Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Ismael Hernandez, the founder of the Freedom & Virtue Institute. He is a black Hispanic ex-communist activist who is now a conservative. His decision to launch his institute was founded on years of hard work in poor communities and his eventual realization that, decades after the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, there are still walls of silence, oppression and division erected in minority communities by governments, organizations and leaders who are invested in a government-centered vision for minority America.
FP: Ismael Hernandez, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
I would like to talk to you today about your journey from inside to outside of the progressive faith and what you learned from your experience.
Let’s begin with your personal story.
Hernandez: Thank you Jamie.
I was born into a communist household in the poverty-stricken island of Puerto Rico. My father was a founding member of the Socialist Party and an intellectually sophisticated Marxist who left an extensive FBI file. I joined him in the struggle to defeat America, the great enemy of humanity and oppressor of our people. His life was socialism and America was evil. My mom had some faith and occasionally sent us to mass with neighbors. She only cared about the four children at home. Marital discord was inevitable and I blamed America for the situation.
The FBI was a feared and ever-present enemy and I hated them. Eventually my double consciousness (there may be a God but socialism is all that matters) was “solved” when I joined the Jesuit seminary. It was the same as joining a communist cell. There I could have my cake and eat it too. After the deaths of several Jesuits in El Salvador, the Order decided not to send us to Central America to study philosophy.
I was looking forward to study with liberation theologians there. To make a long story short, I made a mistake as a communist: I decided to come to the “guts of the monster.” Eventually, America convinced me of the errors of my views. As I stepped on her soil my lungs were filled with the breath of true freedom.
David Horowitz’s autobiography Radical Son made me shudder. His account of his second thoughts and political transformation punctured my soul to its core. His estrangement from family and friends and his initial resistance and eventual surrender to the truth was as if I was living the account myself. It was as if the corrosive ideology that penetrated every cell of my body was now being decoded and shown to me – to let me know that I was not alone.
FP: Could you be a bit more specific about what led you to your second thoughts? What made you pick up David Horowitz’s Radical Son?
Hernandez: I came to America to study at the University of Southern Mississippi. Yes, Southern Mississippi of all places. An incision pierced my heart as the plane took off over the deep river intent on taking me to Pharaoh. No one would have then convinced me that I was one day to realize that my salvation lied through the waters of liberty. By the end of that first summer semester, I was unexpectedly called to the Dean’s Office. Some professors had highly recommended me for one of only three foreign-student assistantships paying for all my expenses.
For the first time in my life, I began to weakly contemplate the possibility that things were not as I had been told. There I was, still spewing words of hate against America and out of nowhere, and based only on my achievements, I had been offered a reward. Why? About a year before my arrival, I was leading an anti-American campaign in my hometown of Isabela calling on young Puerto Ricans to refuse to fight in the first Persian Gulf War. Paying for anti-American propaganda posters myself, I took pleasure in distributing hundreds of them calling for the refusal. Why? Why offer me any benefit at all? Yet, America embraced me and gave me opportunities I never dreamed of.
I soon found myself attended by heretical thoughts that I never before anticipated. A revolutionary wave was sweeping across my soul and I fought it with iconoclastic zeal. It is not possible, not for me. The fall of the Berlin Wall threatened to pierce another nail in the coffin of my self-confident ideology. It was not supposed to happen. Beginning to read what I previously considered meaningless “Yankee” propaganda, the shades of socialist orthodoxy suddenly failed to come to my rescue and a new world opened before me. One day, I picked up Mr. Horowitz’s book because the theme sounded familiar. I had no idea who he was at that time. As I read his account of his childhood, I wept often at his stories and anecdotes, as they brought familiar pains and similar situations to me in the context of my beloved father. Not being able again to talk to my father about my views and to see friends still hurts me.
FP: I am sorry for the pain you endured and continue to endure for the courage to have left the political faith. Can you tell us a bit about how you were not able to share your views with your father and how your community abandoned you after you committed your heresy?
Hernandez: The journey of truth-discovery is often painful. It is not so much what is said by some “friends,” but the silence, the looks and the separation from those who once were so close that hurts the most. With my father, the loss was deeper. In his universe, nothing was supposed to interfere with a revolutionary’s commitment to the cause, nothing. This explains why my father grew so detached from his children and wife, as if coming too close to us was adulterous. I can still see him now, standing with pumped chest and eyes wide open while mother sat at the table and contended with him:
“Revolution is my life. You see these children, [pointing toward us] if I could offer their lives right now for independence and revolution, I would do it without hesitation!” He yelled at mom.
