Turmoil has pretty much been a constant in the life of Jorge Fernandez ’70 — from fleeing his country as a young boy to refugee life in the United States during the tumultuous 1960s to working in Miami’s city attorney office during the turbulent decade of the ’80s.
Yet, the 55-year-old self-described “Cuban Dutchman” has much to be thankful for, he said. Landing in Miami, Fla., as a 12-year-old refugee, unable to speak any English, Fernandez is still surprised by the route his life has taken.
His route initially took him north to Michigan, after Montello Park Christian Reformed Church in Holland adopted the 11-member Fernandez family. There, Fernandez and his siblings were enrolled at Holland Christian School.
“For a Cuban family to get itself adopted and integrated into life in a Dutch community, that’s an experience I would like to write about someday,” laughed Fernandez.
“After I graduated I had no plans to come to Calvin College,” Fernandez said. “My parents were more interested in my getting a job, but I had an English teacher who would not take ‘no’ for an answer.”
At Calvin, Fernandez majored in education, but it was the entire liberal arts experience that significantly influenced him, he said.
“Clearly, I am who I am today because of the values and philosophy that Calvin successfully infused in me,” he said. “At Calvin I heard teachers and speakers and went to demonstrations that radically addressed issues that I was dealing with. My experiences there have led me in my path for the last 30-some years.”
That path continued to wind. Fernandez started as a second-grade teacher in Miami and within a few short years was named principal of Booker T. Washington Middle School there.
“I was the youngest principal in Dade County, but I was extremely frustrated,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I was making any difference.”
So, Fernandez decided to pursue a law degree, which he earned from Wayne State University (Detroit, Mich.) in 1979. After a job with a major law firm and a few years of private practice, Fernandez became assistant city attorney for Miami, eventually moving his way up to city attorney in 1988.
“I finally felt like I was going to have the opportunity to continue to do what I had learned to do at Calvin,” he said. “I wanted to redeem whatever part of culture was around me; I wanted to get out there and be part of the solution to Miami’s many problems.”
For a few months, Fernandez felt he had found his place. “I had a few moments of epiphany where I thought I could make a difference. I felt invigorated, renewed, passionate about what I was doing.”
But Miami was in a state of great chaos in the mid-’80s.
“There was so much drugs coming into Miami and corrupting Miami government at that time,” he said. “I started to feel powerless because those to whom I reported were turning a blind eye or wreaking havoc themselves. I didn’t have the wherewithal to handle it.”
Yet, after a 12-year hiatus from Miami during which time Fernandez served as Sarasota County’s attorney, he is back, already taking over right where he left off.
“I thought that I had had a totally forgettable experience in Miami the first time; I thought that I had made no impact,” Fernandez said. “But a few good people, who had survived all of the things that Miami had gone through, remembered me.”
It’s a different city now, though; Miami is on the mend. “There’s been a rebirth,” he said.
Fernandez admits that he has failed more often than he has succeeded, but he said he constantly reminds himself of Psalm 24:1: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof. …”
“When cars around me are burning and people around me are being taken away in handcuffs, I remind myself of my partnership with God to take care of the world,” he said. “That gives me a sense of encouragement.”
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