He stood proudly laughing as I retrieved my red flag from a ditch. “Wave it, son!” he encouraged.
It remains a vivid recollection of a moment in a life dedicated to revolution. As I leaf through the pages of my father’s CO-INTELPRO file, over 50 years of revolutionary zeal reappear, reminding me of a life I loved that vanished about 14 years ago.
My father was a founding member of the Movement for Independence, the Marxist-Leninist precursor of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party. Our family life was informed by the politics and assumptions of socialism — assumptions that explained our poverty and gave us purpose. My heart was sewn early with the thread of utopia, and my identity was suffused under a collective label that gave meaning to my life.
There were intoxicating promises of a grand new world devoid of antagonisms and social pathologies. We had a master plan to transform chaos into ease. As an embattled community, we sheltered ourselves under the mantle of the dream, and I was committed to becoming a faithful drop in the great wave of revolution — my dignity resided there. In fact, apart from that wave, as I saw it then, I was simply a particular but insignificant arrangement of cells in a diaspora of meaningless existence.
“America is the enemy of humanity!” my father used to rail and, naturally, I believed him. His life had been shaped by regrets transformed into grievances, as if a political alibi could shelter his psyche from experiences of pain. The litany of condemnations against “Yankee imperialism” became my catechism, and the meagerness of our existence nurtured my investment in rage. I soon learned to hate America, and my mind filtered everything through an “us” against “them” prism.
I will never forget the night when I saw the look of desperation on my mother’s face as she stormed outside to confront the men monitoring my father. I heard buzz of inquisitorial voices mingled with her dejected cries. Later I learned who they were — intelligence officers of the Puerto Rican police working with the FBI, and I hated them. A deep hatred of all they represented grew within me with the force of a Caribbean hurricane that sweeps bare all in its path.
Though I blamed America for destroying my parents’ marriage and our lives, in reality socialism was the destructive force. But I would not learn this until many years later, away from the utopian allure of its grasp.
At this same time, God was becoming a vital factor in my life.
My mom regularly sent my siblings and me to Mass with friends, and those experiences shaped in me a sort of double consciousness. On one hand God; on the other my other faith: socialism. How to reconcile this dichotomous existence? By joining the Jesuit order, of course. This solution, joining the order in their embrace of liberation theology — which came to the fore during the mid-1980s amid the political turmoil brewing in Central America — was inspired by the Jesuits I had met, and I was accepted.
How I wanted to go to Central America to study philosophy and be a part of that revolutionary liberation. My drop had found its wave, I was convinced. I felt ever more certain of my decision when I learned I was to be sent to Sandinista Nicaragua, the heart of the revolution — a socialist’s dream come true.
But when seven Jesuits were murdered in El Salvador — close to the border with Nicaragua — the order, concerned for our safety, decided to send us to Fordham University in New York instead. Frustrated, I left the seminary and returned home. I’m not going to seminary in “the guts of the monster,” I thought to myself, realizing that perhaps I did not have a priestly vocation so much as I was destined to be a revolutionary.
At this point, I made the most beautiful “mistake”: I decided to come to America after all.
Curiously, I landed not at Fordham but at the University of Southern Mississippi. It was when my feet hit American soil — in the Deep South no less — that my lungs were filled with the air of freedom. For the first time in my life, I was able to challenge the safe and fiercely held assumptions of my ideology. Ideologies — political, racial or otherwise — are the result of pre-rational worldviews and prism-filtering phenomena. After some time in the U.S., I dared to try on a new filter, and a new landscape informed by liberty facilitated the experiment.
By the end of my first summer at the university, I contemplated the possibility of staying. I soon found myself troubled by heretical thoughts against socialism. The Berlin Wall had fallen and, in doing so, struck my consciousness. I still fought these thoughts with appeals to the last of all socialist excuses: “Socialism has never really been tried.” Yet there was a new reality that spoke the language of dignity with new words — ones that made me realize that I was not merely an insignificant drop in a vast ocean.
I am no longer a socialist because I listened more and more to these words and the vital messages they conveyed — and I encountered the reality of American freedom and its constitutional primacy on the individual, which led to the realization that socialism is an anthropological mistake.
Socialism fails not because a particular approach fails, but because it is false in its foundational premises by misunderstanding humankind’s very nature.
I eventually discovered that I was unique and unrepeatable, not simply a drop in a collectivist wave. I have the moral capacity of self-realization because, made in the imago Dei (Genesis 1:26), I have the capacity to reason, to discover the truth and the volitional capacity to choose, to do what is good.
I was willed into being by God for my own sake. I am loved by God in the radical concreteness of my existence and ordered to personal communion with others. I can transcend the dynamisms inherent in my biological life and look to the heavens above.
It is in the exercise of dual capacity of reason and choice, I came to see, that my dignity could be found.
What is needed is a social and political context that protects, affirms and optimizes these individual capacities. This social context incentivizes dynamism, understanding, creativity and self-determination. Any collectivist understanding of the human person I previously had was nothing more than a cluster of inferiorities — an expansive, yet shallow, sea of sameness.
A few years ago I buried my father, who died a communist. At that time, I again silently sang the revolutionary songs in homage to the fallen warrior. I remembered his laughter when, by his side, I retrieved my red flag many years ago. I mourned his death, and I honor his life to this day.
I remember still his words toward the end of his life, “Don’t be a fence-sitter!” His example of leading a committed life is an important legacy that I have woven into my own coat-of-arms.
Now I fly the crest of God-given individuality and the shield of liberty. I am convinced that my father salutes this new and uniquely American flag as he looks on in contented approval.
• Ismael Hernandez is founder of the Freedom & Virtue Institute and a faculty member at Acton University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the author of “Not Tragically Colored: Freedom, Personhood, and the Renewal of Black America” (2016).
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