to run was the “Culver City Stairs.” Today, she still visits the 282 stone steps at the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook.

“And I always go up there and I always say, ‘I got this, I got this! I can make it up there,’” she said.

Occasionally, passersby at La Placita Olvera would stop and inquire about the altar, asking about what happened.

Artists with Classroom of Compassion created the roughly seven foot altar which featured a smiling portrait of Juan Hernandez surrounded by dozens of white flowers.

David Maldonado, 33, and Noah Reick, 31, both artists with the collective, said they “specifically serve the Black and brown queer community” and their message is “I hope [you] know how loved [you] are.”

Classroom of Compassion artists have created altars to commemorate the lives and deaths of Breonna Taylor and Nipsey Hussle. Their altars have also honored the lives lost in the shootings of 2016 at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida and of 2019 at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas.


Xodiak Darling of Orange County, lights a candle for Juan Hernandez, Los Angeles, Calif., Dec. 6th, 2020. They brought a flag (on the floor) that said Black Lives Matter "to recognize the intersectionality of it all, to recognize we are all fighting the same fight," they said. (Alma Villegas/ Sur Central Times)

“For me it’s so important that we continue to share Cookie’s story, especially now because justice hasn’t been served,” said Alejandro Garcia of The United Brown Coalition during a recent live chat, which he hosted on Instagram with Yajaira Hernandez.

Garcia explained that although he’s actively involved in local community organizing and has been working with families that have lost loved ones to police violence, he did not hear about Juan Hernandez’s story until about a month after he’d been missing.

“Why weren’t we, the community, made more aware of this? Why didn’t we know about this? And a lot of the work fell on [Yajaira’s] hands as a mother,” he said.

Organizers with Bay Area Rising Above connected Garcia and Yajaira Hernandez, who then began making plans together to accelerate the search for Juan Hernandez. His body was found shortly after that.

Many viewers who had tuned in to the live chat, commented that they were learning about Juan Hernandez for the first time, Garcia said during the conversation on December 5.

Yajaira Hernandez had expressed gratitude to The Union, the student-run news organization at El Camino College where Juan Hernandez attended as a part-time student. The student journalists provided early and consistent coverage of the family’s search efforts which elevated awareness about Juan Hernandez’s disappearance.

“You should be proud because we brought Cookie home, but we’re not done,” Yajaira Hernandez told viewers. “We will continue fighting for justice because my son deserves it. There [are] many families…out there suffering that don’t have this opportunity. So on behalf of those families, I will do all I can to bring justice to whoever did this.”

An employee with the Department of Public Social Services, Yajaira Hernandez said she took time off work on September 23 to lead the search for her son.

Law enforcement did not prioritize her son’s case because he was an adult Latino male, which pushed her own independent search, she said. After Juan Hernandez’s birthday on October 15, she had updated the flyers as his age had changed to 22.

“If he was an older individual that’s priority. If he was a child, that’s a priority,” she continued. “If he was a female, especially a white female, and I’m not saying this to attack anybody, but there’s such a thing as the “[missing white woman syndrome]” that as soon as a white female goes missing, all red flags go up and everyone starts moving.”

Black journalist Gwen Ifill coined the term “missing white woman syndrome” to describe the phenomenon in which news media extensively and disproportionately cover reports of missing white women.

Acknowledging her own heartbreak, the single mother adds that she can’t imagine what undocumented families, those who can’t speak English or people who are not able to take time off work to search for a missing loved one must live through.

Two days after Juan Hernandez was last seen, LAPD found the car he’d driven near 64th and Figueroa streets, according to a news release. Officers found the car running without anyone inside, and according to nearby witnesses the car had been running for hours before it was found, Yajaira Hernandez said.

The experience has transformed Yajaira Hernandez into a community advocate who is determined to support families of missing relatives, houseless people and all others who need help.

“Juan was bringing communities together,” she said. “He’s still bringing us together.”

She created the website HelpMeFindJuan.com which offers a resource guide for anyone navigating the search for a missing loved one. It includes contact information for different hospitals, mental health facilities and homeless shelters-- information she desperately needed and had to gather on her own.

The lifelong South Central resident has also been hosting monthly fundraisers in which she gathers donations such as gloves, scarves, protein bars and water bottles for families in need. In November, she collected about 250 blankets that went to the community on Skid Row. Her next drive will be this Saturday, Jan. 2. She is also accepting monetary donations for this purpose through CashApp, Paypal or Venmo.

“It’s a chain reaction,” Yajaira Hernandez said. “What you’ve done for me, what you’ve done for my family, I’ll never forget. And because of that love and that support, I’m going to love someone else and support someone else.”

Giving back, Yajaira Hernandez said, is something her son taught her and is how she will keep his trajectory moving. “These people tried to erase Juan. In the process what they did is create a legacy.”

Community members have asked that people continue to share Juan Hernandez’s story as the family awaits a long court process. The case is an ongoing investigation and the LAPD has asked that anyone with information contact the Robbery-Homicide Division at (213) 486-6840.

* This story contains an update: A fundraiser organized by Yajaira Hernandez could not take place on December 26 and will instead be held this Saturday Jan. 2.