Last month, I had some memorable times with my father when he flew up for a film premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. I’ve been meaning to write about it and thought father’s day would be a good time to do so.
Cesareo Rodriguez was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1938. Back then c-section births were a rare occurrence. This being the doctor’s first such operation, he asked my grandmother to name the kid Cesareo, and that’s how he got his name. In his childhood, a cousin began to call him “Tato”, (the name is pronounced like the phrase “some say patatoe, I say po-Tato”) and the new name stuck. He’s been “Tato” ever since. I call him “Pipo”. My dad grew up in a farm in the countryside of the province of Havana until 1944, when a hurricane razed the house and the family moved to El Gabriel, a tiny speck of a town, surrounded by vibrant red earth and sugar cane fields. He went to school, but admits to being dense and not being very interested in the whole enterprise. He left school after the 5th grade to work in the fields and in the town’s various bodegas. As a teenager in the 50’s, he began taking trips to the big city, Havana, with his friends. He was a huge music fan and delighted in going to the many live radio shows that were going on at the time. He met and spoke with many of the musicians and singers of the time. Things were very informal and the musicians were very accessible. One of the many singers he met was Celia Cruz, one of his favorites.
Me, my mom (Coralia), dad, and my sister Irma. 1971, Havana, Cuba.
My parents met in 1961, two years after the Cuban revolution. My father was 23 and my mom a mature 15… She likes to say that she was living on a desolate farm, the youngest of seven sisters and was looking for a way out, and this skinny kid showed up and swept her away. They married in 1965 and my sister was born later that year to what has been described to me by my parents as extreme poverty. I was born six years later, in 1971, at a time when we were supposedly “rich” by comparison. “Rich” meaning that we had an egg on our plate every night. My dad was apparently a hard drinking, smoking, and dancing party guy in his youth. I say apparently, because around the time I was born he made a promise to stop smoking and drinking and live a life that would be a good example to his kids. I’ve never seen him put a beer bottle or a cigarette to his lips, it’s hard to even imagine such a thing. He kept on dancing though.
Dad, me, and my mom. 1973. Our town of El Gabriel.
The 1970s were a time in Cuba when the Russians were very involved in the country’s industries. Sugar harvest goals were set and more construction materials came into the farm towns to build housing for the people working in the sugar harvest. My dad (always the businessman), became very adept at working the black market to get materials to build our small house. A delivery of sand for some bananas, 30 concrete blocks for a sack of mangoes and so on. This became the way of life in the country. You woke up every day trying to figure out how you could get food, with whom you would trade, and how to avoid getting caught by the Communists. During the construction of our house, my dad was blinded in one eye by a piece of wood from a table saw, that’s why many of the pictures from the time show him wearing dark glasses. He regained some peripheral vision later on.
Dad and me.
My dad had been thinking about leaving Cuba since the Russians got involved in the country’s affairs. The sneaking around, being spied on by neighbors, the pressures to fit into the ideals of the revolution and the general economic and political situation had progressively become too much to bear. The country required military service of all boys and many were being sent to fight revolutions in Africa and Central America. My dad did not want me to be sent off to fight for a country whose political ideals he detested, so he got to work on ways to get us out of the country. One way was asking for asylum in a country like Spain. In the late 70’s, we went ahead and did that, made the applications, got our passports, and began the waiting process. I was already 8 years old, and he was determined to get us out before I turned 14, when it became harder, due to the upcoming military service requirements. No one of military age was allowed to leave the country. We were now, officially, a family that had announced its opposition to the Revolution.
Coming to America: On the left, myself with red coat over my head, my sister with blue shirt, my dad with clasped hands, and my mom behind him.
On the right: Dubious characters placed on the boat by the Cuban government. Photograph by Mario Ruiz/Newsweek.
In the Spring of 1980, an opportunity to leave the country presented itself—The Mariel Boatlift. Some of our family from the U.S. had chartered a shrimp boat, owned by a couple of guys from Jamaica, to go down to Cuba and pick us up. My parents had to make a decision of whether to wait several more years and hope to have the opportunity to take a plane to Spain, or follow through on the more dangerous option of taking a boat across the Straits of Florida to Key West. My mother had always been very cautious about putting her kids at risk, but my father always wanted to move forward, to give his kids opportunities that he never had. The situation in Cuba was deteriorating, at any time my father could be jailed by the government, so they decided the boat was a risk that had to be taken. Immediately, our house and its contents were confiscated, and we were taken away by the military, with only a quick goodbye to our grandparents and neighbors. We mistakenly thought that we were being taken to our awaiting boat immediately. Instead, we were interned in a detention camp for the next week. This was a very complicated time, which I would like to write more about in the future. The relevant point at this time is the things my father did at the camp that I will never forget. There was very little food. He only ate bread and water the entire week, and gave all of his rations to myself and my sister. He kept the extended family together and constantly questioned the camp guards about our status until the day we boarded a bus to our departing boat.
Dad, me, and my sister on the boat at night. Photograph by Mario Ruiz/Newsweek.
