The worm turns

Edel Rodriguez illustrates his own life for the first time.

Hailed for his iconic illustrations that cover topics of democracy and politics, Design Indaba alum and regular contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times and Time magazine Edel Rodriguez revisits his own life for the first time in a new graphic novel titled Worm: A Cuban American Odyssey.

In his book, Rodriguez portrays the reality of Cuban life often excluded from global narratives. In a simplistic yet expressive style, he paints a picture of Cuba as a nation, visually evoking the small town of El Gabriel, 40 kilometres south of Havana, where his family was based, and capturing the effects of Cuban politics in daily life where his grandmother warned him that ‘the walls have ears’. ‘We were living in a country disconnected from the rest of the world, like an island prison. We’d been told what to believe and what to think, and had never been anywhere else to see for ourselves,’ he writes.

When Rodriguez was nine years old, Fidel Castro announced his surprising decision to let 125 000 ‘traitors to the revolution’, or ‘worms’ as he called them, leave the country. Rodriguez’s own family, affected by the faltering economy and living precariously as a result of their outspokenness against the government, had secretly planned to leave but were imprisoned in a detention centre alongside dissidents and criminals before they could make the trek. One evening, his family of ‘worms’ was marched to a flotilla of boats that took them to Florida overnight. This was the infamous Mariel boatlift, the 1980 mass emigration of Cubans to the USA.

The striking graphics also capture Rodriguez’s coming-of-age story in America, and the years of his evolution as both an artist and an activist – particularly as he navigated America’s turn into extremism in the wake of Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Through his illustrations, Rodriguez reveals his personal fears in seeing the line between authoritarian Cuba and democratic America. In particular – and in a ‘closing the circle’ moment in his book – he portrays the crowd of the 6 January insurrection in 2021 on the Capitol much like the one in Havana in January 1959, the culmination of the Cuban Revolution that overthrew the government.

In Worm: A Cuban American Odyssey, Rodriguez examines not only his own story as an immigrant, but those of the immigrants who define what American freedom means today. 


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