Jorge Valdes’ entry into the United States could not have been more fraught with peril — though it is a story familiar to many an exile.
In 1961, the exiled young man boarded a makeshift raft from his home in Matanzas, Cuba, where he was born 21 years earlier on April 19, 1940, and set sail for South Florida.
“He burned his skivvies to get the attention of the Coast Guard,” said son Michael Valdes, 41. Once settled, he would join the U.S. Army and raise four children with wife Yolanda in Miami.
Seventeen years after that trip, Valdes, then a 38-year-old building contractor and public relations agent known for his dapper dress and white hair, made history when he became the first Cuban-born mayor of an American city, Sweetwater.
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“He saw a small town in need of leadership, direction,” said Michael Valdes. In 1981, Valdes became the first Hispanic to serve on what was then called the Metro-Dade Commission — now the Miami-Dade Commission — when he was appointed to fill a vacancy.
Valdes, who died at 74 on Monday in Miami, would serve on the commission until he was unseated in 1990 by a young upstart named Alex Penelas, then a Hialeah city councilman who would go on to become mayor of Miami-Dade County six years later.
That year, Valdes was under federal investigation involving allegations that he had accepted $40,000 from developers to vote to rezone and then help sell a parcel of land in West Miami-Dade. Valdes lost his re-election campaign, denied the allegations and was not indicted. He briefly moved to Venezuela before returning to Miami.
“In my 14 years of public service, as mayor of Sweetwater and as a Metro-Dade commissioner, I have always striven to serve the public’s interest to the best of my ability,” Valdes wrote in a letter published in the Miami Herald in July 1990. The paper, he said, “embarked on a campaign of misinformation by providing its readers with sensationalistic innuendo.”
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz, also a former Sweetwater mayor, issued a statement Tuesday praising Valdes.
“Jorge Valdes was a trailblazer who opened the door of opportunity in this community to all Hispanic elected leaders who came after him. His example was a source of pride and inspiration to many of us, and he leaves a very important legacy behind him,” Diaz said.
The Cuban-born Diaz is one of seven Hispanic commissioners in a county where both the mayor and chairwoman of the 13-member commission also emigrated from Cuba.
Valdes was the lone Hispanic commissioner when county leaders wanted to retire a 1980 ordinance requiring that English be the only language used for conducting government business. It was a contentious issue for a rapidly evolving community, at a time when even the pronunciation of a Hispanic name carried political baggage.
Mabel Melton, his secretary and lone full-time staffer, recalled a signature greeting by Valdes: “ ‘My name is Jorge. Call me George,’ ” said Melton, now a public-relations consultant in Coconut Grove. “He was criticized for that.”
Valdes championed repeal of the English-only law, which the commission finally killed in 1993 by a unanimous vote. “We had death threats,” Melton said. “They were calling out: ‘Why do we have to speak your language?’ ”
Political accomplishments aside, Valdes’ son Michael reflected on the private side his family cherished. “He was a great giver, he had a real humble heart,” he said. “Very caring, very much a family man.”
Valdes is survived by his wife, Yolanda, and sons Michael, Arnaldo, Jorge Jr., daughter Yolanda, and seven grandchildren.
Services will be held at 6 p.m.-midnight Wednesday at Vior Funeral Home, 291 NW 37th Ave., Miami. A Mass follows at noon Thursday at St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, 900 SW 26th Rd., Miami.
Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report. Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.