A Women’s History Month Tribute
One of the greatest gifts that I have received during my time serving as the bishop of the Philadelphia Area has been my exposure to the profound giftedness of our diversity. My personal background never exposed me to African American, Latinx, Native American, Korean, Indian and African cultures. It will be my life’s journey to continue to explore the cultures, languages and perspectives of my many sisters and brothers with humble appreciation.
While attending the “Dismantling Racism II” training on February 27, 2021, I learned a great deal about the world of peoples of the Latinx communities, both in this country and in other parts of Central and South America. The name Ruth Fernandez was mentioned, and her fame as a singer and a politician caught my attention.
It is my honor to lift up her life and legacy during “Women’s History Month.” I give thanks for “Gracias Mundo,” the world that she loved and beautified. I give thanks to God for her witness and her heart. Her signature song was titled “Gracias Mundo,” and there is much to celebrate.
Ruth Noemi Fernandez Cortada was born in 1919 in the Belgica community of barrio Cuarto in Ponce, Puerto Rico. She and her four siblings were raised by her grandmother, after her mother died when Ruth was only 6 years old. As a child, she had a strong interest in music, and at the age of 14 she was singing for local radio stations.
It wasn’t long before popular bands were hiring her to perform in nightclubs, at dances and casinos. From there she had a series of successes as a popular singer with a recording contract. She was known as “El alma de Puerto Rico hecha cancion” which means, “The soul of Puerto Rico turned song.” Her voice interpreted the longings and hearts of her people.
Ruth Fernandez was also known to be the “Rosa Parks” of Puerto Rico. When preparing to enter the Vanderbilt Hotel in San Juan she was informed that Afro-Puerto Ricans needed to enter by the kitchen door. Instead, she entered the front door, “dressed to the nines,” and after that event, the discriminatory practice was stopped. She was proud of her racial heritage and her home city. She called herself “La Negra de Ponce” (“The Black Woman from Ponce”). How encouraging and life-giving was her witness and example.
The musical career of Ruth Fernandez continued for decades, and she performed all over the world. She was the first Latina to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. She sang for soldiers during World War II and the Korean War, especially to encourage troops of Hispanic descent.
She continued to break barriers and was the “first” to do many things as a woman and as a woman of color. Throughout her life, Ruth Fernandez received numerous awards and declarations, all befitting of her trailblazing persona.
It is important to note that she was not only known for her famous contralto voice. Ruth Fernandez also had a heart for justice. From 1973 until 1980, she served in the Senate of Puerto Rico, representing the district of Ponce as a member of the Partido Popular Democratico de Puerto Rico. During her tenure she worked for reforms for the poor, including those living in the United States. She advocated for better working conditions for the artist community and supported the development of young musicians and artists.
One of her mottos for life was “Arriba, Corazones” (“Lift up your hearts”). It is clear that her life was a beacon of light that gave inspiration, hope and justice to millions. Her trailblazing shoulders have been the encouraging elevation for many who have come after her.
The worth of one’s life surely depends on how one’s legacy continues through lives that are touched and that prosper as a result. Thus is the life and legacy of Ruth Fernandez: singer, justice trailblazer, confident woman, and soul of Puerto Rico.
- “Ruth Fernandez” https://enwikipedia.org/wiki/Ruth_Fermandez
- “Boricua Pionera: Racial Trailblazer Ruth Fernandez” by Tomas Pena, July 24, 2020 https://jazzdelapena.com