Cuban defector to highlight ‘Affairs of the Heart’ benefit

Published 2:00 am Sunday, February 12, 2012

When he first stepped on American soil, Cuban refugee Abel Rodriguez knelt, kissed the ground and thanked God.

The praise has never stopped, Rodriguez said.

At 2 p.m. Feb. 19, he will perform a Latin and English version of “Ave Maria” during the second annual Affairs of the Heart benefit for the Salvation Army Women’s Auxiliary.

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He said he’s got a lot to be thankful for.

In 1961, he and his wife, Siomara, had a son who was diagnosed with asthma. They were unable to get proper care and medicine for him, so he applied to become an American citizen. When the communist Cuban government found out he wanted to defect, they fired him from his factory job.

By 1968, he was forced to live in a concentration camp, where he said he was treated like a slave. He earned no money. His meals were a boiled sweet potato for lunch and another for supper. He was allowed to go home to see his family every other Sunday. Siomara Rodriguez said she remembers saving rationed meat for her husband so that he could have a proper meal.

“It was bad, bad, bad,” she said.

On Dec. 13, 1968, it was time to leave for America. Their dream was finally in their grasp but when they arrived at the airport Siomara’s name was misspelled. Abel had to leave her behind and said that as he looked back at the beach he cried. Three days later she was able to join him in Miami.

From there, the couple moved to New Orleans where they worked, retired and lived until the day before Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005.

“By accident, we came to Tallulah looking for shelter,” Abel Rodriguez said.

He said he feels that God led him and his wife to Park View Baptist Church where they received aid. Within a few days, the couple purchased a trailer in Tallulah and eventually bought a home.

“I am just three blocks from the church,” he said.

Rodriguez has been singing since he was a young boy in Cuba but had never performed any sacred music. While living in New Orleans he performed Caribbean and Spanish dance music in his native language at clubs and at events. He had always loved the sound of Cuban dance music, he said.

“I was singing when I was in the first grade in 1949,” he said.

When he moved to Tallulah, members of the church encouraged him to take up gospel music. He was nervous at first.

“I don’t speak English very well, and I had never sang gospel music before,” he said.

Now, he has a catalog of about 2,500 songs he is able to perform in English. He will be singing many of those during the Affairs of the Heart.

“I don’t sing dancing music anymore,” he said.

Rodriguez is one of dozens of regional performers and artists taking part in the benefit.

Proceeds will benefit the Salvation Army Women’s Auxiliary for local projects including sending Warren County children to Camp Hidden Lake in Lexington.

The Auxiliary provides $24,000 per year to The Salvation Army Social Services programs, which include assisting people with utility bills, food and shelter.

All funds raised by The Women’s Auxiliary are used for those in need in Vicksburg and Warren County

Auxiliary volunteers work in The Salvation Army Thrift Store, sorting donated items and cleaning.

Auxiliary members donate food for the food pantry, items for the thrift store, purchase equipment i.e., new stove for kitchen, office supplies, kitchen supplies, and tables for The Mission 66 Diner, where lunch is served Monday-Friday.