The Hospice and Visiting Nurse’s Association’s event at the Casa Marina wouldn’t be a quarter of grand if not for the tireless work of our Noon Rotarians, who every Fourth of July, put service above self to make sure this island has one of the most spectacular shows this side of the Mississippi. The Key West Weekly talks with the club’s new president to extract his patriotic side.
JK: This is the first Fourth of July you will lead the Rotary through one of the most spectacular events our community and visitors experience. Will the holiday take on new meaning for you?
RM: It will. I’ve always been a big celebrator of America’s birthday because I’m an immigrant. I was born in Cuba. This country gave my family a shot. This year, as president of the club, I’m able to lead the fundraising effort this year. We started gearing up in February with Ani Madruga, Karen Thurman, Edward Toppino… it costs about $30,000 to produce the show. We don’t get any county or TDC money for the show, so it’s all on us.
JK: America’s birthday is a time when we celebrate our independent democratic nation. We’re known for being a “mixed salad”, if you will, of all nationalities, and cultures. This is especially true in Key West. As a Cuban why are you most proud to be an American?
RM: For me it’s two fold. I was born in Cuba and I’m an openly gay person. I feel for the first time in a long time, this country is shifting their attitudes; for instance, Congress lifting the ban on gay military members in the service. We are moving in a new direction as a country, a more inclusive direction.
And in this country, if you work hard, you tell the truth, you can do anything. I’m proof of that. My family came here with a suitcase and nothing else. We have all been educated and have great careers and that doesn’t happen in a lot of countries.
JK: How do you motivate an entire club to put service above self on a national holiday, a party holiday?
RM: The task is not very hard with our club. We have a dedicated group of men and women who are very passionate about this community. It takes about 40 people to pull off the event on the Fourth of July holiday, a family holiday. We give people notice about what we need, start signing people up, and encourage people to come and bring their families, friends, and loved ones.
JK: Who is most likely to set their eyebrows on fire?
RM: Ron Leonard, our past president. No doubt about it. Him and Frankie Herrada. Frankie is actually our co-chair for the event. He came here as a boy from Cuba, too. About three years ago he got a little overzealous with the lighter fluid trying to keep up with the demand for hotdogs and hamburgers. The grill caught on fire! You can’t make that one up! He’ll probably set something else on fire this year….
JK: What is your most memorable experience shared with Rotary and the Fourth of July.
RM: I would have to say the incident of Frankie, practically burning down the booth!
I also always love to see tourists from other countries come up to the booth. I’m always amazed at the look on their faces when the fireworks go off. I don’t think their country celebrates like this with all of the noise and fantastic fireworks! Sometimes they don’t even know we’re going to have fireworks. They’re blown away.
JK: Where do all of the pyrotechnics come from?
RM: A menagerie of people, and there’s a fireworks company we get our explosives from. Our lead pyrotechnic person is Karen ‘Rocket’ Thurman. She leads the charge. She’s a licensed pyrotechnic, and donates all of her services.
JK: What was in your arsenal as boy?
RM: Well you know, it’s funny you should ask. I grew up in NYC and they’re illegal. The most we got was pretty boring—sparklers. That’s all we had. My parents were strict and our mom wouldn’t let us go to other states to buy fireworks. In 1986, my first Fourth of July in Florida, I saw some fireworks stands and remember thinking, “hey, that’s pretty cool.”
JK: This year we are still in a state of economic distress and there is a manmade ecological disaster in the Gulf. That said, we need to showcase this island like never before and show the tourists a fabulous time and invite them back? As a new leader on the island, how as individuals can we accomplish this?
RM: I think the best way to do that is by example. The way we treat visitors when they’re here. When you see them with a map, put your best food forwards, offer to help and showcase the sweetness and welcoming attitude that is Key West. That’s what this island is all about!
As for the oil, it isn’t here. Even if it does come, we will survive. We survived Hurricane Wilma, the Great Depression and the Hurricane of 1935. We’re strong and resilient.