I can remember mom crying while we tried to console her. Deep inside, however, I was in proud agreement with him. How my metamorphosis must have pained him. My passion for socialism fading, I had become a stranger to him and he could not take it. No rejection from past comrades could compare with the sadness of my father’s disappointment. Close to the end, we ceased to discuss politics at all and dreaded to bring up anything touching on ideology. My father was the product of his generation and of deep convictions. Not prone to openly express much emotion or accept an intellectual challenge from one of his sons, I realized that my chances for a deeper encounter were nil.
The closest I felt to my father was while reading his only letter to me, where he expressed his love and admiration for what I had accomplished and thanked me for a previous letter I had sent him. Not that I had not known of his love; I always knew of his love for me although he never verbalized it. After all, I was the most radical of his children, the one who could always understand. The great fear of totally losing him by losing the dreams of revolution, I am thankful, never materialized, and his letter was enveloped in that truth.
My stance with other radicals was another matter. It ran a tumultuous course others before me have experienced. A Puerto Rican socialist reading this account will despise me even more. For black leftists, consternation at my position easily shifts toward dismissal. I am simply someone who cannot understand their reality, as I am not one of them. Moreover, for others, I will remain forever suspect – a price I am ready to pay for my embrace of freedom.
Just a few years ago, I buried my father with his beloved Puerto Rican flag embracing his casket as he embraced it with his life. He died a communist. At that time, I again silently sang the revolutionary songs to pay homage to the fallen warrior. While burying him, I stepped on a dream where I remembered his laughter and joy during rallies while I, long before, have waved my red flag and pumped my tight left fist by his side. And I cried over his death and I still honor his life.
Failing health and the nearness of finality notwithstanding, his closing days were met by a measure of God’s love. Absolute coalescence between his politics and faith was never achieved, but I know that God likes fighters on his side. Although his revolutionary utopian plan remained unrealized, he fought the good fight. Where there is no passion for truth, there can be no yielding before its throne. Therefore, by the end, the communist warrior prayed daily and with devotion and received communion. I have no doubt that in the heavenly abode, the full truth now finally discovered, he is still gathering the angels around to do more than just sing.
Looking back to my father’s journey, I feel a sense of contented thankfulness for the mercy of God upon me in revealing through my father that life is nothing but a meaningless eventual vanishing if truth, as the key to open the mysteries of existence, is not passionately pursued. It is true, the air of freedom now filling the lungs of my soul killed the fantasies of socialism within me but dad’s committed life taught me how to retrieve and wave a new flag, the flag of freedom. And now, I am convinced, he still looks on in contented approval.
FP: Thank you Ismael Hernandez, I appreciate you sharing these sacred elements of your life with us in such a meaningful and moving way.
So what has been your experience in black ministry and in serving the black community?
Hernandez: The black ministry is very much informed by leftist assumptions about the nature of poverty and its narrative is along the lines of oppression and victimization. White guilt and black anger remain as interpretive prisms. I see in it much of what I believed earlier as a communist. But black ministry has not done much to challenge Marxist assumptions and black liberation proposals. Additionally, it is hostage to political correctness. People like me are not supposed to be for “social justice” as it is understood in black ministry.
For example, I was appointed director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry of my Diocese a few years ago. Because of my conservative views and reluctance to play the white guilt card, I was immediately shunned by the Florida conference and they refused to acknowledge me and to send me any literature. In a letter sent to over 20 prominent Catholic leaders around the country, I was accused of basically hating black people because I have conservative ideas and reject affirmative action and Afrocentrism. That really hurt, but I came to understand that the tool of the Left is shame. It did not matter to them that I am black, had dedicated many years to serve my people and had married the love of my life, a south-side Chicago black woman. I was a conservative and thus, in the Left’s eyes, a non-black.
FP: Can you expand a bit on what you mean when you say that the “tool of the Left is shame”?
Hernandez: Socialism was my life. It was embedded in the very fabric of my identity. In spite of the sound electoral defeats we experienced, there was something intoxicating in knowing that we were different. Being communists brought to us an aura of mystery and exclusivity. We were an embattled community, a true enlightened vanguard whose shared values would eventually bring victory to fruition. One day, we would efface the pathologies of the present social condition and our flag would stand alone. America was the enemy of humanity and it was our sacred duty to destroy her.
The only moment of tenderness between my parents that my memory manages to retain is seeing both of them laughing and dancing with joy just after watching on TV as Alexander Belov sank a basket to give the U.S. team its first-ever Olympic basketball loss against the Soviet Union at the 1972 games. I was only ten years old. Glancing in my heart upon the interior of our tiny home, I can again see them dance, I can taste my satisfaction, and I can hardly control the emotion.
