In 1917, Rafael Hernández was working as a musician in North Carolina, when the U.S. entered World War I. He enlisted in the Army and was assigned to the 396th Infantry Regiment of Puerto Rico which was created in New York. The regiment, also known as "The Harlem Hell fighters" by the Germans, served in France. There, he toured Europe with the Orchestra Europe. The 396th was awarded French Croix de Guerre for battlefield gallantry by the President of France.
In 1932, Hernández moved to Mexico, where the Mexicans treated him as one of their own. There, he directed an orchesta and enrolled in Mexico's National Music Conservatory to further enrich his musical knowledge. Hernández also became an actor and organized many of the musical scores in Mexico's "golden age" of movies. The Mexicans of the state of Puebla consider his composition "Qué Chula es Puebla" to be their unofficial anthem. His wife (and eventual widow) was Mexican.
Hernandez's talent went beyond composing only patriotic music. He also composed Christmas music, Danzas, Zarzuelas, Guarachas, Lullabies, Boleros, Waltzes and etcetera. Many people in the Dominican Republic consider his composition "Linda quisqueya" their second national anthem.
Hernández's works' include "Ahora somos felices" (Now We Are Happy), "Campanitas de cristal" (Crystal Bells), "Capullito de Alhelí", "Culpable" (Guilty),"El Cumbanchero (also known as "Rockfort Rock" or "Comanchero" (sic) to reggae aficionados), "Ese soy yo" (That's Me), "Perfume de Gardenias", "Silencio", and "Tú no comprendes" (You Don't Understand), among 3,000 others. His music became an important part of the Puerto Rican Culture.
Rafael Hernández died in San Juan on December 11, 1965, shortly after Banco Popular de Puerto Rico produced a TV special in his honor in which he addressed the people for the last time. The special was simulcast on all TV and most island radio stations. The TV special was rebroadcasted on May 13, 2007. Rafael Hernández's remains are buried in the Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery of Old San Juan. Puerto Rico has honored his memory by naming public buildings, avenues and schools after him. The airport in Aguadilla is named Rafael Hernández Airport. There are schools in Boston, Mass. and in Newark, N.J. named after Rafael Hernández. Renowned Puerto Rican Sculptor Tomas Batista created a statue of Hernández which is in the municipality of Bayamon, Puerto Rico. The Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, the repository of his works, operates a small museum in his honor at its Metropolitan Campus in San Juan which is directed by his son, Chalí Hernández. The impact of Hernandez's songs among Puerto Ricans was felt when Puerto Rican singer Marc Anthony recorded Hernández's "Preciosa" and sang said song in a 2005 concert in New York City's Madison Square Garden. According to an article in the New York Times:
"Mr. Anthony did his version of Preciosa. It may have been the night's most popular love song, precisely because it's not about a woman: it's about a whole island, instead.