TAMPA — Odalys Marino is a fashion designer with a shop in Tampa.
Cuba is the focus of her work, and freedom is her inspiration.
“I left Cuba several years ago, but I never disconnected from the reality of life there,” said Marino, 59. “We need a real change.”
Marino, a mother of two adult children who left the island nation 26 years ago, creates clothing for women that incorporate the landscapes of Cuba, the national emblem and the ideals of poet and revolutionary José Martí.
“I have always been a fervent defender of the freedom and rights that are denied to all Cubans on the island,” Marino said. “That is why I am happy and honored to show solidarity with the voices of freedom.”
She introduced the line in 2017. Now, with economic strife renewing calls for democracy in communist Cuba, her designs take on new urgency. She has added a t-shirt with the message, “Cuba libre.”
People in Cuba are exhausted by rising prices, shortages of food, medicine and electricity, and by an explosion in the number of coronavirus cases. In addition, Trump-era restrictions have reinforced the economic toll on Cuba from a U.S. travel and trade embargo that has stretched six decades.
“No one can tell me that the people’s claims are an exaggeration,” Marino said. “They are real and they hurt.”
Among her designs are a collection of blouses with the image of Martí and fragments from his poetry book Verses Simples. Other designs feature a long-suffering Havana in black and white, with Cuban freedom coins and the city’s historic center.
Eva Longoria, Gloria Estefan and other Hispanic celebrities are fans of her work, she said.
“The response was very positive. And the message spread. Havana is mourning.”
Cuban dissident George Fernández, 61, of Temple Terrace, praised Marino for her patriotism and for drawing the world’s attention to the situation on the island.
“Her art sends a strong message of freedom and solidarity for democracy,” Fernández said.
Marino lived more than half of her life in the eastern Cuba city of Las Tunas, where she studied economics and worked as an accountant at the main branch of the National Bank of Cuba.
Her ease with numbers and ability to organize accounts belied a love of sewing that she inherited from her mother, Noraida González, a self-taught dressmaker.
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“She was my true guide and mentor,” Marino said.
The two women escaped the oppression of life in Cuba through art and through the hours they spent together at home, creating what they could limited materials.
“Between my cousins and the family, I was the seamstress and stylist for the girls and my dolls, because I fixed them all,” she said.
Marino’s father, Ramón, was a mechanic. During the Castro revolution, he lost a gas station and a workshop. But he gave his daughter perseverance and a love for hard work.
“Despite all the problems and shortages, we never felt defeated,” Marino said. “That strength helped me a lot when I left Cuba.”
She immigrated to the United States in 1997, at age 35 and the mother of two twin sons José Rafael and José Ramón Loreido, 15.
The family lived on the outskirts of Queens, New York, in an apartment paid for at first with help from Catholic charities.
Marino thought about what she could do to earn more money. But she already had three jobs — cleaning offices, helping at a beauty salon, and scrubbing floors at a restaurant for $5 an hour.
“These were very difficult times for us because we barely had enough to eat,” Marino said. “With those five dollars, I liked to buy chicken and four cans of chickpeas so that my children could go to school with something hot in their stomach.”
Once Marino gained control of her own life and her children became adults, she shifted her attention to designing and creating clothes. She moved to Tampa in 2000, but it wasn’t until 2015 that she presented her first collection of dresses — “Mi Tierra,” a youth line inspired by eastern Cuba.
The following year, she opened Nory’s Boutique at 4023 W. Waters Ave. The name honors her mother.
A good friend of Marino’s, Asenaida Vélez, has watched her grow as an artist and as a patriot.
“She is a tireless woman and entirely dedicated to her craft,” said Velez, 58, of Tampa. “She is as unique as her designs.”