Grocer, ‘adventurer’ and one of the first Cuban rafters in Florida dies at 96

Armando Rodriguez was an “adventurer,” his son says, and that derring-do quality would serve him well through his 96 years.

By age 53, Rodriguez, who died Sunday at his Hialeah home of heart failure, had already established himself in Cuba where he had made a home on the outskirts of Santa Clara with wife, Teresa, and their two boys, Armando Jr. and Ivan.

Rodriguez realized early that he hated the farm work that could have been his life’s path. So, in his 20s, he took to horseback and started an enterprise on the island in which he would ride to people’s houses with goods like cups and socks for sale. It was front-door delivery in a pre-Amazon world.

From that endeavor, Rodriguez opened a shack so tiny there was only room for him inside to hand out wares to customers who lined up outside. By 1959, around the time of the revolution that swept Fidel Castro into power, Rodriguez had opened his own grocery store and had money to buy property and land.

“He was very successful. We lived out in the country and had electricity and, in 1957, we had TV,” Armando Rodriguez Jr. said from his home in Hollywood. “No one within 100 miles had TV because we were out in the country but he was very active with the community over there trying to get roads built — which they did. He was enterprising, that was his thing.”

He would have to call on all of his enterprising and survival skills for his next journey.

In January 1961, Rodriguez and nine strangers fled Cuba on a rickety boat bound for the United States. The vessel drifted for five days after its ramshackle engine failed. The perilous seas were too much for the self-appointed captain and the man flung himself overboard one ink-black night and disappeared in the waters as the others watched helplessly.

“My dad was one of the first rafters that came from Cuba,” said Rodriguez Jr., 65.

The Coast Guard and shipping vessels were not accustomed to plucking people out of the waters along the Florida Straits at that time. The Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act was not enacted until 1966 and the controversial Clinton administration’s “dry foot-wet foot” policy wasn’t a reality until 1995.

“People weren’t looking for that kind of thing. At night, they saw many ships and party boats and they would be yelling but they had no flashlights,” Rodriguez Jr. says of his father’s plight.

Eventually, a Gulf Oil tanker spotted the survivors and rescued them off the coast of Daytona Beach. The Gulf tanker captain snapped photos of the boaters, including Rodriguez who held on to a life line at the bow of his vessel.

Rodriguez took dishwashing jobs at hotels in Miami Beach. He worked at the Sherry Frontenac on 65th and Collins Avenue. Then the Deauville, two blocks north. The Deauville would enter the world stage in February 1964 when the Beatles filmed a performance there for broadcast on The Ed Sullivan Show.

The dishwasher, like the lads from Liverpool, had grander designs. His wife and children flew to Miami in 1962 and Rodriguez tapped into his grocery skills by taking a job at a Hialeah grocer. He saved his money and bought his own little store on Palm Avenue and 10th Street in Hialeah near the race track. His family worked at the store, Caibarien Market, which took its name from a city in Cuba near where they had lived.

The proximity to the race track proved fortuitous. Customers who came in for cigars were often jockeys or racing fans and they began asking for racing forms, especially during horse-racing season. Rodriguez paid attention even if the request puzzled him at first. Racing forms? “This paper that looked like Greek to him,” his son said, laughing.

By 1966, the family had saved enough money to travel, another of Rodriguez’s passions. That first road trip — Mom and Dad and two sons piled into a 1962 Chevy en route to California, land of the Beach Boys — created life-long memories for the clan. The children cemented their love for popular music, jazz and culture out of that experience.

“That pre-hippy era, 1966 in L.A., was the time to be there,” Rodriguez Jr. said. “It took us like four days. Johnson was the president. We stopped in Johnson City, Texas. There were no interstate highways at the time so we were taking all these back roads through the south and the west.”

Rodriguez opened a bigger store, Best Food Market, and served a mixed clientele of Hispanics, blacks and white non-Hispanics, Rodriguez Jr. said. That store led to Kiko’s, a wholesale business in the Jackson Memorial Hospital business district that sold health and beauty aids popular with customers from the Bahamas, Jamaica and the Turks and Caicos. The family-run business operated from 1972 to 2011 and was sold. The elder Rodriguez had retired by that point and Rodriguez and his wife, Teresa, now 91, would travel the world: Alaska, Canada, Europe. The couple were inseparable, their son said.

“My dad was adventurous and he loved to travel. Enterprising and traveling were his two big passions,” Rodriguez Jr. said. “I think his biggest legacy is he was always taking everything head-on. He used to say, ‘I’m not afraid of anything.’ On that trip to California we really got lost. He would say, ‘You can never get lost except if you are out in the ocean or the desert. Other than that, you’re never lost. You’ll find your way.’”

Rodriguez is survived by his wife, sons Armando and Ivan, and grandchildren Vanessa and Nicole. Services will be held at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Funeraria Memorial Plan San José (San José Funeral Home), 250 E. Fourth Ave., Hialeah. Call 305-887-9830.

El Nuevo photographer C.M. Guerrero contributed to this report. Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.

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