One of the greatest characters I've met in my half-century of journalism has died.
I — and many Miami business people and journalists — knew her as Señora Rodriguez, a brilliant teacher of Spanish. To friends, family and those who knew of her anti-Castro activities, she was Carmita Portela.
She died at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, surrounded by grandchildren and great-grandchildren, her daughter, Sylvia R. Hauser, announced. She was 94.
The language classes were only a chapter in an astonishing life. Her husband, Roberto Rodriguez, was an official in the government of Carlos Prio, the last democratically elected president of Cuba. When Fulgencio Batista staged a coup in 1952, they fled to exile in Miami, where they worked tirelessly to restore democracy in Cuba.
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In 1959, after Batista departed, they returned to Havana. She soon realized that the Castro government had no interest in multi-party democracy and began working clandestinely to undermine the regime.
In the spring of 1961, as the United States and anti-Castro soldiers prepared for the Bay of Pigs, the Castro government jailed thousands of suspected dissidents.
Hauser: "She went underground first because no embassy wanted to accept her. The chancellor of Spain ... took her into his home for protection where she stayed along with six other people until finally the embassy of Ecuador accepted her.
"She slept on a cot in a terrace along with 300 other people ... in the open backyard" in "terrible conditions. The [Cuban] government refused to give her a safe-conduct to leave the country." She was one of the very few women in the yard.
"Finally, through the Catholic Church and the pope she was allowed to leave in 1963," Hauser reports, flying through Curacao to Miami, where her husband and daughter were already living.
She worked at a tomato packing house in Florida City before landing a job with Berlitz, the language company. For years, she taught in the Berlitz classrooms, then moved full-time to the Miami Herald to teach many journalists, including me. I had tried many methods to learn Spanish — books, tapes — and I could read quite well, but I struggled with the spoken language. She used the Berlitz system — no English whatsoever in the classroom. She spoke excellent English, of course, but she didn't allow a single word of it during class.
To adoring students, she quickly became la profesora or la profe — forceful, always happy, never losing patience with our desperate pronunciation.
Once a student learned basic vocabulary, she'd reveal more about herself, including her use of transcendental meditation and her joy of swimming.
She had a knack of discovering students' preferences and passions — and then taking the exact opposite view. The student invariably got angry and sputtered objections in English. Of course, she refused to understand. Pretty soon, the student was so engrossed in making a point that he'd forget he was speaking a foreign language.
I knew her for decades, visiting her occasionally in retirement (her favorite spot was La Carreta in Westchester), but when she died, I wasn't certain what her formal name was.
Her daughter's explanation: "Her name is Carmita Portela. That's what everyone called her. Her full name, Maria del Carmen Portela" When she first came to the United States, "Immigration took her first name, Maria, and my dad’s last name and then she became Maria Rodriguez, but she was always Carmita."
In addition to Hauser, she is survived by two grandchildren, James-Robert Hauser and Lynne-Dee Hauser, and three great-grandchildren.
A memorial Mass has not yet been scheduled.