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Ismael Hernandez is founder and executive director of the Fort Myers–based Freedom & Virtue Institute, which promotes poverty-fighting through effective compassion and individual change. Here are edited excerpts of our interview before Patrick Henry College students.
You grew up in Puerto Rico under your father’s indoctrination. He was a founding member of the Puerto Rico Communist Party. He consistently talked about revolution and made us listen to Fidel Castro’s never-ending speeches—seven hours talking.
You had to listen to all seven hours? Yes, required listening. I grew up hating the United States, hating capitalism, and blaming capitalism and America for the poverty we saw around us. And I hated America for the bad marriage that my mom and my dad had, because my father was only interested in revolution.
But you admired him and wanted to be like him. I would go with him to Communist cell meetings. Our lives were all around socialism and how to defeat the United States. When my mother cried because my father told her he would give the lives of the four children we had at home for revolution, I consoled her but in the back of my mind agreed with my father. I wanted that kind of steel, that kind of commitment for a cause, and I eventually joined the party with him.
‘When I came to America, my lungs filled with the breath of freedom. I didn’t know it was happening, but it was.’
Sometimes you went to church with your mother? She would sneak us to go to Mass with friends without my father knowing about it. I began to have a double-consciousness: On one side, revolution and socialism. On the other side, this idea about God.
“Liberation theology” was popular at that time throughout Latin America, so becoming a Jesuit priest would allow you to satisfy both sides. Exactly. The Jesuits were Marxists. I looked forward to studying liberation theology with them at a university on the border between Nicaragua and El Salvador; but when seven Jesuits were murdered there, they decided not to send me. I was frustrated and quit seminary. I decided to come to America, to the guts of “the monster,” as we called the United States. I had a friend who had gone to the University of Southern Mississippi. He told me it was very inexpensive, so I said, why not?
What happened there? Hating America, still as a Communist, in the South, as a black Puerto Rican, you can imagine what kind of a shock it was. But because I had good grades in the first semester, they called me one day to the dean’s office and offered me full assistance to pay for all my studies. I hated their guts and they were rewarding me. This was not supposed to happen. For me, America was hell for the workers, but I started to question my assumptions.
They did not demand that you stick to a particular political line and do propaganda. You were free to explore, to read, to think? Absolutely. I had good grades, and they rewarded that. I began to understand that America was more about the individual person, and that accomplishment brought reward.
You also met your wife-to-be. She was starting a major in family therapy. At the beginning she thought I was a spy, but we bonded and became husband and wife. As a socialist I believed my only value was to be a faithful soldier of revolution, a drop in the water. If I do my duty, my life has value. If I don’t, my life doesn’t matter. What matters is the collective, the group; but America tells me no, you have value as a person. That was a discovery, and I also discovered that what Americans call poverty is a joke compared to what we call poverty in any other context in the world. That was another problem for me, because this was not the America that socialism told me existed.
Sometimes students born in the 50 United States grit their teeth and make their way through core documents such as The Federalist Papers, but you found them exciting. They were ideas I had never explored that contradicted my safe assumptions and what I knew as a socialist—and at the same time they aligned with the experience I was having. That is radically important to me—before it became an intellectual quest, it became an experience. When I came to America, my lungs filled with the breath of freedom. I didn’t know it was happening, but it was. At the same time I was losing my father because he could not reconcile the most radical of his sons now becoming part of the enemy.
Thomas Sowell’s great book The Vision of the Anointed, which I recommend to all the Patrick Henry College students here, also helped? It explained so well what is behind our assumptions about life. And also, as an African-American himself, he questioned my assumptions about race. Before I read Sowell, I would say, “Our problems as black people—you white people are our problem! You fix yourselves and we will be whole.” I assumed that for us to advance, whites had to change, but Sowell helped me realize that if my life and my success depend on you and not on myself, I am still a slave. If I choose not to change, I have two alternatives—whine and feel sorry for myself, or put my fist in your face. But that’s not a way to live! There is a third alternative.
With a wife, a changed worldview, and a master’s degree in political science you move to Florida and work at a poverty-fighting organization. I was giving people stuff and more stuff, and paying their bills. Over 10 years I made many changes, but I was beginning to see coming for food the children of those to whom I had been giving food for a long time. That was a sign of defeat. I was part of the cycle of dependency, so one day I quit: Did not have a dime, did not have a job, but I had the idea that we needed an organization that teaches principles.
You started the Freedom & Virtue Institute. The next great phase of the civil rights movement is an uncompromising individual responsibility movement. W.E.B. Du Bois said the problem was racism. Booker T. Washington said, “I agree, the problem is racism, but also black underdevelopment.” We need to fight oppression, but we need to develop ourselves. We meet with people in churches and have training in effective compassion.
Instead of diversity training you do “commonality training” that respects individuality? We do not appreciate people by learning how many things make my group different from other groups. The universal commonality of human dignity motivates us to learn more about each other. If I appreciate you as a human being and as a friend, then I want to know what makes you unique. America has taught me that I am an individual person made in the image and likeness of God. I have rationality and will. I am my own man. We should put race aside and look at the person.