When I attended the Association of American Editorial Cartoonist convention last year in Washington D.C. I met many great cartoonists. One of the best cartoonists in the country is Gustavo Rodriquez, who is based in Florida. Born in Havana, Cuba in 1962, Rodriquez has been a cartoonist his entire life. In 2005, Gustavo entered the United States and has been a proud citizen ever since. He is a regular contributor to El Nuevo Herald newspaper, Martí Noticias and Yahoo! Noticias.
Thank you very much Gustavo for doing this interview. You grew up in Cuba. What was it like growing up with the Castro government? How did that shape your political views?
Well, I guess that growing up in Cuba was OK for quite some time. When you don’t know what is going on outside your country because the only source of information and/or opinion is the government propaganda, you tend to think everything’s alright. Until something big happens when you are in your teens, like the 1980 Mariel boat lift. Sudden strife and mob violence ensued in those days. When you go through events like those, ideology hits you hard and square, and you start to feel detached. Getting older and seeing many other episodes of intolerance and sheer stupidity, it kind of undermines your respect for many things around you.
The irony of it all is that I eventually pursued my passion in cartooning and comics, and went on to work as a staff member of a couple of publications in my last years in the island, which like all the state run media, were the arm and mouth of the Castro’s propaganda.
Let’s just say it was not the best of times.
Your pen name is Garrincha, the nickname of the great Brazilian soccer player of the 1950’s and 1960’s. How did you get that nickname?
It was all by mistake actually.
I have always been a huge fan of soccer ( I loved those Brazilian teams) and football. Garrincha died a few months after the 1982 World Cup, and a friend who happened to be working in Radio Habana Cuba gave me copies of the long telex printouts with the news of Garrincha’s death and the massive funeral at Maracaná stadium.
It also happened that the wife of one of my father’s coworkers at the time was working at dedeté magazine, a humor publication in the island. And you know how parents are, they all think their kids are the best at what they do. So this man told my dad that it would be a good idea if I took my drawings to the dedeté and showed them to the staff cartoonists there and see what happened. The long telex printouts with Garrincha’s death news were in that envelope I dropped at the publication.
I kept calling every other day to see if they would use any of my cartoons but I got always the same reply from the receptionist, who may have been the wife of my father’s coworker. I never found out. I was always told that there weren’t any cartoons by me.
After a couple of weeks of me calling, the lady grew tired and told me that for the last time, there were no cartoons by any Gustavo. The only thing she had there was an envelope with the works by some “Garrincha”.
Oh, boy. All my friends who knew about the anecdote had lots of jokes on me for quite some time. So I decided to take that new pen name, to never forget my first disastrous encounter with a publication and also to honor and remember that poor soccer player, an idol for many.
Since coming to the United States in 2005, what has been the most surprising thing to you about the American political scene?
The polarization, the egos, the money.
You have one of the most unique cartooning styles that I know. What have been the big influences on your style? Who have been the big cartoonist or artist heroes for you?
There have been many, many artists I have always admired and that at some point I just wanted to draw like them.
I wanted to be a comic strip artist, like Charles Schulz, or Bob Thaves, or Quino, from Argentina. Or like Roberto Fontanarrosa, from Argentina too. Then I found the works of Oliphant, T. S. Sullivant, Ronald Searle, Waterson, Sempé, Angeli. Dalcio Machado, Dilmar, Jean Galvao, Mignola, Aragonés, Richard Thompson…
The fact that I came across their body of work a bit late in my life has given me a bit of awareness, a sense of being on my toes when it comes to explore and change. Many times change comes with discovery.
Most veteran artists have an established style and method of work, even a set of materials with what they are comfortable working with.
Not me. I’m still learning and experimenting. Maybe that’s not what the editors expect, but I find it exhilarating.
In several of your cartoons, you are very critical of Venezuela and its close relationship with Cuba. I’m guessing that you’re not a big fan of Hugo Chavez. What are some of the things that you see as wrong with Venezuela and its relationship with Cuba?
I lived in Venezuela. I had relatives and very good friends there. When I came to States I started working for a production company where in I was the only Cuban. The rest were Venezuelans. I’m familiar with many aspects of the Venezuelan community in the States. I’m not an expert, but I have learned about many, many things. I came to know of personal stories, historical facts.
I have seen the “cubanization” of Venezuela day after day. It was deja vú. Lots and lots of honest and hard workers and middle class members fleeing to the States because of the hostile political environment, the great divide encouraged by Chávez: Us vs. Them, Poor vs. Rich ( no inbetweens), Revolutionary vs. Pro Yankees. It was unfair, inaccurate and manipulative. And as it sort of happened in Cuba in the 60s, Chávez (who grew louder and louder when bragging about Castro’s guidance) demonized everybody who opposed him and picked the United States as the source of everybody’s miseries, while a lot of the Left embraced him and started repeating his lies and half trues by the pound.
The cherry on top of the cake happened when I worked for almost two years in a couple of campaigns for Citgo, the oil company. At least at that time, it was all a screen for the Venezuelan government to do proselytism in many aspects. I met many “Chavistas” and I saw the true colors of many of them.
Fidel used Chávez (or his money, you decide) and Chávez in turn radicalized his ideology in such a way that the country is now parted in half. Venezuela is for Cuba what the Soviets were before Gorbachev.
You have done several cartoons that are critical of the Republican Party’s motives in attempting to woo Hispanic voters since the 2012 elections. I especially like your cartoons on April 21 and January 30. How would you describe the politics of the Cuban American community? Is the Cuban American community more liberal or more conservative?
The Cuban American community has been definitely changing. Generally speaking, older Cuban Americans in Miami vote Republican, think Republican and they are usually very conservative.
Cubans don’t face the same immigration problems than many of the other Latin American individuals who come to the States, so they don’t see (and sometimes treat) the other Latinos the same way. They have differences in some aspects.
It means different priorities and different concepts of leadership. Again, this is generally speaking.
I believe that GOP has been a bit arrogant in dealing with Latinos in general. But demographics are changing, I guess.
And it shows.
You’ve made some of the best cartoons on gun control that I’ve seen. Many of your cartoons really take on the NRA. You’ve criticized the proliferation of guns on April 28, April 22, April 19, January 23, and January 18. My favorite is a cartoon you did on January 12. What has led to this passion for gun control?
Some people just holler and wave the flags of freedom to bear arms in a frantic way. And it’s their right to do so. But then the discourse shifts to other areas and arguments then it just makes it difficult not to poke fun at or criticize the whole thing.
This is a guns loving country, which I’m not.
When someone tells me that this country is going on the path to Communism or Socialism because of gun control legislation attempts, I just roll my eyes and tune them out. The weird thing is that the same theory of going towards Communism is told by some Cubans who are much in love with their guns. They do know the difference between this and Communism, and they should realize the stupidity of their opinion, because they lived in Cuba. But their conservatism is too strong.
Another aspect of the problem is that they are so sure that they can defend their families (for some reason, their families are always under attack) if they had lots of guns, it just make me chuckle. If they were honest and tell me that they defend the right to bear and own arms just because they love them, I would see their point. But don’t come to me with all those phony arguments about safety.
If you take the NRA and all the money involved out of the discussion, the national conversation about gun control is between people who love guns and people who don’t. It’s like a play. The scenery and music might change, but the story is intact, in my opinion.
You create wonderful caricatures of the important political figure of the age. What do you look to do when you make these caricatures? What artists have influenced your cartoon portraits?
I started drawing caricatures a couple of years ago.
I drew one or two in Cuba but I was never comfortable with the results and I just quit trying.
When I came to the States that was one of the things that I decided I needed to get into. I’m still trying to figure it out though.
Sometimes you can choose your character, the person you are going to draw. You can offer your own version of his anatomic features or personality. It’s like working in a laboratory if you have time.
