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Jesuit High student got a family history lesson when Fidel Castro died

TAMPA

Like most homework assignments, William Harst started this one late.

The topic: Cuba. The deadline: Monday.

William, a 16-year-old sophomore at Jesuit High School, was enthusiastic about the project; he wanted to learn more about the country where his grandparents were born. While doing research online late Friday, he read something that surprised him: Fidel Castro, the country's longtime leader, was dead at 90.

He sent a text message to his mother, Roxanna, who was already in bed.

"You've got your facts confused," she replied.

But William insisted. So Roxanna turned on the TV.

The headline screamed from the bottom of the screen.

Roxanna reached for the phone. She knew whom she had to call.

• • •

Orlando Rodriguez was born in Havana in 1935.

In kindergarten, he told a classmate named Concepcion he was going to marry her. Just as soon as she was old enough, he did. The couple had a son. They wanted to raise him in their home country, but Orlando's father, a lawyer who held an administrative post in Cuba's Supreme Court, saw what was coming.

"Fidel Castro is a gangster," he told his son. "You won't survive in Cuba."

Orlando left the country in search of something better for his family. Concepcion stayed behind to care for her ailing father. It was February 1959, just after Castro finished his overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Orlando spent a few months in Mexico, then wound up in Miami. There, he learned that the Central Intelligence Agency was recruiting Cuban exiles to restore democracy to the island nation. He raised his hand.

He and the other recruits trained in Guatemala and Nicaragua. "The best training any soldier could receive," Orlando said. "We became experts in every weapon."

They came ashore at the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961. What happened next is well-documented in textbooks: They fought for three days until they found themselves surrounded by Castro's army.

Orlando hid in the swamp. After 10 days with little food or water, he lost consciousness. Cuban soldiers found him and took him prisoner.

When the U.S. government negotiated Orlando's release in 1962, he vowed to help his new country fight for freedom. He moved to Georgia and enrolled in U.S. Army officer school at Fort Benning. His wife and son joined him. A daughter, Roxanna, came after the reunion.

The family lived all over the United States. San Antonio, Texas. Fort Bragg, N.C. Washington, D.C. Orlando fought in Vietnam, rose to the rank of colonel. His last post before retiring was MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

• • •

Roxanna Rodriguez's fingers trembled as she dialed her father's phone number. "All of my life, I had been praying he would live to see this day," she recalled.

They connected around midnight. He had already heard the news.

Earlier that night, Orlando and Concepcion had been watching a telenovela when his sister in Miami called. In the background, Orlando could hear the beeping of horns and clanging of pots and pans.

He was stunned by the words she spoke.

"The devil," he repeated in a whisper, "has died."

Orlando looked over at his wife, who had taken a call on her cellphone. A smile spread across her lips.

Later in the morning, Orlando and Concepcion headed to Casa Cuba, a gathering spot for members of the exile community in West Tampa. Roxanna came, too, along with her daughter, Isabella, and her son, William.

The family stood together on the street corner, dancing and embracing, waving Cuban and American flags.

For a while, William listened as his grandfather gave interviews to reporters, detailing his time as a prisoner in Castro's Cuba. He had always known his abuelo was a freedom fighter, but now he understood it.

William left around noon, ready to write his report.

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.

Jesuit High student got a family history lesson when Fidel Castro died 11/28/16 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 29, 2016 2:07pm]
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