By: Mónica B. Ocasio Vega
More than 10 people came into Galaxy Video Store in Cabo Rojo looking for movie rentals between 7:00 and 7:30 pm on a recent Friday night. They all share a common denominator: Yoemir assisted them.
During that evening, in a store full of movies, Yoemir Rodríguez greeted everyone with an ample smile and a cheerful “good evening.” He knew most of the people that came in because they frequent his video store. He knew even the children that came in with their parents to rent their regular Friday night movie.
But they might not know him as well. They might not even know that he’s a Cuban immigrant.
“I left Cuba when I was 21-years-old,” says Yoemir Rodríguez now 32. “I left mainly because of the lack of freedom of speech and I wanted to see a different lifestyle.”
When clients look at Yoemir, they might only see a tall, dark-hair young man who enjoys triathlons, works late and has an “average Joe” daytime job. But beneath that surface appearance stands a man whose life has been full of adventure.
“When I first left Cuba, I moved to Spain. Then I went on to live a couple of months in the city of lights, France,” says Yoemir. After France he moved to Miami, “the second Cuba,” and then finally arrived in Puerto Rico in 2005. He currently works for the city of Cabo Rojo as its Federal Programs Office Director. He also owns Galaxy Video Store in Cabo Rojo.
The journey that predated these accomplishments is not ordinary. Rodríguez left Cuba without any higher education degrees. However, his current job with the city of Cabo Rojo challenged him to further his studies. He attended Interamerican University in San Germán, where he obtained an accounting degree and graduated Magna Cum laude.
Moving from Cuba to Spain was a significant transition in his life. Moreover, relocating in Puerto Rico entailed confronting new challenges. “Coming from big cities I came to find out the contrast between the citizen treatments here in the island and the places I lived in. In Europe I could walk everywhere; here I had to have a car if I wanted to get anywhere,” says Yoemir. “I did like the warmth of the people in the island and also their humbleness.”
Yoemir’s life has also been marked by discrimination, even in a fellow Caribbean island like Puerto Rico. When he lived in France people discriminated against him for speaking Spanish, but when he moved to Puerto Rico people discriminated him for being Cuban.
His first job in the island was in a factory. He recalls noticing that his co-workers kept him at bay, so he asked a friend about it. “They’re mad because a close relative of them could have the job you have,” his friend said.
He also struggled to challenge people’s stereotypes about Cubans. “There is this idea that all Cubans are proud and loud, sometimes people see me this way even though I’m not.”
As all people, he has missed his home in Cuba, especially his family. “I grew up in Holguín, which is on the oriental part of Cuba, opposite to La Habana,” said Yoemir as he remembered a very special occasion while living there. He also said there will be memories of times he will probably never live again.
One such memory is of a family holiday party at his grandmother’s house.“She had a “burén” in which cassava could be made. It was a tradition, the roasting of a pig manually, and all of us playing dominoes. Our deal was that whoever lost at the game had to take a turn at roasting the pig.”
Even if he is away from Cuba, he still cultivates some of the disciplines he learned in his dearest motherland, for nowadays Yoemir is a triathlon athlete. “When I lived in Cuba I went to the sports school where I practiced swimming until the twelfth grade,” he says. “Now I run triathlons.” With this sporting practice Yoemir has been able to create strong friendships and meet people that make him grow closer to his new home. René Torres, a fellow friend and athlete regards Yoemir as a “unique person.”
After his unusual journey, at t 32, Yoemir still has goals to accomplish in his professional and personal life. “I would like to continue on growing in my job and find more ways to challenge myself,” he says.
“Yoemir is an example of perseverance and he’s a good man,” says close friend and town worker Enrique Maíz. He’s indeed a persevering person. He has been able to live in various places, all different from one another, with no one to look over him or anyone for him to rely on for help and has still been able to become a successful business owner that looks constantly for ways to improve professionally and personally.