In 1959, the Cuban Revolution, an armed guerrilla revolt led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, ousted Cuba’s president Fulgencio Batista, who had allowed organized crime to flourish and American corporations to take over the island’s sugar plantations. Over the next six years, Castro transformed a colonial society of landowners and peons into a Communist state. All property was nationalized and programs developed to eliminate illiteracy and improve health, housing, and education. Fearing that Communism would spread throughout Latin America, the Eisenhower administration severed diplomatic relations in 1960 and placed an embargo on exports to Cuba, which despite occasional efforts to loosen it, is still in effect. Today, visitors to Cuba—I visited in 2007 to report on the Icograda World Design Congress for Print Magazine—often find an ironic disconnect between the government’s socialist policies aimed at eliminating inequality and poverty and what clearly seems to be an impoverished, repressive nation unable to take its place in a world of more open communications, personal freedoms, and economic opportunities.
The renowned designer and illustrator Edel Rodríguez was born into of this history and culture. He brings elements of his childhood environment and experiences to his work, which powerfully explores themes of politics, inequality, immigration, and social justice.
Born in the village of El Gabriel in 1971, Edel and his parents and sister arrived in Key West in via the Mariel Boatlift, a mass emigration of Cubans to the United States. The family settled in Miami, where Edel graduated from high school. After receiving BFA with honors in painting from Pratt Institute, he became an art director at Time magazine and went on to earn his MFA from Hunter College. In 1994, he established his illustration studio in New Jersey, where he lives with his wife, Jennifer Roth, and their 5- and 10-year-old daughters.
His images, which incorporate ink drawings, paint, pastels, and digital manipulation, appear on op-ed pages, theater and film posters, book jackets, and in children’s books—two of which he authored as well as illustrated—and frequently on the covers of national and international magazines.
In a few weeks, Edel will be traveling with his family to Cuba, where he will be honored with a solo exhibition at Casa de las Américas, a museum considered the main cultural hub in Havana for poster design, books, and literary magazines. I recently had the pleasure of getting to know him while we worked on materials for an organization that provides legal services for victims of domestic abuse. Right now, he is busily packing and preparing for the exhibition. Yet he graciously took the time for the following interview:
Q: I’d like to begin by asking you to describe your childhood in El Gabriel?
A: El Gabriel is a very small town, about six blocks by six blocks, surrounded by farms, sugarcane fields and a sugar refinery. My dad worked a number of jobs, restaurant manager, taxi driver, and was the town photographer. Mom took care of us and the house. There were a lot of shortages, and much of the time was spent trying to find some of the basics. There were a lot of black market exchanges for things. And there was a sense that we had to be careful about what was said in school, with friends, and so on.
Q: When did you realize you had talent in art?
A: I was always drawing. I drew at my aunt’s pharmacy after school because there were paper and pencils there. I was fascinated by the pageantry of the Revolution. I mostly did drawings of tanks, rockets, military parades, things I saw around town, and birds. I raised pigeons with my friends and saw a lot of cockfights.
Q: What kind of Revolutionary pageantry did you witness?
A: There were two channels on Cuban television. They showed military exercises and parades, speeches by Castro, and films about workers and farmers. I had a ‘Pioneer’ uniform, like all the kids: a red beret, blue bandana, and red shorts. Occasionally, columns of military tanks drove through town, going from one training position to another. There were military encampments in the jungle outside of town, with their camouflage tents and gear. All of that stuff is fascinating to a little kid.
Q: Did you ever feel poor, deprived, hungry?
A: There wasn’t anything to compare things to, so life just seemed normal. We all had ration cards that listed the amount of food we were allotted monthly. There was never enough, and every family struggled. There was a lot of bartering and exchanges. My parents did their best to provide what they could, but much of that was done in ways that could lead to problems for them and everybody else in town. The one time I really felt hungry was when we decided to leave the country and we were placed in a government detention camp for a week.
Q: What most motivated your family to leave, to immigrate to the US?