Once on the boat, we met the cousins from Miami that came to get us and met the boat owners from Jamaica. We were also introduced to the dozens of criminals that Castro’s government had dumped on our boat. My father knew what was going on and took charge of the boat, dividing it into sections for family, prisoners, and those from insane asylums. Fortunately, the trip went well, we landed in Key West the following morning and were full of joy to have made it through the entire ordeal.
With the clothes on our backs: Mom, dad, me, and my sister, happy to have left the Cuban camp behind and on our way to America. Photograph by Mario Ruiz/Newsweek.
Dad's first truck: Since I showed some interest in art, he let me paint the sign on the side of his truck. That felt great.
Once in Miami, my father and mother worked tirelessly just to meet the basic bills of the new country. My dad worked construction during the day, security at night, and sold things at the flea market on the weekend—all the time saying how great this country was. How the freedom was priceless. Eventually, he got into towing cars for a living. He bought a pickup truck, welded a steel beam to the back and hung a hand pulled hook mechanism from the back and began towing cars for junk yards. My parents were both working during the Summers and didn’t know where to put me. So, from the time I was 8, I was at my dad’s side every Summer. The truck and the junk yards was my version of Summer camp I guess. My dad and I didn’t talk about much at home, but on the truck, everything was discussed. I think it had something to do with the fact that we didn’t have to look at each other. We just looked at the road ahead and talked about all sorts of things—history, politics, the family, girls. We used to drive into a lot of crime ridden areas of Miami to pick up cars. I knew when we were in a bad part of town when he would say “stay in the truck” and he would pull out a thick piece of cut electrical wire from the back and place it on his seat. “Dad, we need a gun, not a piece of wire” I would say. He would give me a look and say “ I could never kill somebody, so what’s the purpose of having a gun around here”. Then he would walk off, a saint on a gold chain around his neck as his only protector.
Movin' on up: This truck had a pull lever for the winch, no more hand pulling of the cars
Since I helped keep my dad’s books, the truck is where I learned most of the basics about business. He used to pay me $1 a week for a long time. I negotiated that to $10 a week, and then to $10 a day in junior high. My dad would always say that the client was #1, that he had to come through, be on time, be fair on pricing and I always paid attention to his advice. My dad also had a low tolerance for B.S., and loved his freelance status, so he would tell certain clients to beat it if they were bugging him too much or not paying on time. His business grew steadily into the 90’s and eventually got to own three trucks and employed a couple of people.
Every single day, as we rode, my dad would tell me to study and go to school, so I wouldn’t have to work on a truck for a living. The hotter the summer got, the more I paid attention to his advice. By the time I finished high school I didn’t want anything to do with a truck. I decided to go off to college and to go to New York, I had never even been on a plane before. My mother wanted me to stay in Miami, to stay with the family. It was a very difficult time as I tried to work through all of this with my parents. In the end, it was my dad that took me to the airport, by himself. He put $200 in my pocket, hugged and kissed me, and wished me luck.
On the Red Carpet: Celia Cruz's niece and sister, Narciso Rodriguez, the producer, Johnny Pacheco, Joe Cardona, actress that plays Celia for some of the film, another actress, me, and my dad.
So, it was with great joy that I was able to involve my dad in the Celia Cruz film I worked on recently. He appeared in an interview in the film, in his truck, discussing his time as a teenager in Havana, meeting Celia Cruz, his passion for her music, his love of his son, and how he passed on Celia’s music to me. He flew up to New York at the end of April, walked the red carpet, was interviewed by the press, and got to meet some of his favorite music stars which were in attendance at the premiere. We went to the after party and he danced up a storm as everyone looked on. Any and all energy and enthusiasm for music I have was passed on from the old man. At the end of the night, he was beside himself at how far we had come and what had become of us, those people on that boat back in 1980.
Dad gettting the star treatment.
I caught dad taking a picture of my poster.
The after party was at a restaurant called Indochine, downtown NYC. Here is my dad dancing up a storm and world famous fashion designer Narciso Rodriguez loving it all.
At almost 70 years old, my dad has kept all the original moves.
I never thought that my dad would retire and leave his truck behind. Next month, he turns 70, and he says he’s ready to leave it all behind. He’s selling the truck and giving all of his clients away. It’s really taken me aback. While he was on that truck, he seemed ageless, like he would last forever. Moving on to the next phase of his life has made me realize that my dad is not Superman, that every day that goes by is one day closer to the day I won’t have him around anymore. It makes me appreciate the time we have together even more.
When I started working at TIME magazine, my dad kept copies of TIME in his truck. Whenever he picked someone up, he would excitedly tell them that his son worked at TIME magazine. He would open up the magazine to the staff list and show them my name. He’s my biggest fan and greatest cheerleader. He’s so happy for me, and I’m forever greatful to him for having brought me to this country, for having taken me to the airport that day I went off to college, and for giving me the opportunity to express myself through my work. Freedom is priceless indeed.
Feliz Dia de los Padres, Pipo. Te quiere, tu hijo, Edel