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José Antonio Font – December 17, 1947 – December 15, 2015
Some remarkable men have recently left this world in a rather unexpected and bitingly unfavorable way. One of these men was my father. Nepotism aside, he was incontestably an extraordinary man, not only receiving countless, emeritus tributes and honors for what can most easily be described as various entrepreneurial accomplishments, but for an arduous career to advance freedom in the economies and societies of the Western hemisphere.
As a student of American University’s School of International Service and Diplomacy, it is interesting to note that he was once granted a “full ride” through his PhD but reluctantly declined mid-way, never finding the time to oblige; he was at once consumed by his leadership role in founding the Ibero-American Chamber of Commerce in Greater Washington D.C. and later the National Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, feeling the need to address more critical issues of the time. Both institutions still thrive today. They, and tiny-colossal projects like establishing what was once the Washington World Gallery of Art in Georgetown and its adjacent hot-spot, Café de Artistas in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s were to lead him down a fairly different path.
Brilliant, sensitive and strong, he was something of a peaceful warrior, invariably fighting bullies, championing the underdog of the moment, and continuously lending a hand to the less fortunate, the worthy and the helpless. You may be entertained to know that in Cuba, as a ten-year-old Judo master, my father appeared on a highly popular live televisionshow, ultimately demonstrating how even a small boy could fend for himself against tyrannous men. This entailed levelling ten adult males in their attempt to encircle and attack him. I have the black and white photo to prove it.
Story has it that as a precocious, little boy he would often confront a band of aggressors at school given to behaviors he deemed deplorable. Namely, unscrupulous kids taking pleasure in throwing stones (more often than not, at birds and other guiltless creatures). From a young age, he was irrefutably profound with a deep respect for life and all living things, becoming an impossibly ethical man of many deeply rooted principles.
A product of a grand experiment in freedom, his parents left Cuba with the advent of that totalitarian, military regime we all know and love so much. [Ahem] Bearing witness to his family’s destruction and the catastrophic demise of all they had worked so hard to build had more than its traumatic effect on him; it determined the rest of his painstaking life. This is what forged a martyr. This is what made a freedom fighter. And with a gracious appreciation for his new found home (the great country in which most of us here live today) was born a resolute proponent and activist of free enterprise and real representative democracy. His last endeavor was the Alianza Democrática, focused on power through knowledge, so that people may never fall prey to demagogues and tyrants.
Anyone who knew the man knows that he was not one to concern himself with the trivial ins-and-outs of pop culture, or even pretend to indulge in such frivolity. Forget fluff; the more weighty, the more complicated or challenging the subject, the more it agreed with him. By him, his ventures were always ambitious, never insurmountable - just seemingly impossible, to most. The man was bent on building lasting institutions on causes and purpose. (The biography of John Adams was one of his favorites.)
It is safe to say that my father, Jose Antonio Font will forever be remembered by most as a social and human-rights activist, a leader, a trailblazer, and well, a builder, bold and unafraid to push boundaries and rethink the world. (I will remember him as my dad.) He could, and often did inspire people with a dollar and a dream or a problem to solve. He was a man interested in philosophy, obsessed with justice, and ultimately consumed by politics.
Funny enough (almost tragically), the shamelessly weathered, virtually disintegrating, moth-chewed T-shirt which he just happened to be wearing when he passed away did its best to dress his blessed heart with the eroded phrase: “Freedom Is Not Free”. His shirt, a token of philanthropic appreciation featuring the worn-out slogan that finally served to describe the very ideal that arguably cost him his entire life.
Now, more than ever, it is evident by his case that freedom is not free, at all. And that that the freedom for which he fought so hard to bring to others came at a tremendous sacrifice – to his health, to his pocket, to his time, to his family and paradoxically enough, to his personal ability to find rest in his living years.
His mission to help liberate Cuba, fight for the oppressed and rid the world of despotic characters became an exhausting quest. It is this force of unremitting will, through his slender eyes on the freedom prize, and his ethics to prestigious form that shall forever resonate by his soul, so admirably.
December 17th marked his 68th birthday, and we should have celebrated it with him. That was the plan; instead it is with deep sadness that we respectfully mourn the loss of his life, just two days prior; a week before Christmas.
My father and I, well, we were fairly close, close enough for me to have wrestled with his lifeless body in order to give him his final bath. And, I was thorough, in the same way he taught me to bathe myself when I was barely standing. This time, I was the one washing him. And, let me tell you something, not only had this once physically and mentally strong man been radically rendered utterly like a child; he was now very suddenly dead.
Yet somehow, I can’t tell you why, the son-of-a-gun looked better than ever – svelte as he never was, with newborn tears from the corners of his eyes, and totally at peace with his faithful God. Not a care-worn wrinkle in his otherwise typically furrowed brow…his last utterance having something to do with his mother, or mine, or well, the loving woman who gradually and eventually became a mother to us both.
Many will attest that it was difficult to resist the earthy and sensuous qualities in my father’s makeup, and countless aimed to be involved with him as fully as possible, and for as much time as possible. Many who wanted to meet him, never had the pleasure, even. Probably one of the few men left to refuse money for politics, he was someone rather indifferent to the material, firmly bound to ideas, individuals, structures and organizations, even if these things inhibited or held up his individual development or growth. This became particularly evident when circumstances dictated that it was time to move on; his martyrdom prevailed, albeit to little or no avail.
One might say the fate of his romantic theories flat-out lied to him. One might say those idealistic theories proposed with tremendous personal stakes and international reputation ultimately betrayed him…betrayed him with harsh reality…with injustice…with crushing disappointment. I know, for a fact, he felt jipped…cheated. I believe that this is when his personal political convictions for a higher purpose became his pious convictions for a higher power, improvising with the sub-standard to find the exquisite, or a pristine point of light.
The universe, not ready to yield all of its secrets, reveals the following to me. The extraordinary values that set the man apart are the very things that will forever keep us together – what humanity can do so well in a world where humanity is capable of quite the contrary…great achievements of pure good in a world of such scattered impurity.
This is the way that I will, and that you may, pay sincere respect to my father for all the good he so selflessly put into our world obscured by smudges of treachery and strife. Not to mention, a world wherein he never reached his PhD, never saw a free Cuba, never met his grandchildren, and never took his wife to Italy. It is in this world that I ask you to capture my father’s undying glimmer of idealism, and run with it; take what became something of his mantra in eternal optimism as he would say, “We’re almost there.” and show him that you know the way. Or, just follow him. I’m sure at this point, he has finally asked for directions and even knows the scenic route.
Because, although I cannot adequately explain how lost he may have felt about his shortcomings before leaving us, I can very clearly list out his virtues. And to me, that is not only admirable and inspiring, that is a shining beacon and my guiding light.
If you’re listening, Papi, I’d like to thank you. Thank you for teaching me all that you did, and giving me all the love you had to give. I love you very much.