Edel Rodríguez isn’t afraid to live with the consequences
By Benjamin P. Russell
The hardest thing about making political art, Edel Rodriguez said, isn’t technique but judgment: knowing just where to stick the “tip of the knife” so that audiences feel provoked without crying foul.
He isn’t always sure he has hit the mark. At times while drawing what would become some of the most provocative images of the Donald Trump presidency — magazine covers of a faceless orange figure screaming into the void, decapitating Lady Liberty or draped in a Ku Klux Klan hood — Rodriguez wondered whether he was being unfair. At least, for a moment.
“Occasionally, I thought, ‘This might be too much,’” Rodriguez said recently over Zoom from his home studio in New Jersey. “And then three weeks later he does something, and I figure out: ‘Oh, OK, that wasn’t so crazy.’”
The origin and evolution of Rodriguez’s judgment as an artist are at the heart of his new graphic memoir, “Worm,” published by Metropolitan Books on Tuesday. Told through roughly 1,000 evocative drawings of Rodriguez’s journey from Young Pioneer in Fidel Castro’s Cuba to artist making his way in the “glorious mayhem of Manhattan at midday,” the book is at once a touching tale of immigration and a challenge to easy political narratives about Cuba, democracy and our collective response to authoritarianism.
“The whole book is a bit of a trap,” Rodriguez said of the tension between the memoir’s condemnation of the right-facing Trump and of the left-facing Cuban regime. “I wanted you to come in with your prejudices and realize this is not what you thought it was.”
“Worm,” whose title refers to a moniker Castro used to describe Cubans who sought to leave after the revolution in 1959, illustrates in fine detail the contrasts of Rodriguez’s youth on the island: playing in the sugar cane fields that surrounded his small town, about an hour south of Havana, black smoke swirling from a nearby refinery; marveling at his grandmother’s spooky bedtime stories; seeing his parents drive to the edge of town to discuss their future without anyone listening in.
In one drawing, we see the young artist in a revolutionary red bandanna, the ubiquitous silhouette of Che Guevara looming behind him. Rodriguez’s father pushed the family to leave — which they did in 1980, in the Mariel boat lift — in large part because he felt his children were at risk of no longer being his own. He didn’t want the revolution to become their upbringing.
Rodriguez’s family arrived in Miami when he was 9, but his childhood in Cuba — where surveillance and shortages were the norm, and government persecution often arbitrary and petty — left a mark. In the United States, he found that ideas about life on the island, and the merits of its government, often fell along political lines. He views “Worm” partly as a corrective for the idealization of figures like Guevara and Castro that he has encountered among the political left.
“Your hero is my oppressor,” Rodriguez said. “At the end of the day, any dictatorship is not a good thing. I don’t know how people support dictatorships just because they align with their politics.”
Indeed, Rodriguez’s upbringing attuned him to the fragility of democracy, whatever direction the threat is coming from. That’s partly why he chose what he calls “caution-sign orange” for his drawings of Trump.
“The enemies of the people, quotes about the media, encouraging audience members to beat other people up — in the U.S., it was kind of entertainment. It was, ‘Oh, that’s crazy,’ and I was, like, ‘No, this is exactly what has happened in Cuba, in Venezuela, at times in Germany during World War II,” Rodriguez said. “It works on you in a very slow way, and it’s appealing to a lot of people.”
In 2015, hearing Trump, as a candidate for president, echo Castro’s talking points, Rodriguez felt the need to sound the alarm. He published drawings online and shared them on social media, hoping that magazines or newspapers would pick them up. One editor who did was Klaus Brinkbäumer, who at the time was editor-in-chief of Der Spiegel, the German weekly that would publish some of Rodriguez’s most boundary-testing work.
“Edel is one of the very few artists who brilliantly manage to simplify complicated matters while never drifting into clichés,” Brinkbäumer said. When Rodriguez sent Der Spiegel a draft of a cover featuring Trump as a meteorite headed toward Earth shortly after his victory in 2016, Brinkbäumer published it unchanged. “I just had to add the text: ‘The End of the World.’”
Rodriguez jokes that when he’s not drawing he likes to draw, and not all of his work is political. He has created movie posters and playbills, produced a wide variety of paintings and written and illustrated his own children’s books as well as contributed artwork to many others. For the cover of “Island Treasures,” a collection of stories by author and educator Alma Flor Ada about her own childhood in Cuba, Rodriguez drew the face of a young girl, the flowers in her hair blending into the green of a lush Cuban landscape.
“Without being explicitly a portrait, it is the portrait of an essence,” Ada said.
Fittingly, the first image from “Worm” that Rodriguez finished, around 10 years ago, was of the book’s cover: the young Rodriguez in red beret and bandanna, looking languidly out at the reader. Life, politics and procrastination, Rodriguez said, slowed the inside of the book from taking shape. Art provides feedback in the moment, he said, whereas writing is more akin to “torture.” He asked writer friends when the process would start getting fun, he said, and they replied, “It won’t.”
Rodriguez isn’t sure when, or if, his family in Cuba will get to read “Worm.” He is worried about what could happen if they were caught with it, especially after a series of protests against the government in 2021 led to a continuing crackdown on dissent. Artists and musicians have been a particular target. In 2022, two founders of the San Isidro Movement — a group of rappers, artists and intellectuals who oppose limits on free expression — were sentenced to several years in jail for “defaming the country’s institutions” and “insulting national symbols.”
“The authorities realize that if you give people a microphone or a paintbrush, anything can happen,” Rodriguez said.
Does that reality give him pause about publishing and promoting his own work, especially work that is as critical of the Cuban revolution as “Worm” is? No, Rodriguez said without hesitation. Part of exercising his judgment means living with the consequences.
“If I don’t speak,” he said, “what’s the point in being an artist?”