A: I talked with my parents at length about this recently for a book I’m working on, an illustrated family memoir. The main thrust was opportunity, a new life, a place where we could live freely and speak openly. My dad always had a small businessman’s mindset, and he felt limited by a government that didn’t allow entrepreneurship. We were constantly warned to get with the system or something would happen at work or school; our opportunities would be curtailed. It was a common thing at the time, and became stifling.
Q: You used the words ‘at the time.’ I visited Cuba in 2007, and the life you’re describing sounds like how things appeared to be just a few years ago. It I think it’s fair to say that attendees at the Icograda World Design Congress—although we loved the art, the music, and meeting the people—were stunned by the heartbreaking condition of the architecture, the bad food, the empty shelves in stores, and the lack of wi-fi, cellphone service, newsstands, and other things travelers expect. We learned that most Cubans get about $12 a month in salary plus ration coupons that don’t buy enough food to meet basic needs. How do you think things have changed?
A: There is so much going on underground, and most visitors don’t see it. Because I’m from there, I can see the subtleties. Many things are the same since I was a kid, but the people have figured out ways to deal with them and maneuver. For example, dollars used to be illegal, and you would go to jail for having them. When they were made legal, families in the U.S. started sending money and people were allowed to buy goods at tourist stores with dollars. That changed many things. Ration coupons are still around, but goods can be bought with foreign money now, bypassing what the government allows. In terms of being afraid to speak out, people are still cautious, but not like in the old days. When I lived there in the 1970s, it was the height of the Cold War, the black market was deep underground, and there were ramifications to everything you did. Speaking about the government was done in back rooms only with close family. Not so any more. Last time I was there, I was shocked at how openly people maneuver, in front of everyone.
Q: Everyone at the Congress seemed to be asking the same question: Is the Cuban people’s suffering caused by the U.S. embargo—as proclaimed by the Minister of Culture who addressed the conference and the propaganda posters that were everywhere. In your opinion, is the embargo responsible for the shortages and lack of food?
A: The major problem of the embargo is that the government can’t use dollars to trade. International trade is done in dollars, so it causes a lot of problems for all industries, from sugar to pharmaceuticals. This is at a bigger level than the local food stall, and it has a major effect. The embargo hasn’t succeeded in accomplishing anything all these years. If you keep doing the same thing for 60 years and nothing happens, it’s time to try something else. You might end up with the result you intended in the first place.
Q: What was the Mariel Boatlift like for you?
A: I was eight years old, about to turn nine. After my aunt in Miami put my parents, sister and I, and about 20 other family members on a list to immigrate, the military showed up in jeeps at our house in the middle of the night and asked if we wanted to leave. Since the answer was ‘yes,’ we had to immediately forfeit all our property to the government: house, car, furniture, personal items, and keep only the clothes we were wearing. We were put in the back of a jeep and driven through the countryside at high speeds. We then spent a tense week at a heavily guarded detention camp called “El Mosquito” at the edge of the sea. It was complicated, with families, prisoners, and prostitutes crowded in a small area, all anxious to leave the country, and with soldiers both trying to maintain order and harassing everyone. My dad was very angry with how the soldiers treated us, but he had to hold it in; we were in their hands. At any moment, they could cancel your exit and you’d be sent home with no work or school for the rest of your life. We never knew what was going to happen next. Soldiers with bayonets led people from one place to another; they released attack dogs on prisoners to keep them in line. It was pretty scary for a kid. But by the end of the week, we had cobbled together a small baseball team, playing with a ball of tape and a stick. When they called our boat, I didn’t want to leave because I had new friends. The government packed the boats with family members as well as prisoners they wanted to send out of the country. In the end, we left in a flotilla of about 20 boats, all in a line so we wouldn’t get lost at sea. We arrived in Key West the next day.
Q: Wow. Was the Miami Cuban community easy to slip into, or were there challenges?
A: Everything was different, and I didn’t speak English. I started watching a lot of TV and learned English from sitcoms, Star Trek, and cartoons. There were a few insults from people who called us “refs” for refugees or “Marielitos,” but for the most part all went well. There were so many of us that school was taught in Spanish, and then we were transitioned to English or ESOL classes. We lived with family at first, about 14 people in one house, but a few months later we were able to rent an apartment. Mom became a seamstress and factory worker and Dad took whatever odd job he could get. I spent many summers with my dad at his jobs, and learned a lot from him. Culturally, we felt at home. We had a big family and would get together for parties with Cuban music and food, so we felt welcomed, but still missed those back home. My grandparents stayed in Cuba, so I missed them a lot.
