On any given day, you might receive an email from Lucio Fernandez, a lifelong artist and Union City’s Commissioner of Public Affairs, advertising an upcoming art gallery opening or concert. You might find it nearly impossible to ignore the list of no less than 15 links that accompany his signature. Some of them lead to blogs about various arts initiatives happening in Union City, others to the websites for the city’s museums and cultural center, and still more to his own pet projects, like the NoHu Film Festival or MeLu Films, the production company he owns with his wife.
The list of links is so long it almost seems boastful. But Fernandez disagrees.
“I don’t put all of those websites in there for the vanity of it, you know, to say ‘Oh, look at all the things I do!’” he said. “I want to spread awareness so that people know the types of things we’re doing.”
And by “we,” Fernandez almost certainly means “I.” Following an extensive career on stage, in front of the camera, and on dance floors all around the world, Fernandez joined Union City’s Board of Commissioners in 2006 with a specific goal in mind: cultivating a cultural renaissance in North Hudson. And by convincing Union City’s existent, but locally inactive, corps of artists to be as involved at home as they are at work in New York City, he is well on his way to doing just that.
“The time is ripe for this to happen,” Fernandez said. “There are so many talented people who live here that could have left at any time, but didn’t. I’m convinced people want to get involved.”
“The time is ripe for this to happen.” – Lucio Fernandez, on the arts renaissance in North Hudson
“The biggest challenge here isn’t getting the artists to be active, that’s easy,” he said. “The difficult part is getting regular people to come out and be involved.”
A long road ’til now
Fernandez was born in North Bergen, but grew up in Union City. As a child, he didn’t find school challenging, and as a result, was not particularly interested in it. Still, having come to America from Cuba at the age of nine and growing up eager to make his parents’ sacrifices worthwhile, he enrolled in Rutgers University to pursue a dual degree in engineering and business.
“Then one day I was walking around campus with a friend of mine, we stopped by the theater department,” he said. “I saw the black box theater and knew right away that’s where I wanted to be.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in drama, Fernandez threw himself into auditioning, while simultaneously taking classes for singing, acting and dancing.
“I was sending out hundreds of photos and resumes each week,” he said. “Eventually people started calling and saying, ‘I get mail from you every week, why don’t you come in for a meeting?’”
Eventually the hard work started to pay off, and throughout the nineties Fernandez toured nationally and internationally with productions of Broadway favorites such as “West Side Story,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and “A Chorus Line.”
The sky was the limit, until he met his future wife Megan, on a bus back from New York one night.
“I was about to go back on tour with “West Side Story,” but I decided not to,” he said. And so he stayed in Union City.
The politics of art
When he joined the city government of Mayor Brian Stack in 2006, it wasn’t a position Fernandez had lusted for, or was even interested in. But in the years prior, even before Stack became mayor and Fernandez was offering free performance classes for neighborhood kids, he admired Stack’s interest in his initiatives and his commitment to the betterment of the city.
“I wouldn’t have called myself a supporter of Mayor Stack, but I wasn’t really a supporter of anyone,” he said. “I started supporting Stack because when I’d reach out to people to try and get them involved in what I was doing, he was the only one who’d return my calls.”
Since serving as a commissioner, Fernandez has experienced wider success in his personal quest, even beyond the world of art. He oversaw the construction and curating of the William V. Musto Cultural Center, which opened in 2011, and has spearheaded, along with City Historian Gerard Karabin, a program which has seen the dedication of eight historic markers around the city.
“I’d like to have it so that eventually you can come here and use the markers as a tour guide,” he said.
But the tour isn’t his only plan for the future. Without disclosing too many details, Fernandez hinted at the creation of a performing arts center and joint efforts with the city’s respective Opera, Philharmonic Orchestra, and Chamber Players to organize concerts.
To his credit, he seems uninterested in recognition. If laurels were his goal, he might have stayed on Broadway.
“I came to terms a long time ago with the fact that I was going to die poor,” he said. “It’s never really been about that. I want to make a difference.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org