Arkansas resident celebrates re-birthday

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published July 4, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated July 3, 2013 at 10:27 a.m.
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As with many American holidays, the celebration of the Fourth of July spreads beyond the historic day to encompass a weekend and beyond.

The long summer celebration allows families the opportunity to see multiple fireworks displays and still have time for grilling hots dogs in the backyard or firing up the smoker for a barbecue. The extended holiday also provides time for Americans to celebrate their country.

On Monday, the Hot Springs Concert Band will present its And Freedom for All concert in Whittington Park in Hot Springs.

“We have some great patriotic music to perform,” said Chuck Gilmore, president of the band. “The musical selections really capture the spirit of the Independence Day holiday.”

One of the selections is music and narration called “And Malice Toward None,” based on the words of Abraham Lincoln, and narrated by Josie Fernandez, superintendent of Hot Springs National Park and a colonel in the U.S. Air Force. She has just returned from three weeks of duty at the Pentagon.

The concert’s audience will find Fernandez is a good choice for the role. While she still carries a hint of her birthplace of Havana, her voice is totally American.

“When I became a citizen, I became a new person,” she said. “I changed my name from Josefina to Josie, the name I was given on my first day in an American school. I changed to become the person America was allowing me to be.”

Fernandez came to the U.S. with her family, looking for the freedom afforded by her new nation.

“As a teenager in Cuba, I was harassed by some of my teachers and peers because my family was against the communist form of government,” she said. “For our convictions, my mother was humiliated, my father ordered to work in a labor camp, and I was even forced to work as a farm laborer without remuneration for my efforts.”

Once out of high school, Fernandez became a U.S. citizen, on July 4, 1976.

“My nationalization certificate has the Bicentennial emblem on it,” she said. “I don’t know if everyone who became a citizen in 1976 had this kind of certificate or if it was just for that day.”

While many Americans will say they feel lucky to be American by birth, Fernandez said she feels lucky to have been given the opportunity to choose to become an American. She adds that the freedoms implied by citizenship also bring responsibility.

Fernandez explained those responsibilities to a gathering of new citizens when Hot Springs National Park hosted a citizenship swearing-in ceremony on the Arlington Lawn in 2007.

“When I became an American, I registered to vote,” she told the gathering. “You will have the same opportunity today. My right to vote has become my duty to exercise it and express my opinion at the ballot box. I challenge you to do the same.”

The park superintendent said she holds herself personally responsible for educating herself about the issues and, to the best of her ability, electing the officials who will make the laws of the land.

Fernandez, speaking to the Tri-Lakes Edition this week, said that after becoming a citizen, she also chose to volunteer to defend the nation by joining the Air Force. On active duty and as a reserve officer, Fernandez achieved the rank of colonel and was called to duty for a year after Sept. 11, 2001, working in the office of chief of staff of the Air Force.

“I was in basic training by September after I became a citizen in July,” she said.

“If you came to this country to live in freedom,” Fernandez said, “you must not — you cannot — be unwilling to defend it.”

Working with the National Parks Service around the country and as superintendent of the park in Hot Springs is part of Fernandez’s efforts to protect the nation and its history.

In her comments to new citizens, she reminded them that the national parks belong to them.

“When you get to know them, when you experience them, you will learn about America’s greatness, and also learn about the not-so-great moments in our national journey,” she said. “In our national park, you will experience human struggle, courage, honor and dishonor. At Independence Hall in Philadelphia you will be inspired, at the Statue of Liberty you will feel hopeful, and at Gettysburg you will struggle with war.”

Fernandez said the parks are the nation’s legacy, a legacy that began in Hot Springs when the land was first set aside as a federal preserve in 1832.

Hundreds of new Americans will be created in ceremonies around the country this holiday, from the deck of the USS Constitution in Boston Harbor to the Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Ariz. Fernandez said she knows what the new citizens will be feeling after taking the oath of citizenship.

“I was filled with so many emotions,” she said. “I felt there was no stopping me. I was an American.”

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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