Son. Wake up.
My father’s mornings were always the same: He’d wake me up earlier than I wanted, hand me a piece of bread and a cup of orange juice, and then silently walk with me to the beach to begin our dawn fishing outings. Like my dad, life in Puerto Rico was routine. My grandfather—known to me only as Papa Gíjo—had net-fished the same few miles of shore his entire life, so our morning walks always led to whatever part of the beach he decided to fish that day.
This morning was different, though. The oddly comforting aroma of coffee and frying fish wasn’t coming from the kitchen, and the familiar sliding of my grandmother’s shuffling feet as she fed her cats and recited early-morning Hail Marys was absent too. Their house sat on little more than two acres filled with fruit and flora—a contrast to the tin-roofed, one-story concrete building where we slept. A black, eight-foot fence with out-of-place fleurs-de-lis surrounded the home.
There were other voices in the streets, whispering and running away from the beach and past our house toward the center of town. The gate to our property was less than thirty feet away, yet I strained to hear anything beyond their feet: countless runners disappearing just as quickly as we first heard them. I quickly rationalized what I was hearing; my eight-year-old mind thought anything was possible in Puerto Rico, including running in the streets at 3 a.m.
Later that morning, we walked to the beach without taking the supplies we typically needed for fishing. Instead, we approached a large wooden boat sitting in the shore break that I’d never seen before. I looked inside: blankets, water bottles, fishing line, and two massive boat engines barely attached at one end were all that remained.
Hey, dad…where did this boat come from?
During my childhood years, that scene became familiar. My family spent several months a year living in Rincon, Puerto Rico with my grandparents, and we inevitably would be awakened during our visits by the sounds of Dominicans landing boats on the beach before running down the streets and disappearing into the island’s interior. Our attitude toward them was disparaging: Puerto Rico’s economy was—and remains—in a state of perpetual suffering, and the perceived added burden of caring for those immigrants often dominated dinner-table conversations. Being a young child, I took on the attitudes and stances of my family against what my grandfather called “cruces del océano”—the ocean crossers.
These memories and stories have been on my mind since news of Miami Marlins pitcher José Fernandez’s tragic death in a boating accident on Sept. 25th became public knowledge. Fernandez was a baseball phenom like few we’ve ever seen: He was National League’s Rookie of the Year in 2013 and a two-time All Star before turning twenty-four, and he set the Marlins’ single season record for strikeouts in 2016. On the baseball diamond, plays like this one showcased his incredible skill—ability was matched only by his charisma and joyous approach to life.José’s story gives face to the countless voices that passed by my grandfather’s house.
Like me, writer Nicolas Stelleni never actually met Fernandez, acknowledging that “[t]he entirety of my relationship with Fernandez came through the screens of my television, laptop and phone. That was all I needed to know that this was a special man.” Without knowing him, we knew him—and that’s why Fernandez’s death hurts so much. As Stelleni puts it, “there was never a happier man at the ballpark than José Fernandez.” Even from a distance, the man’s enthusiasm was contagious—just try looking at this picture or this series of events without smiling. His teammates and the larger baseball community knew how special he was too: After his death, his teammates collectively wore jerseys with his last name, dedicating their first game without him to his memory. Teams around the league offered their own tributes to Fernandez, remembering him with moments of silence and hanging his jersey in their dugouts.
But even beyond his personal accolades and legacy, José’s story also gives face to the countless voices that passed by my grandfather’s house. Since Fernandez was from Cuba, the only way to escape to America was through defecting. Three times, he tried to defect to America; three times, he failed. As a fourteen year-old failed escapee, his punishment was to spend several months locked in a Cuban prison. When he tried again to defect, the journey took him and his mother toward Cancún, Mexico, nearly claiming their lives along the way. An account of the crossing Fernandez gave to Grantland is both harrowing and heroic: “A spotlight shone on the water, and Fernandez could make out his mother thrashing in the waves about 60 feet from the boat. She could swim, but just barely . . . [w]aves—‘stupid big,’ he says—lifted him to the sky, then dropped him back down. When he reached his mother he told her, ‘Grab my back, but don’t push me down. Let’s go slow, and we’ll make it.’ She held his left shoulder. With his right arm—his pitching arm—he paddled. Fifteen minutes later, they reached the boat. A rope dropped, and they climbed aboard. For now, at least, they were going to be OK.”
Fernandez ’s talent made him a star—that much is undeniable. But what made him truly special was his role as a bridge between Cuban-Americans and the world around them. Within his community, José’s journey endeared him to Miami and Cuban-Americans struggling to make sense of hardships uniquely their own. Like countless Miamians, Fernandez left family behind in Cuba to make the journey to America. He wasn’t born here, but his death caused collective mourning—this isn’t how rags-to-riches stories are meant to end. Ronnie Socash, writing for SBNation, captures that feeling when he mentions that Fernandez’s death feels like Miami has lost its shot at “redemption,” a chance for a predominantly Latino community to showcase a superstar that looked and spoke like them. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, speaking on the Senate Floor two days after Fernandez’s death, sadly noted that Fernandez represented “countless others who never made it, the ones who lie in unmarked graves along the Florida straits . . . [w]e loved him just a little more and took pride in him more than most.”
Fernandez wasn’t perfect, of course—there’s suspicion alcohol played some role in the accident, and the timeline of that evening only becomes sadder and more tragic with time. I can’t make sense of the man’s death, and perhaps I never will. But what I’m left with right now is a reminder that Fernandez’s journey from fourteen-year-old prisoner to major league all-star speaks to the perspectives we bring to discussing what it means to be American. My Puerto-Rican heritage forces me to acknowledge that the terms we use in our discussions about immigration, illegals, and refugees disservice those whom we discuss. My position is one of luxury—it’s easy for me to forget that my own father’s journey to America was uneventful, and arguably even possible, solely because of a war and Puerto Rico’s consequential new identity as a US territory over a hundred years ago.
Every time I heard the sounds of feet clamoring for a better existence, I never understood how powerful and intoxicating the American Dream could be, or the level of suffering so many people endure to have a single chance to live it. What’s become clear, however, in the years since I listened to the runners outside my grandparents’ home, is that while Fernandez’s talent was once-in-a-generation, his story isn’t. It’s a story we must acknowledge as part of what it means to be American.
In his book Culture Making, Andy Crouch writes, “When we undertake the work we believe to be our vocation, we experience the joy and humility that come only when God multiplies our work so that it bears thirty, sixty and a hundredfold beyond what we could expect from our feeble inputs.” As a Puerto-Rican who loves baseball, I know there was nothing quite like watching José Fernandez pitch. It was what he was born to do, and he did it better than arguably anyone else around. He was brash, loud, and utterly in love with life—a man whose legacy will linger in the consciousness of Cuban-Americans, just as Roberto Clemente’s death still makes my father cry over forty years later.
Fernandez’s work meant so much more for those around him. As journalist Den Le Batard notes, “You know what watching him work felt like to South Florida’s Cubans? Freedom.” Appreciating that sense of freedom is central to understanding our Latino and Latina neighbors and bringing sense to our increasingly hostile discussions about immigration . As much as we often forget it, our lives are shared. Men like Fernandez, though, force us to confront the people we reject when we prioritize self-preservation of a nationalistic identity instead of the command we’re given to love the immigrants and travelers among us. It shouldn’t take an empty boat—or an empty pitcher’s mound—to remind us of the joy that accompanies embracing the strangers in our midst.