But many times, and it usually happens in an editorial cartoon, you don’t have much time to explore and you just want the caricature to look like the original character, with varied results.
The timing also sets the type of caricature you are drawing. Even if I use the same colors or digital technique to compose a caricature, it would come out very different depending on the news and the developing stories at the time. I’m sure there would be one rendering of Romney before his “47%” quote in video, and a slightly different one after that.
I have loved the works of Pablo Lobato, Dan Day, Luiz Carlos Fernandes, Searle… and so many others.
Political cartoonists often debate about whether their cartoons have any effect on the general public. Do you think your cartoons have any influence on the readers of El Nuevo or on viewers of your work on the internet?
Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
The lack of a daily exchange with readers makes it difficult to assess that. But there is definitely a connection and a feedback. Readers that were longing to see this or that particular subject dealt with in a cartoon tend to let you know.
Sometimes they want a good laugh out of a certain theme or story, and if they agree with your cartoon you might hear about them.
But it’s hard to know which cartoon will have the success you expect in getting your point across. I have received emails with my own cartoons someone downloaded from some site and decided to send them out.
I have friends in Cuba who don’t have internet access themselves, but someone send them one of those emails and they get to see my cartoons.
So there is an effect, an impact. How deep or effective, I just don’t know. But I suspect it’s pretty strong.
In the past few years, I’ve listened to many editorial cartoonists worry about the future of the editorial cartooning profession, as newspapers have lost readers to the internet and have cut cartoonists from their staff. What do you think is the future of editorial cartoonists? You have a wonderful website and blogsite and your cartoons appear on various internet sites. Can political cartoonists eventually earn a living on the internet?
The news industry is struggling to adapt. They try to adjust, but it seems that corporate America and Journalism will never get along.
I’m surprised at how slow is the whole process happening.
Will digital publications be able to come up with solutions, sponsors and qualified personnel to provide content for an ever changing mass of readers? Maybe.
Will editors function under the new dynamics? We hope. Will cartoonists learn the trade? They’d better, because political cartoonists (and cartoonists in general) are already struggling to make a living.
What do you most enjoy about doing editorial cartooning?
Poking fun at the powerful. Deflating their pomp, bringing them down to earth, showing what (in my opinion) are their flaws and true colors.
The chance to connect with readers, the satisfaction of pointing at what I believe is wrong, of airing my opinion or being able to comment about something.
And drawing. Cartooning is not a job because I enjoy it immensely.
What would you advise a person who visits Florida for the first time? What are some great places to visit in your area?
I don’t know. Peruvian, Cuban, Colombian restaurants.
The South Beach Area.
The Vizcaya museum.
If you are into casinos, they have a couple of those around here.
Disney parks in Orlando seem to be another hot destination.
Here are more interviews that I did for Everyday Citizen
An Interview With Children’s Book Illustrator Lea Lyon
An Interview With Democrat Nancy Hirstein Smith
An Interview With Cartoonist Ann Cleaves
An Interview With Muslim American Activist Zahra Billoo
An Interview With Peace Activist and Lay Pastor Jim Ramelis
An Interview With Cartoonist Monte Wolverton
An Interview With Cartoonist Adam Zyglis
An Interview With Reverand Gerald Britt
An Interview With Cartoonist Tjeerd Royaards
An Interview With Poet, Activist, and Teacher Diane Wahto
An Interview With Cartoonist Jesse Springer
An Interview With Cartoonist Steve Greenberg
An Interview With Eric Wilks
An Interview With Cartoonist Greg Beda
An Interview With Poet Melissa Tuckey
An Interview With Cartoonist Andy Singer
An Interview With Author Robert Balmanno
An Interview With Cartoonist J.P. Jasper
An Interview With Cartoonist David Cohen
An Interview that Everyday blogger Diane Wahto kindly did of me
A talk Gustavo Rodriguez gave to the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists in Washington D.C. in 2012