He was beaming, the pride contagious with every word. A Cuban immigrant whose adolescence was decided for him, Ramon Rodriguez finally feels accomplished and at peace, and before his 60th birthday. A young life littered with traumatic, but ultimately blessed, events, led to a quiet life in Cayo Hueso, which is all he ever wanted. 

Rodriguez was ripped out of Cuba at age 10, then given up for adoption upon arrival in the U.S. He spoke no English and was living as a ward of the state in a New Orleans boys’ home and attending school in the city’s infamous Lower Ninth Ward until he found his way into the loving arms of his adopted family. Here is a man who knows what it is to fight for — and appreciate — every inch of success toward the basic American Dream.  

Ramon Rodriguez is a crane operator and contractor who has worked all over the world. In the above photo, he is conducting a fire drill while working offshore aboard an oil ship. CONTRIBUTED

What is your most endearing quality? Caring and helping people.

What is the one thing you would change about the world if you could? Racism.

Do you have experience with that? Yes. I’ve seen people being discriminated against, and I have been discriminated against as an immigrant. Shockingly, I’ve been discriminated against not only by Americans, but by Cubans, too. The Americans, when they know I’m Cuban; Cubans, because I look ‘gringo.’

How have you moved beyond the racism in your life? I don’t think you really move past it. I think you keep it in the back of your mind and deal with it, but never truly move on from it. I know racism is out there, and I’ve learned to protect myself against it. Like, I know certain situations and how they will pan out, so I mentally prepare myself for how I will handle the moment(s).

In hindsight, are you glad your parents moved you to the U.S. when they did? In my particular situation, as a kid, I would say no because of being split from one of my parents. My life was in Cuba — it was all I knew.  But now, as an adult, I can say it was the best decision for me and my siblings. America has more opportunity. So I guess I would say overall, yes. It was a good decision.

What adversities did you face being an immigrant in New Orleans? How much time and space do you have? The language barrier was the most challenging. Racism and ignorance was the next biggest struggle. Kids are brutal, man. They will eat you alive coming up. Third was being poor. Not having clothes; having to dress in layers just so the funny-looking Goodwill pants would fit properly. The difficulty of having to learn the new culture and finding people who would have the patience to help you understand. Dealing with different ethnicities was a new concept. In Cuba we didn’t have the melting pot of backgrounds; everyone was the same.  We were all under the same governmental control.

Without getting overly political, what runs through your mind when you look at the political problems we have here, compared to a government like Cuba? Cuba is Communist. You do not have the freedom of speech like you have here. You cannot compare the two governments, but I truly do not believe half of the people here would survive in that system. I don’t think Americans realize how lucky they have it.

What about Key West makes you the happiest? To see people be individuals and be free to do what they want without fear of being judged. It makes me extremely happy to see that freedom.

What is the most beautiful thing in the world? A tight-knit family sticking through thick and thin. To see the love, and see them stay together, no matter what.

Speaking of people doing what they want without judgement, the holidays are here (along with the decorations).  We’re just a day away  from December at the time of this interview, but since you’re a Catholic,  on a scale of 1 to 10 how excited are you for Christmas?  10.

Do you believe in putting up the Christmas decorations before December? Before December?  No. I think every season should have its time.

Much like the seasons of life. What would be one thing you would encourage kids to do/learn that you believe will give them an advantage in adulthood? Besides being educated, I think kids should take initiative to learn basic household chores: Cleaning, laundry, cooking. It will never matter how much money you make; you should always know how to do something yourself. Why waste your hard-earned money paying someone else to do what you can do yourself? Same with changing your car’s oil or tire, basic construction (how to measure and cut a board), and maintain your property.  

What advice would you give the older generation? Be patient with the younger generation. Encourage them. Don’t degrade them. I believe it will help keep animosity down and create a safe space for all of us to grow.

If COVID didn’t exist, what is your perfect day, start to finish? On weekdays? Waking up, for starters. Have a cup of coffee with the sunrise, go have a great productive day at work, come home and cook dinner for my wife, then relax with her after. Weekends? Sleep in a little bit, go to breakfast (preferably at Goldman’s), go for a little ride up the Keys, pick up fresh fruits and vegetables, have lunch. Then head back home for dinner and salsa dancing at El Meson de Pepe’s and then have a private night with my woman.

What would you consider your crowning achievement to date? Definitely raising my son.  Teaching him a work ethic and making sure he was educated and had every opportunity to use his gift of intelligence, and making sure he had the tools he needed to succeed. Seeing his achievements as a lawyer and the man he is as a provider, a father and a husband — he is my crowning achievement.

That was incredibly sweet and heartfelt. Do you have any specific advice you would pass along to him?  Advice that, although you were giving it to your son, other people might benefit from hearing it? Treat people as you want to be treated.  Look with your heart and not with your eyes.  Be an asset in every way you can in this world.  

What is something you dreamed of, but were told you could never do/have, then ended up achieving despite the naysayers? Buying my first house on the water. People told me I would never afford it; I would never have that kind of money. It was just outside of New Orleans, and I built it myself from the ground up.

What would you say is the key to your successes? Ignoring negativity and focusing on the positives — glass half full, not empty, perspective.

Who is your favorite person from your life? My mom. No question about that. My adopted mom … it’s just not even a question. Rest her soul.

For the fun of it:  what is your guilty pleasure? My love for my birds. I raise canaries. I love raising canaries and watching something grow and evolve. If I had my own pet store or farm … that would be tops.

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