Controversial artist that takes jabs at Trump presents book about fleeing Cuba in Miami

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One day, when he was a young boy, Edel Rodríguez’s parents told him to give his toys to his friends because they were going on a “little trip.” So he gave away everything he had, some little fish and some little birds. The trip was very secret, not even his beloved grandparents, who lived next door, knew about it. It had to be that way because his parents were the first “gusanos” from their town to leave Cuba during the Mariel exodus. Gusano (worm) was a derogatory term used in Cuba to vilify those who did not like Castro’s government.

The call resounded throughout the island: “Gusanos, go away!” It was etched in the mind of an 8-year-old boy, who left on a boat with twenty-seven relatives in the exodus that brought more than 125,000 Cubans to the United States in 1980.

Hialeah-raised Edel Rodríguez, one of the most recognized graphic designers in the United States, recounts his story of migration in his graphic memoir titled “Worm: A Cuban American Odyssey” (Metropolitan Books, 2023).

On the cover, Edel wears the red scarf and red cap with a star of the “pioneros.” The word “worm” contrasts the innocent face of a child, begging the question of what kind of person would call a child a “worm”? What has he done to deserve it?

“It’s what Castro called people who were leaving Cuba,” Rodríguez says he explains to people who are not familiar with Cuban issues when they ask him about the title.

“I am very proud to be one of the original ‘gusanos.’ My parents were also like that, from a very young age they didn’t like the system,” says Rodríguez, who reflects in his book the atmosphere of “fear” that he experienced before leaving Cuba. He will be at Books and Books in Coral Gables on March 8 to discuss it.

Cover of ‘Worm: A Cuban American Odyssey’, the graphic memoirs of Edel Rodríguez in which he reflects his childhood in a rural town in Cuba, El Gabriel, until his departure from the island due to the Mariel exodus, in 1980, to 8 years old.
Cover of ‘Worm: A Cuban American Odyssey’, the graphic memoirs of Edel Rodríguez in which he reflects his childhood in a rural town in Cuba, El Gabriel, until his departure from the island due to the Mariel exodus, in 1980, to 8 years old.

The ‘worm’ who criticizes Trump

Now 52 years old and living in New Jersey -- a far trip from El Gabriel, the town of just over 2,000 inhabitants near Güira de Melena where he was born -- Rodríguez has become a successful professional like so many other Marielitos. But he still gets a round of insults from time to time.

His pen and his brushes, which in his three-decade career have made more than 5,600 drawings, are responsible for some of the most provocative and critical images of Donald Trump. “He is not afraid to live with the consequences,” said the New York Times.

On one of the covers dedicated to the former president, in the German magazine Der Spiegel, Trump appears with a sword in one hand and in the other the severed head of the Statue of Liberty. In another illustration, “After the Insurrection,” published in The New Yorker a week after the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, the American flag is at half-staff.

“They have told me that I am a communist, that I should have drowned in that boat when I was a child, that I should get cancer,” Rodríguez says about the emails he has received when he has made covers like the one where Trump appears with the hood of the Ku Klux Klan, also for Der Spiegel.

One of Edel Rodríguez’s covers for der Spiegel.
One of Edel Rodríguez’s covers for der Spiegel.

“As a child they called me worm and scum, so I’m used to it,” he points out, indicating that from the beginning he saw “Trump as a dangerous person, when many people were treating him as a joke.”

“Trump is a disaster. He reminds me of Fidel Castro in the way he insults the press – ‘rat, scum’ – in the same way that Castro said that people were worms,” he says, wondering how many Cubans don’t see the “similarities.”

His critical eye was formed in Hialeah

Rodríguez’s passion for drawing began at a very young age in El Gabriel, where he had no pencils or paper and had to go to the pharmacy where his aunt worked to draw. When his family arrived in Hialeah, he continued drawing until a teacher recognized his talent and enrolled him in an art program in Miami Beach. Then a teacher made him a portfolio of drawings and took him to an event where he could show them.

“The art teachers saved me. My parents didn’t understand any of that. My mom worked sewing wedding dresses and my dad was a truck driver,” says Rodríguez, who graduated from Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High School.

The only magazine that he remembers being in his house was Vanidades. The publication, born in Cuba and revived in Miami, was very popular among Latin women.

Cuban-American graphic designer and artist Edel Rodríguez, author of ‘Worm: A Cuban American Odyssey’, with his parents, Coralia Rodríguez and Cesario “Tato” Rodríguez, at their home in Hialeah Gardens.
Cuban-American graphic designer and artist Edel Rodríguez, author of ‘Worm: A Cuban American Odyssey’, with his parents, Coralia Rodríguez and Cesario “Tato” Rodríguez, at their home in Hialeah Gardens.

Rodríguez says he loved Tropic, the Miami Herald’s Sunday magazine, which ran until 1998.

Although he received a full scholarship to the University of Miami, he decided to go to New York, and convinced the management of Pratt Institute to give him a scholarship as UM did. Upon graduating he began working at Time magazine, where he was art director from 1994 to 2007.

Fueled by Cuban coffee

Rodríguez has done his most significant work as a freelancer. His Time cover, Total Meltdown, with Trump as the main character, was recognized with the 2016 American Society of Magazine Editors Cover of the Year award.

For 20 years he has had his studio in New Jersey, where he lives with his family, although he frequently comes to Miami to see his parents.

“I drink about five Bustelo coffees a day. I paint in the morning and sometimes late at night, when everyone is quiet,” he says.

In June he will release a bilingual book, “La mata de mango/The Mango Tree,” inspired by one of his friends from Cuba – who is today in Miami – with whom he “made guns with bottle metal caps and arrows with tree branches and rubber bands, because we didn’t have toys.”

He also teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where he wants to mentor students so they understand the business of art. “Commissions don’t come from the air, you have to find the clients,” he points out.

That mission and seeing his parents, who live in Hialeah Gardens, frequently brings him to Miami.

“The city has changed a lot. When I lived there it was a little boring. Now there are events, art fairs, museums and I am more attracted to going there,” he concludes.

Edel Rodríguez presents ‘Worm: A Cuban American Odyssey,’ Friday, March 8, 7 p.m. at Books and Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables.