TAMPA — Dario Mesa's love for Cuba was so great he wanted to help every person who came here from his home country.
He collected startup money for fellow immigrants, often contributing his own. He found jobs for some. He gave rides in his Lincoln Town Car to newcomers who couldn't drive. He visited Cubans he barely knew if they ended up in the hospital.
"Everything was for Cuba," said his son, Dario Leon Mesa, 56.
In 1956, two of Mesa's brothers joined Fidel Castro's rebel army. Mesa and the rest of his 12 siblings helped with supplies. Later, realizing Castro was not the leader they wanted, the brothers joined hundreds of men fighting Castro's soldiers in the mountains. Mesa was jailed several times.
In 1968, Mesa escaped with his family to Miami, then Chicago. He later joined his son in Tampa. From 1985 to 2007, he worked in the Ybor City warehouse of Lala Produce and eventually managed it. He lived with his wife, Clara Mesa, whom he fell in love with at a dance when they were teens.
"She was his life," their son said. "Anything that she wanted he gave it to her. He spoiled her a lot."
In Cuba, Mesa's father was a governor and mayor, and his brothers were soldiers. In Tampa, Mesa became an unofficial leader. He was a force within a local group of former political prisoners, the Municipio de Campechuela en el Exilio (the Municipality of Campechuela in Exile.)
The group helped new residents from Cuba by giving them money to start their lives over. It gave monthly stipends to some of the older political prisoners. The group's reunion reintroduced friends and relatives after decades apart.
To his brothers and sisters, Mesa was like a father and friend. They say he was reserved, humble and spoke precisely. He told jokes, but never crude ones.
Mesa's son said his father helped him be a better man. He always said to help anyone and everyone. If he overheard someone bad-mouthing another, he told them to stop.
"He was a man in all the sense of the word," said Abel Mesa, his 79-year-old brother.
His brother talked to him every day. He called Mesa his little giant.
He was a small man, about 5 feet 4, but to his nephews he was a man with seemingly supernatural powers as he lifted a 6-year-old in each hand. In his 20s, he lifted up the front of Jeeps to show off his strength.
Dario Mesa died Feb. 23 when his heart could give no more. He was 81. His son said nearly two years of dialysis drained him of his usual vigor as his kidneys slowly failed.
His funeral was held Saturday, and relatives said hundreds showed up. And Mesa's love for Cuba was so great his family knew to bury him with it — soil and rocks from Guantanamo brought back in a bottle and the Cuban flag.
Reach Ileana Morales at (813) 226-3386 or firstname.lastname@example.org.