Their marriage would one day break down under the heavy weight of years of despondency and turmoil safely nurtured under the great red flag of socialism. Socialism destroyed their marriage. I, however, blamed America for the lack of love between them. Socialists see individuals with second thoughts as less than human, betrayers deserving pity at best and death at worst. And they know that they can shatter us by shunning us, for to take that leap, in socialist eyes, is akin to losing yourself.
FP: Lessons learned?
Hernandez: Stand by your convictions. When you reach a transforming truth, something possessing a renovating power, you cannot hide it from others. “Don’t be a fence-sitter” my dad used to tell me, and I have kept the family tradition of rebellious insistence. I discovered that socialism survived in me as an idea to be pursued but never attained simply because if I were serious in trying to find it in reality I had to dig under a pile of human corpses. Socialism is a utopian plan to build what cannot be built, to realize what is only illusory, and to destroy what works even if the result is chaos and death. As its analysis of reality and its anthropology is faulty, socialism fails not because the results of a given radical experiment fail but because it is false in its essential premises.
FP: Why exactly were you yourself able to see through these lies?
Hernandez: As I was faced with the reality of America’s freedom I still fought my heretical thoughts with appeals to the last of all socialist excuses: “Socialism has never been tried.” For a Communist, the embarrassment of reality must be opposed by a stubborn insistence on airbrushing history to preserve a semblance of respectability. Having been so wrong for so long about politics, life, and economics, it was excessively difficult to face the devastating truth.
One day, I finally accepted the error of my poorly crafted deception. I realized that socialism had been tried and the result had been, and will always be, the Gulag.
FP: Share with us the mission of your institute.
Hernandez: Our mission is to learn about and live freedom in the minority community. The task of bringing the truths of freedom to minorities is one that must be effected by people who are already invested in the lives of our people. Major conservative institutes often remain foreign to the real lives of real people in minority communities, thus the ideas of freedom are associated with elites telling people what to do and how to live.
We believe in the creation of a movement of community organizers for freedom who while offering intellectually rewarding opportunities also operate from within communities. Decades after the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement there are still walls of silence, oppression and division erected in minority communities by governments, organizations and leaders invested in a government-centered vision for minority America. Such vision limits our civic engagement and prevents individuals from their right to life, liberty and property. A soft socialism threatens to suffocate our liberty and development and channels our aspirations of prosperity through narrow collectivist alternatives. We intend to change this.
FP: Why do you think the leftist lie is so powerful among minority communities? The Left, which pretends that it wants to empower minorities, in truth only seeks to disempower them further, correct? What in your view is the most effective way for minority groups to empower themselves?
Hernandez: A truly oppressed community often appeals to commonality as a defense mechanism. Minorities needed to bind together around common goals and common ideas as a way to survive. However, absent meaningful oppression, such commonality becomes a tool of oppression. The Left knows how to use that tool of commonality as it moves towards the true goal: socialism. Socialism masquerades as the good society where our historic commonality finds a place. But it is a mirage.
Marxist German poet Bertolt Brecht once wrote that “art is a hammer with which to shape reality.” For socialists, race is, in similar fashion, a forum for political battles. In a class society, all aspects of culture are partisan and instrumental, as they bare, as all of reality does for them, the indelible mark of class struggle. Similarly, race and ethnicity become hammers with which we shape reality– or deny it. They are a means toward the ultimate end of a classless society, the only true end. Race, ethnicity and culture are simply scenes in an “epic form” drama, as Brecht would say.
Race is the “dialectical theater” of class warfare enabling the archetypal characters to stage humanity in interaction with the “supra-personal dynamics at work in history.” Simply put, race is a weapon of class struggle. Those who believe in the irreducibility of race are welcomed on the path of “the struggle” as useful idiots. What is the answer? The personal, the individual. The great new phase of the Civil Rights Movement is an uncompromising affirmation of our individuality as persons. We must reject the mask of race consciousness as a totalism, to cite Shelby Steele.
FP: Final thoughts?
Hernandez: The job of becoming who we are destined to become is not transferable to entities, labels or groups. The human person, not the racial group, has the task of participating in his own development and growth. It is in the perilous journey from racial identification to individuality that true participation in the molding of our true self will find the end of racialism. Only in such discovery will our racial identity find its rightful place – as collective entities are only discernible through the action of individuals. It is to assist in that discovery that the Freedom & Virtue Institute is dedicated.
FP: Ismael Hernandez, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.
Hernandez: Thank you Jamie for this opportunity. Maybe one day I will get to meet you and my hero, David Horowitz.