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A new graphic memoir details illustrator Edel Rodriguez's escape from Cuba in 1980


Edel Rodriguez has created more than 200 magazine covers for the likes of The New Yorker and Time magazine, Newsweek and Der Spiegel. They are singular, striking and often controversial. His latest work is a graphic memoir that tells the story of his childhood in Cuba and his family's decision in 1980 to join a hazardous flotilla of refugees, the Mariel boatlift. He uses his own life to capture what it's like to grow up under an authoritarian government and to sound a caution for the future. His book is called "Worm: A Cuban American Odyssey," and Edel Rodriguez joins us from his studio in New Jersey. Thanks so much for being with us.

EDEL RODRIGUEZ: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Tell us about that little boy on the cover in a Young Pioneers red cap.

RODRIGUEZ: Well, I think that boy was very adventurous.

SIMON: This is you, right?

RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, yeah, that's me. This was a moment when - you know, I think when you're a child, when you get something like a uniform or something where you feel like you belong. That's what I wanted to picture on the cover, contrasted with the word worm right above him. And I think that that juxtaposition was a very strong image that I had in my mind from the very first moments that I started coming up with the story.

SIMON: Yeah. Worm was how the Cuban government derided people who wanted to leave, like your family, right?

RODRIGUEZ: Yeah. I mean, at the time, we kind of took it for granted because it was just said so often. But then later on, when I - after we had left, I came to realize that that's what dictators and political figures - they find names to give people that they disagree with to dehumanize them, so.

SIMON: Yeah. And let me ask you about the - not just the shortages of food and other supplies with which you and your family grew up, but the fear. Your mother, for example, would never mention El Jefe, I'll call Fidel Castro, by name.

RODRIGUEZ: Yeah. I mean, the fear comes from the possibility that someone could be listening to you or listening to your conversation. And they tried to not talk about politics, and when they did, it was done in a very quiet way, usually in a backroom or in a place where neighbors wouldn't be listening in.

SIMON: I'm afraid I didn't know until reading this graphic novel how cruel the conditions under which you and your family were held on a Cuban military base while you were waiting to leave. Can I get you to talk about that?

RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, we were in a detention camp for about a week in Cuba. Of course, it's not something that's mentioned or spoken about by the Cuban government. In general, they don't really talk much about the Mariel boatlift. It's something that they'd rather forget. There's a lot of things that happened in Cuba that the rest of the world really doesn't know about, because it's an island. They like to keep things quiet. But it's something that us Cubans have lived with our whole life, the memories of the things that were done to us and what happened at these detention camps. You know, my mom was strip-searched in front of me when we arrived there. All of her jewelry was taken from her. We were put in this camp with people that had just arrived from prison - murderers, rapists, you know, prostitutes sort of all put into this camp with family members. And we had to find a way to get along while we were there.

SIMON: Looking back, did you ever tell yourself, I'm going to tell this story someday?

RODRIGUEZ: I think at the beginning I was just trying to cope with being in a new country and figuring out how to deal with what my family had just went through. Later on, when I was maybe 18, 19, 20, that I started drawing and making pictures of my life or what influenced me, that a lot of these images started popping up. And eventually I came to think, well, this would make a fuller book, and that's what this is. I spent about 8 to 10 years developing this book.

SIMON: Why did you want to do it at all? There are some people who lived through terrible experiences who don't want to talk about them, much less put them between the pages of a book.

RODRIGUEZ: Well, when I arrived in this country, I didn't speak English at first. Eventually I started reading and understanding English around sixth, seventh, eighth grade. And there was one book called "Night" by Elie Wiesel. It made a very big impact on me when I was in my junior high school years, and it made me realize that you have to tell stories of things that have happened to you so that people learn from them and so that the same mistakes aren't repeated again. I wouldn't have known this story. I wouldn't have known so much about what happened in Germany or the Holocaust if it wasn't for that book and other books like "1984," "Animal Farm." When I read those books, I felt like I was reading, you know, my own story. I felt it was important to put this down because this is my story, but this has happened to hundreds of thousands of people.

SIMON: Yeah. You describe growing up in Miami after coming to the United States and then going to school in New York, art school. This is such a New York story. First person you met in New York was a fashion model.

RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, on the airplane.

SIMON: Well, that happens to everybody coming to this country, doesn't it?

RODRIGUEZ: (Laughter) Well, I mean, I was a teenage boy, and I was just impressed that a model was even talking to me on the airplane and then offered to show me the city and gave me her phone number without even asking. So I - of course, I arrived in New York and thinking, oh, my God, this is an amazing place.

SIMON: Yeah. I want to ask you about some of the later chapters. You take up your work. You cover, if I might put it that way, some of the most controversial covers, so to speak, that you've drawn. Do you refuse to draw Donald Trump's face?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, yeah, there's a few reasons for that. I don't enjoy necessarily drawing him, so I found a way to do it as detached as possible in a way, and also because I want people to focus more on the idea and the concepts that I'm trying to put out, rather than his face or the way he looks. And generally when you draw a figure with eyes looking at you, you sympathize with the figure, perhaps. And I just wanted people to come in more and focus on what he was doing and what I'm saying about it.

SIMON: What concerns you about this moment in America, the country you love, right now?

RODRIGUEZ: When I arrived here, I was taught something about America and the people that lived here, this idea that welcoming immigrants was sort of a very important part of this country, the idea that we had rights. You know, I never told I had rights in Cuba, and then when I arrived here, I first started studying social studies. The first thing that I focused on was this idea that I had, you know, rights and I could express myself. And I feel that Donald Trump is sort of chopping down all of these things that we have come to understand as what America is, even just the freedom of the press. You know, the freedom of the press is very important to me 'cause I didn't grow up with it. So when he calls the press the enemy of the people, that reminds me of the type of thing that Castro would say back in Cuba.

SIMON: Let me go back to the little boy in the Red Pioneers cap on the cover. What would you tell him now, your young self?

RODRIGUEZ: I would say everything's going to be all right. I always was very cognizant of the fact that my parents had given up their entire life for my future and my sister's future, and so I tried to grow up and straight and narrow and not get in trouble, focus on my schooling, and to kind of pay homage to my parents for what they did. And here I am with a book (laughter). So I would tell him it's going to be all right. Just keep doing what you're doing, and you'll make your parents proud one day.

SIMON: Edel Rodriguez's new graphic novel, "Worm." Thank you so much for speaking with us.

RODRIGUEZ: Thank you so much.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.