OPINION: Jose Fernandez was the embodiment of being an American

Jose Fernandez may have only been a naturalized American citizen for a year and five months before his unfortunate death in a boating accident at the age of 24. Fernandez loved being a United States citizen, but more so than just being a citizen, Fernandez loved the freedom he had earned by making the dangerous voyage from Cuba to the United States.

You see, over the next few days the national media will write stories about his journey to the United States, as well as the immense talent that we will never get to see realized because of his untimely death. What most people will not write about is how Fernandez embodied what it meant to be American.

The United States is currently in a flux, with athletes protesting almost everyday about injustices that include police brutality and discrimination. But what Fernandez showed us, or at least those who knew his story, was that freedom isn’t free. He tried and failed to make it to the United States three times, once resulting in jail time, before he successfully made it to Mexico on his fourth attempt and reached U.S. soil at the age of 15.

It’s easy to forget about the freedom we get in the United States when you are born into it, but sometimes it takes someone like Jose Fernandez for us to realize what it is we are really fighting for.

“This is one of my important accomplishments,” said Fernandez to the Associated Press on the day he became an American citizen. “I’m an American citizen now — I’m one of them. I consider myself now to be free.”

Athletes over multiple sports have made it a point to fight against the injustices they feel are faced in the United States.This was made popular by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Collin Kaepernick when he opted to kneel during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He has continued to protest the anthem through three weeks of the NFL season and players on other teams and even in different sports are following suit.

But what no one considers is while Kaepernick and others who have protested the nation anthem may have faced injustices in their lives here in the United States, those things don’t even hold a candle to what Fernandez had to deal with in the country he was born in. He was jailed as a teenager for trying to leave Cuba to make it to the United States. He was not allowed to see his grandmother, who he left behind at the age of 15, until the Marlins stepped in and got a visa for her.

For statistical purposes just take this into consideration, Cuba is one of five remaining communist countries. The United States on the other hand in one of the world leaders in entrepreneurship and has 66 of the top 100 universities in the world. And that’s just a few of the significant differences that you can see between the U.S. and that dictator-led island just 90 miles south of the Florida Keys.

Now, while multiple athletes are protesting the injustices they feel many face in the United States, Fernandez was just happy to be here. The kid would tell anyone who listened how proud he was to finally become a citizen, it was something he, like many Cuban-Americans, had strived for since he first arrived in North America.

“Every day when I wake up and I look around me and I know that I’m free—that’s a dream,” said Fernandez to CBS Miami on the day he became a citizen.

What Fernandez never forgot was how much freedom he lacked when he was in Cuba and the injustices that happen on a daily basis on that island. Fernandez never forgot any of that, he was grateful just to be here and have the opportunity to use his talents to make a career for himself, something that would not have been allotted to him back in Cuba.

No one is saying the injustices that happen in America today aren’t important. Police brutality is actually a huge issue that needs to be tackled head on, but those injustices are the result of the failure of some, not a systematic failure of a country.

Many people are just like Jose Fernandez, just fighting for a chance to touch U.S. soil and have an opportunity at freedom. It’s easy to forget that many other countries don’t have the same freedoms that we have here in the United States, but we shouldn’t be so negative because there are thousands of people who would risk their lives just to get a chance to make it to our shores.

“This is a dream that I’ve had since I was little, and actually achieving it is really amazing,” added Fernandez after becoming a U.S. citizen. “Having my family here and so much support from this amazing country, it’s really fantastic.”

Just remember, next time you want to sit or kneel during the national anthem that Jose Fernandez and thousands of others like him risk their lives to just get a taste of the freedom that many are protesting against today.

Whether it’s in Charlotte, North Carolina or San Francisco, California, just remember there are countries where the injustices don’t just stop at one skin tone or religion, but go across the region and affect all of the people in that country, save for a few of the super rich and elite.

Jose Fernandez loved the United States and all the freedoms it provided for him. In his honor I ask that all Americans take a moment to consider how lucky they may actually be to be a part of this country. Because I know Jose did every single day and he did it with a smile, and that smile sometimes is all we need to get back on track from a bad day.

Unfortunately, we’ll never see that smile again. But if Jose Fernandez taught us anything outside the baseball field, it’d be to be grateful for what you have because not everyone has the privileges we do here in the states. Remember, people fight and die every day to get a taste of the freedom we are currently taking for granted.

Fernandez was only an American citizen for exactly a year and five months, but in that time the Cuban-born pitcher embodied what it meant to be a U.S. citizen.