A love that began on the busy streets of Havana, endured through the Cuban Revolution, stood up as immigrants in a new country, and survived to tell the tale over 60 years later.
1948 marked the first time in 20 years that Cuban athletes could compete at the Olympic games, Carlos Prío Socarrás was elected president, and future president Fulgencio Batista (who would later go onto being overthrown and run out of the country by Fidel Castro) was elected in Las Villas to the Cuban Senate. 1948 came as any new year filled with its changes and living its day-to-day life unaware of the loom of a revolution that would come a decade later, altering the lives of each and every Cuban for the rest of the century and beyond. And here begins our love story. This tale, much like many, is not exempt from its fair share of hardships and difficulties. However, amidst our story's ever-changing setting, we see a couple that have faced some of love's biggest tests, its fight for freedom, and how trust and hope can become a human being's biggest strength and means of survival.
Before they met...
In the spring of 1948, Ida was working for an American-owned clothing factory in Havana. This was a job that she had gotten through her sister and brother-in-law. Her brother-in-law was American and started this factory in the 40s while Americans could still own and operate businesses in Cuba. Her sister, Josephina, had been working at the factory and fell in love with the young businessman. Through her ties to the factory, she got Ida a job trimming and finishing garments.
In the spring of 1948, Valentine was living as any young Cubano; enjoying life, going out with friends, and working hard at his job. At the time of this interview, it was apparent by the look of his worn and worked in hands, that he is a man of a certain work ethic that you don't see on just anyone. He was always known for doing jobs involving heavy labor, and as of 1948, he was working in glass installation. He was a true Cuba boy and considered Havana his forever home.
How they met...
When walking the streets of Havana, it's hard not to notice the scattered meat and produce markets, stray dogs roaming everywhere, people young and old playing dominos on pop-up card tables at random street corners, and the wave of salsa music oozing out of every building. It's what makes it Havana. Everybody knows everybody, and everybody takes care of each other. It's not only their way of living, but their way of surviving, especially after living the past 60+ years under a strict Communist rule. To see people of all ages sitting on their stoops at any given time of the day is not just normal, but part of their everyday flow.
This love begins on a busy Centro Habana street in the spring of 1948. Valentine Rodriguez was getting his shoes shined when a gorgeous young woman passed him by and he immediately got up and asked her, "Where you going?!". Little did he know this babe of a woman lived right around the corner from him. Although, there was an initial spark and flirtation, this love story had a bit of a delayed reaction. Due to the complexity of life, Valentine and Ida continued to live amongst each other for the next four years before they finally took the leap to be together.
Once that leap happened, there was no going back for these two. It was love. Ida described their first date with a wink and a smile as a "love date". Much of their dating life was seen on the dance floor salsa dancing into the night, frequenting the nearby Guanabo Beach, night walks to the theatre or out for ice cream, and romantic strolls down the Malecón. Ida recalls one night when they had gone out dancing, Valentine had spun her around so fast that she flew and landed on the floor. He then looked down at her with a mischievous smile and said, "what are you doing down there?" By her eagerness to tell this story, one can tell even talking to these two who are now both in their eighties, that they liked to laugh and play, and they probably had quite the colorful dating experience.
How he popped the question...
The two had dated for over a year, and knew that it was inevitable that they would get married. When asked how the proposal happened, Valentine said, "When I asked her to marry me she told me 'ok', and we didn't waste too much time after that."
Although, it was a beautiful day in Havana in 1955, the nuptials between Valentine and Ida didn't start without a minor setback. Ida was clad in her custom-made floral dress and excited for the day ahead. Meanwhile, the ever easy-going Valentine was finishing up a job. He always has to finish one thing before he could go to the next, and his wedding day was no exception. The wedding was about to begin, but there was one thing missing...the groom! The guests and bride included thought that the groom had gotten cold feet, so one by one, the guests started to leave. To everyone's surprise, an hour after the wedding was supposed to begin, Valentine came frantically rushing in. Luckily the bride still took him despite his tardy arrival, but later commented with a sly smile, "Could you believe I did?!"
Against all odds...
In 1959, along with every living and breathing Cuban, everything changed for this young family. Fidel Castro, a young revolutionary, overthrew president, Fulgencio Batista, and the Cuban government. At this moment in history, many considered this hopeful and promising, considering much of Castro's supporters and army recruits were from Cuba's poorer districts. However, it was soon realized that Castro's leadership was going to look much different. Castro soon converted Cuba into a pro-Soviet, one-party, socialist state under Communist party rule. The Cuban people went from the mindset of being "liberated" to in all actuality having very few liberties and opportunities, and would soon be fearful for the safety of their lives and lives of their families.
Little by little, things started to change. Signs covered with Fidel's face went up all over the island filled with propaganda telling Cubans what to think and believe. Businesses, hotels, and casinos that once catered to jetsetters from all over the world were boarded up and closed down. One by one, American-owned businesses started getting run out of the country. Suddenly, you were suspicious of your neighbor down the street tattling on you for not being a Castro supporter. Finally, after a series of catastrophic events leading up to 1962, the U.S. embargo was put into place ending relations between the United States and Cuba. The world knew that Cuba was going to change forever. If Cubans didn't feel frightened and threatened living in this new Communist bubble in the Caribbean, they soon realized that they needed to make some of the hardest decisions and sacrifices that they would ever have to make.
