Friday, September 2, 2011

Dr. Ronald Fernandez, RIP

What a remarkable story.  On his way home from work, Ronald Fernandez was detoured by a police barricade because a Wells Fargo robbery was underway.  Anyone who grew up in Puerto Rico would appreciate the historical significance: this was the robbery perpetrated by Los Macheteros, the militant Puerto Rican independence group.  When I grew up in Puerto Rico in the 1970's, every school boy new of Los Macheteros.

This day in the life of Dr. Fernandez led him to a lifelong scholarly project documenting the colonial history of Puerto Rico. His first project, “Los Macheteros: The Wells Fargo Robbery and the Violent Struggle for Puerto Rican Independence,” was the first of his five books on the subject.  

Dr Fernandez died last Tuesday. He was 67.

Two things about his life's work bear mention.  One is the focus of his work.  From the Times:
[Four of his books] were deeply footnoted histories of American military and economic domination of a tiny island that has existed in a kind of limbo since becoming a United States possession in 1898, among the spoils of the Spanish-American War: neither colony nor part of the union.
This is a remarkable history, often ignored or neglected in the United States.   The history of the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico should be a treasure trove for students of democratic theory.  For example:
The nearly four million residents of Puerto Rico are United States citizens, subject to federal taxes, but cannot vote in federal elections. They are represented by a nonvoting representative in Congress. Tax and regulatory exemptions given businesses based on the mainland raise perennial public complaints about environmental and economic exploitation.
A second important aspect of Dr. Fernandez' work is his focus on race and ethnicity as understood in the Caribbean. This is something that every Latino in the United States experiences when asked to fill out the Census, or any other time we are asked to indicate our race.  We are asked whether we are Latino or some other ethnicity, and the next question usually asks if we are black or white.  But this makes no sense.  As Fernandez wrote in his last book, “America Beyond Black and White: How Immigrants and Fusions Are Helping Us Overcome the Racial Divide:"
Americans want Jamaicans or Puerto Ricans to think (and act) in black and white . . .  Qualifications never exist; you see skin color or you do not. When Caribbean people try to explain that their world is much more complicated, we too often write them off as hypocrites and miss one of the most remarkable features of life in many Caribbean nations: When it comes to race and ethnicity, they are among the most civilized people on earth.
May he rest in peace.

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