By Peter Fontanes
It is not always easy to deal with the death of a great man especially if he also happens to be your friend and mentor.
Don Luis A. Ferre, the former Governor of Puerto Rico and the founder and patriarch of the modern day Pro Puerto Rican Statehood movement, was such a man to me.
His passing left me with a sense of deep sadness not only because I am going to miss him as a friend but because the absence of his wit, intellect and integrity in a world that is scarce in these human traits will surely leave behind a vacuum in the Hispanic-American political scene.
It was nearly twenty years ago, when I first met him. It was after I had interviewed the leaders of all three major parties in Puerto Rico for a college project regarding the status issue. After two days in his office and despite his busy schedule, Don Luis patiently converted me into a staunch proponent of Puerto Rican statehood. He did it with what I soon began to see was his modus operandis: with quiet and steady logic as opposed to emotional jargons and empty platitudes and ,most importantly, with respect for the other guy’s position.
To be a young Puerto Rican statehooder during the sixties and seventies in New York City was a lonely voyage at that time for this then inexperienced college student and political novice. Nonetheless, Don Luis always would tell me that you fight the fight when you feel you are right and everything else will follow. As I saw the statehood movement grow in Puerto Rico and on the mainland over the years, I have come to fully appreciate his message of tenacity and perseverance in fulfilling aspirations and goals depsite the obstacles that may be placed before you.
Later on, he persuaded me to stay in Puerto Rico for the last year of his administration to help him out in his reelection bid. While I was serving as the Assistant Director of the New Progressive Party, I hosted him at my desk during breaks from official party meetings on numerous occasions. While enjoying some “cafe con leche” talking about the politics of the times, he took me under his wing to mold my philosophy about life, arts, politics and the meaning of being a Hispanic-American.
The night of his election defeat was extremely dificult for me. It was my first experience at a real election campaign. I wanted to have a winning night but it was not meant to be. Nonetheless, Don Luis’ graciousness, especially as the election results clearly thundered that he was not being returned to office, taught me the meaning of valor and courage in the face of adversity.
I realized then the type of man he really was. I realized that I had supported the right person and had no reason to apologize for my candidate.
Simply stated, Don Luis (or “Don Louiee” as I use to affectionally call him in that thick New York accent that I am known for) was a “caballero.” He was as humble a man as you can find yet he was aware of the greatness and the gravity of the ensuing responsibility he had and that God has placed before him as a maker of historical events. Pomp and ceremonies never really moved him but to hear him play classical piano was to see a man lost in the simplicity of the beauties of life that surrounds us.
I will never forget the day that we were returning from Ponce on a campaign trip and he turned around to me and nudged me to look out the window. With a sparkling gleam in his eyes and with a subtle but effervescent grin, Don Luis instructed me to look at the beautiful view of Puerto Rico’s shoreline as we drove by the beaches to our hotel in Mayaguez. There was no doubt in my mind that this man truly loved Puerto Rico.
More importantly, as we campaigned in the poorest slums, I noticed that he would never shy away from “un abrazo” from the poorest of his constituents. I can recall so many times that I have campaigned with other politicians who hated even a handshake from the public. Not Don Luis! He would wade into the crowds and resonate with everyone as though they were all part of his family. No matter how tired he was, he would always stop to acknowledge you and let you know that you were important. This was a man who loved his people so much that he was energized by them.
Years later, I would see him in New York at a function at the Museo del Barrio. Don Luis had generously donated monies to the arts and was a founder of the Museo de Ponce. His devotion to Puerto Rican art and culture was second to none. He was, no doubt, Puerto Rico’s renaissance man.
At this reception, which was held in his honor, I sat with him and we had a long conversation regarding the arts. I told him that I was once an aspiring young artist but ,instead, I had decided to go into business. He admonished me for having let my creative juices dry up. I remember him saying that a man without culture is like a man who has lost his soul. Two weeks later, I went to the local art shop and bought modeling clay to begin sculpturing.
Likewise, Don Luis left his imprint on a new generation of young Puerto Ricans. I am always hearing similar stories from people who are now captains of industries like Nick Lugo, the head of Nick Lugo Travels, Frank Vazquez, head investment banker from Bear Sterns, Maria Roman, New York Governor George Pataki’s advisor and former Puerto Rican Senate President Charlie Rodriguez.
The influence and impact of Don Luis’ life is also found in the growing numbers of young Puerto Rican Statehooders that are now changing the tides and pointing to a certain future where that fifty-first star will hang on the United States flag one day. Sadly, he did not live to see the day that Puerto Rico will become a State of the Union. His passing should stir our resolve to see that his dream becomes our reality. That should be our monument to this great man.
Putting political disagreement aside, he was someone that everyone genuinely liked, respected and admired. In fact, his greatness lies in the fact that no one can speak ill of him as a man. That is truly a sign of greatness.
I am going to miss him and so will a lot of others because “caballeros” like him do not come too often to dwell among mere mortals. Maybe if we can be so lucky, we can all emulate him thereby making this world a little better place to live in. Maybe we can start by thinking about true sovereignty for our people, real political empowerment for all Hispanic-Americans, economic security for our beloved island and the preservation of our art and culture.
This too is the legacy of “Don Louiee” and it should be ours too!
Peter Fontanes is a founder of “Destiny 51” a national pro Puerto Rican Statehood Movement based in New York City.