Valentine and Ida Rodriguez knew that a tough decision was upon them. Ida had lost her job when her brother-in-law's business had gone under. Which meant her sister, Josefina, and her husband had fled to the U.S., being her brother-in-law was American. They promised to send for them, but the young Rodriguez family knew this would mean many things for them. The couple who had both been born and raised on the island that they loved would have to denounce their Cuban citizenship, leave the many loved ones who decided to stay for the time being, and become aliens and immigrants in a brand new country. All of these scenarios were heart-wrenching to this young couple, who not only had to think of themselves, but their three young children who this decision would affect.
The deciding factor came upon their eldest daughter's fifth birthday approaching. Fidel Castro had set up a system that when children reached the age of 5, they would get sent away to learn the "Communist way". Valentine and Ida were fearful of this, so they decided it was their time to flee. On a May night in 1962, the family was in the middle of packing all their important belongings including family photos, jewelry, and any valuables. All of a sudden their was a pounding on the door, and a few men from Castro's regime burst through the door. Word had gotten out that the family was leaving. The officers soon scoured the entire home taking all the valuables, even ripping apart their young daughter's doll thinking they had hid valuables inside. Ida recalls comforting her crying child and telling her, "Don't cry, baby. We're going to a country where you can have all the dolls you want."
The family were forced out of their home that night leaving their things, their birth certificates and important documents, and the home that they had built together. The officers boarded it up, and the family went to Ida's mom's house for a few days until they could fly out to America and leave Cuba behind. The couple left days later with their 4-year-old and 11-month-old daughters, leaving Ida's teenage son behind with his father, promising to send for him later. The couple would never get to see him again, as he passed away unexpectedly while Ida was pregnant with her third daughter. This would lead to grief that would affect her for the rest of her life, and add to one of the many heart-wrenching stories of the horrible events that happened to all the Cuban people due to Castro's tyrannical rule.
Over the course of the next 50 years, the couple lived in Florida and California, and now live in Southern California amongst a large piece of their family. 1962 would be the last time Ida would step foot on Cuban soil, but for Valentine, he would return to his homeland briefly in 1980. Fidel had opened the doors for a short time to anyone who wanted to leave, so Valentine rented a boat off the coast of Florida and rescued his sister and her family, an uncle, and Ida's brother. Although this was a victory for their family, it didn't account for the many loved ones that were still left behind with little freedom and opportunity for their futures.
Beauty from ashes...
These words, these paragraphs are but a blip of the 61 years of love, hardship, and perseverance this couple has gone through. However, the beauty in this long-standing union is the fact that they chose each other at every twist and turn. Through the heartache, the massive changes, and braving a new land, they chose to grow together and face each hurdle as one. When asked what they have learned about one another over the years, Ida stressed the loads of patience she had grown for him. For a man who is never rushing, she had to learn to slow down her pace to meet him halfway. She even recalls being in labor, and Valentine was calm and taking his time. She frantically told him, "the baby's coming out!", which put him into a tailspin and turned him into a crazy driver honking and yelling his way to the hospital. She soon longed for her calm and gentle husband to return. Valentine said that he had learned how important order was in the house being married to an orderly woman who liked things just so. It's how she had grown up, so it was important in her own household. Ida gave me a wink and her husband a sly smile when she said, "He eventually learned. He gets me." The mix of his easy-going demeanor and her feisty personality have made for an interesting and beautiful life.
When asked if they had any advice for couples starting out their love stories, they both stressed how important having respect for one another is. To never hurt each other with your words, and to try and live well as yourself and together. Valentine brought tears to the room when he said, "I would say to always remember the beginning. In my case, I never forgot the first time I saw her and the feeling I got from her beauty."
When asked if the couple had any closing thoughts, silence hit the room. Although this couple's love has stood the test of time, much of their marriage has been defined by what they have overcome. The freedom that they fought for early on in their marriage became their story, and by the solemn look on Valentine's face, I knew he had something to share. "I’m grateful for this country for opening the doors for us to start a new life. What I've been doing my whole life, I could've never done in my country. I feel very grateful. The most important thing for me is that since we came to this country, we have freedom. Going through everything we went through made us strong, and I am so grateful."
We live in a world where some suffer more than others; where the cost of freedom is greater in different parts of the world; where the color of your skin can determine your place in society. I will never know what it feels like to flee my home country with not a penny to my name and two tiny children. I will never know what it feels like to have every freedom stripped away. I will simply never walk in their shoes and truly understand. However, what I can do is listen. I can empathize and admire people just like Valentine and Ida who have fought to the nail for a better life. To say that these things aren't real, and that some people don't suffer more than the next is where ignorance comes in and steals joy. In a nation that is going through such divide and differences in opinion, let's look to stories like the Rodriguez's and remember who we are, and that freedom and the choice to choose love is a privilege, and it belongs to everyone.
Thank you, Valentine and Ida, for sharing your incredible story with me, and transforming me by your love. I am honored to record your tale and will forever cherish the time I spent with you. Thank you for choosing each other and always remembering to say, "I love you too". This one's for you.