Cuban refugee is grateful he’s a Catholic, U.S. citizen

Jorge Rodriguez

By Barb Arland-Fye

BETTENDORF — A visitor to a Court of Honor for Boy Scout Troop 24, St. John Vianney Catholic Church, asked Scoutmaster Jorge Rodriguez whether he’d earned the rank of Eagle Scout. No, responded the 51-year-old parishioner.

Forty years ago, as a refugee from Cuba, his thoughts were focused on learning English as a second language and adjusting to a new culture in Miami with his parents and older sister.

“My life completely changed; it was like living on a foreign planet,” said Rodriguez, who today is a husband, father of five and an executive in human resources for Alcoa’s Davenport Works.

Born Dec. 26, 1959 — the year Fidel Castro took control of Cuba — Rodriguez has some painful, childhood memories of life on the island. He and his parents and sister were considered “worms” because of their support for democracy, Catholicism and opposition to Castro’s government. “Going to church on Sundays in those days was seen as an act of defiance,” Rodriguez said.


His father lost his job and had to work in labor camps; he saw his family only on weekends. Six years passed before the family was allowed to leave Cuba. “It was my father’s decision. He felt asphyxiated in that environment,” Rodriguez said. “I believed my dad. He spoke of a better life, of freedom; he talked about voting.”

In Miami, where many Cubans sought refuge, the public school system offered English as a second language to help the refugee children succeed. Rodriguez thrived, became a U.S. citizen, graduated third in his high school class of 750 students, and enrolled in Georgia Tech University where he studied engineering. He excelled academically, but struggled to remain at the university because of limited financial resources. He persevered and after graduation moved to California for an engineering position. Later, he moved to South Carolina for a new job. In 1989, he married Camelia, a Cuban refugee he’d first met in high school. Eight years ago, they and their five children moved to the Quad-Cities.

Throughout the many life changes he’s experienced, the Catholic faith has been a constant for him, Rodriguez said. “I’ve always defined myself as Catholic; the Church has always been there for us.”

He appreciates that the Church is open and encompassing. Among the adult leaders and other volunteers in Boy Scout Troop 24 there are Catholics with traditionalist points of view as well as more progressive points of view. All are welcome. Yet he is aware that within the Catholic Church and in the public square, “people are not listening to each other or are talking past each other.” His suggestion: “Listen to Mother Teresa.”

Rodriguez describes himself as a huge admirer of Blessed Mother Teresa, who ministered to society’s neglected and abandoned people and reminded everyone to care for each other. “When I look at people who I’d like to be like, she’s one of them. Unfortunately, I come up short.”

Others who know Rodriguez might disagree.

“Jorge’s leadership style is truly that of a servant leader,” said Lisa McCraw, a member of St. John Vianney Parish who serves as liaison between the parish and the troop. “He puts the needs of the boys and troop before his own. He leads by example and demonstrates integrity and honesty in all he does.  He listens well, is compassionate, is persuasive without being authoritarian and builds a sense of community among the boys, parents and leaders. I think Jorge’s leadership is very consistent with his Catholic faith.”

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