Q: How did you decide to come to New York to study at Pratt Institute?
A: The art teacher at Hialeah-Miami Lakes High School pointed out a Pratt poster in the classroom and thought I had enough talent to get in. I applied on a whim. I really didn’t know much about art school or New York City, but the teacher pushed me to go up north. So I got on my first plane for my first U.S. trip outside Florida, visited Pratt, and was hooked by the city and all its museums. I then had to convince my parents to let me go away—and I had to find the money to pay for it. Through scholarships and grants I was able to afford it, and headed off to college, leaving my family in Miami, where they still live. Mom says she cried for months.
Q: How did you get from being a Pratt student to an art director at Time magazine? A big leap, no?
A: I had a number of internships while at Pratt: at Spy magazine, MTV, and Penguin Books.
Q: That’s what can happen when major talent is discovered.
A: I also worked hard. I worked as a designer at Pratt’s newspaper during most of my time there. Through all of that experience I was able to put together a portfolio. On the last day of classes, our English teacher, Ellen Conley, announced that her husband was an art director at Time and we should get in touch with him if we were looking for a job. After many calls to magazines with no luck, I looked him up. He invited me to show my portfolio and hired me as a temp. I stayed on as a freelancer for nine months and was eventually hired as an entry-level designer. I was promoted regularly, and when I was 26, I became the art director for a couple of the international editions. It was very exciting to be entrusted with the position, and I had a lot of fun designing covers and working with the best artists in the field. Years later, when Ellen Conley interviewed me for a book about immigrants she was working on, she told me that for 20 years she’d made the same speech at the end of class, and that I was the first student to have called her husband. I guess I looked for opportunities wherever they showed up, something I’d learned from my parents.
Q: What have been the most challenging and rewarding assignments so far in your career, the work you are most proud of.
A: Since I worked in publications for so many years, magazine covers are the most rewarding to me. I love news and current events and commenting on what’s going on in the world. I’ve had that interest since I was a teenager. I know all the things that need to come together for a cover to be published, so it’s extremely rewarding when my art makes it to the newsstand. Opera and theater posters are also very exciting to work on. Seeing my work on Broadway or on a giant billboard in Times Square is a wonderful feeling of accomplishment for my family, considering all we went through to be here.
Q: Now a little bit about your travels, exhibitions and talks. Which have been the most memorable?
A: I’ve had a number of wonderful experiences. The Ubud Writer’s Festival in Bali was a highlight a few years ago. I was invited to give talks and workshops about my children’s books, and I loved Indonesia and the people there. Last year I was invited to Turkey to be part of a poster workshop promoting democracy and to teach in Istanbul, which was very memorable.
Q: Who contacted you from Cuba to set up the show, and what are some of the events on your agenda?
A: Over the years, an online community of designers on the island and those who have left has developed. It began by being featured in publications like Communication Arts and Slanted magazine. Two years ago, I went to Cuba with my dad and met many of the top Cuban designers, some of whom work at Casa de las Américas. One of the curators there, Cristina Figueroa, visited my studio in New Jersey and offered to put together an exhibit of my work. I’ll be in Havana for a week at the beginning of December. A lecture is scheduled for December 4th and the exhibition opening is on December 5th.
Q: Have your kids been to Cuba before? If not, what will you most want them to see?
A: My kids will be going to Cuba for the first time; this seemed like the right time to bring them. We will be visiting a lot of relatives. It’s very emotional, and I still can’t believe it’s happening. I want to show them my hometown and the house I grew up in, my school, the baseball field, the farms—so many things.
For many, doing good work that also does good in the world is part of the ethos of design practice. Just Design celebrates and explores how design ignites change by compiling and displaying a vast array of inspiring people, projects and causes.
Just Design is the first book to go so in depth on this increasingly important topic. You’ll get to see how the brilliant minds in this industry have used their skills and talents to make a real difference in the world, and hopefully it can inspire you to do the same!