Edel Rodriguez is in his forties, living in a small New Jersey town, when another parent from his child’s school whispers words of gratitude for the work he has been doing. It’s 2016, and Rodriguez is confused by the air of secrecy.
“Well,” she explains, “you never know who’s listening.”
Told toward the end of his spellbinding debut graphic memoir, “Worm: A Cuban American Odyssey,” this encounter transports the artist — who has worked with various journalistic outlets, including Time and Newsweek, as art director, illustrator, and sometimes political cartoonist — back to his childhood in Cuba. Rodriguez was one of thousands to make the exodus from his home country to Florida via the Mariel boatlift of 1980. “Worm,” a title coming from the slur Castro used to describe those who left, tells this story through Rodriguez’s clear-eyed narrative voice, paired with zestful images. The book unfolds chronologically, beginning with a childhood lived in the throes of great beauty and love experienced alongside distress, suppression, and terror.
Rodriguez is best known for his political cartoons satirizing Donald Trump, which is what the whispering woman was presumably thanking him for. His most well-known Time magazine covers, from August and October 2016, are bright caricatures of a melting orange face, mouth grotesquely agape, crowned by a yellow mop of hair. An adjacent headline announces, “Meltdown,” then, in its reprise, “Total meltdown.”
For Rodriguez, the oppressive atmosphere increasingly unfolding in 2016 America had clear resonances of the environment in which he grew up. Born in 1971, six years after the Communist Party was declared Cuba’s sole ruling power, Rodriguez recalls with fondness those years in El Gabriel, a small town surrounded by farmland just an hour from Havana. His family shared a patio with his father’s, including his Papá, a quiet, loving man who worked as a carpenter, assigning to young Edel the job of straightening out nails for reuse. “There were always shortages,” he explains, even as he reveals the often-ingenious methods by which people figured out how to get what they needed. “Making do was something we learned at a young age.”
He remembers, too, Mamá, his grandmother, who would tell vivid stories as she rocked him to sleep. Mamá's words are the ones that seem parroted by the woman in this anecdote from later life. “Shhh…,” he recalls her saying, finger to lips. “The walls have ears.” He describes neighbors who were always listening in, “volunteer militiamen” who took it upon themselves to make sure everyone was following the regime’s rules. Many consequently lived in fear. “We’d learned after years of living in the system that the people in power were unpredictable. Anything could happen.”
While Castro’s government was initially welcomed by many, and while many social services put in place — especially universal access to health care and education — initially improved conditions for large swaths of the population, these changes came at a great cost, and advancements corroded over time. For Rodriguez’s parents, worst of all was feeling like they were losing their children to the state. Kids were “pioneers for communism.” Their grooming included chants to be memorized, a mandatory, poorly equipped 45-day yearly camp away from home, and, eventually, conscription into military service. Any wrong move, and they could be branded “antisocial,” or worse.
When a group of Cuban citizens drove a bus into the Peruvian embassy in April 1980, Rodriguez’s parents saw their chance. They felt despairing enough to risk everything for the opportunity to leave. The son details the epic — and disturbing — trek that finally carried them away from the only home they had ever known.
Rodriguez uses a limited palette to evoke roughshod memories alongside tender, emotive responses. He fills his images with acute flushes of red — the color of revolution and defiance, not to mention the backdrop to the communist flag — in contrast with strokes of a more morose, if grounded, olive green (among other things, Castro’s signature color). By the time he and his family arrive at the shores of Key West, a soft pink appears. Life in Hialeah, or, as members of his community refer to it, “El Exilio,” is full of fresh new freedoms, but they come at a cost. Perhaps the greatest challenge of all is the intense longing for everything left behind. Still, this young artist is “enthralled by the graphics of this new country,” a scenery transformed from images of Che and Castro to the logo-crowded backdrop of downtown Miami, filled with its own version of sloganeering.
Our narrator first returns to his home country 14 years after his family left, once the fall of the Soviet Union softens border crossings, then regularly after that. On each visit, people confess their secrets, telling him stories of survival and witness that they have been too afraid otherwise to share.
“Don’t write about this place,” one friend implores. “I want you to be able to come back.”
The artist, of course, defies this directive, creating a book shedding light not only on the country in which he was raised, but on what the past allows him to perceive about the state of his adopted country.
“I was in a special position to sound the alarm,” he writes, of his later political lampooning of Trump and his ilk. In his memoir he gives an extensive look at the machinations behind the formation of his outlook. It’s a cautionary tale we would be ill-advised to ignore.
WORM: A Cuban American Odyssey
By Edel Rodriguez
Metropolitan Books, 304 pp., $29.99
Tahneer Oksman is a writer, teacher, and scholar specializing in memoir as well as graphic novels and comics. She lives in Brooklyn.