The Autumn of the Matriarch

For decades Estrella Rubio has been a street-level general in el exilio's army. But her style of leadership, along with her health, is now fading fast.

I've outlived the story, Estrella Rubio declares. She's already picked out the casket and ordered the flowers. Tulips will cover her coffin, along with dozens of red roses. The Miami burial plot she has selected is near her husband, two Cuban presidents, numerous ministers of state, and Cuban American National Foundation founder Jorge Mas Canosa.

During Rubio's long life she claims to have shot a man, married four times, witnessed governments rise and fall, faced down a killer, twice suffered exile from her homeland, attempted suicide, raised and spent small fortunes, staged hunger strikes, corralled countless votes for innumerable politicians, and faced arrests for her assorted activities.

Or so the tale goes.

She is 87 years old, sitting on a couch in the living room of a friend who has taken her in. Absent are the dangling earrings and trademark turban. A headband holds in place hair the color of faded mahogany. A frayed housecoat and heavy smear of makeup complete the ensemble. Her body shakes with a slight palsy. Within reach stands a metal cane.

It's late January, and Rubio took a spill at the beginning of the month, bruising her rib and her morale. In a few weeks she will turn 88. Nonetheless her mind is sharp and her memory vivid. Rubio's slightly wicked sense of theater also is still intact. Today she is angry, fearful, and defiant all at once.

I am planning to leave, she announces. Soon she will need a wheelchair, and this borrowed home, with its split levels, is impractical. As Rubio's strength and usefulness wane, many of her friends have disappeared. A settlement from a hotel accident and the inheritance from the death of her only son five years ago left enough to fund a move to Central America. There she can pay someone to attend to her needs. Anything to avoid the fate of a nursing home, a place full of crazy people, where the elderly are left to die alone.

"It's a horror to be old in this country," she spits.

Most politically aware Cuban Americans in Miami these past twenty years know of Estrella Rubio. In an easily recognizable voice, alternately sonorous and strident, she counsels followers and castigates foes. Until recently she had the ears of thousands. No exile activity was complete without her presence. Anti-Castro combatants knew if they were captured on a mission outside Cuba, Rubio would fight for their release.

In local politics she maintained a network of elderly citizens who provided her absentee ballots. By Rubio's own estimates, at the peak of her prowess she could bring in more than 1000 ballots. This figure is an exaggeration, many believe, but her voters helped launch the careers of Cuban-American political stalwarts such as U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and the Diaz-Balart brothers. At election time politicians fought for her attention, and radio hosts eagerly showcased her on their programs. In return for their votes, Rubio helped her followers resolve minor problems. More valuable still, she kept alive their dreams of a vanquishing return to the island.

Rubio and those for whom she speaks practice a Miami style of democracy that owes much to Latin America, even though its echoes of Tammany Hall and the immigrant experience are quintessentially American. Some call it viejo politics, for the large bloc of mostly Cuban elderly who fuel it. One prerequisite exists for welcome here: the shared, bitter fury of exile, the longer held the better. Particularly coveted turf includes the lunch rooms of public housing and the cafeterias on Calle Ocho.

"[Estrella Rubio] is the symbol of a way of doing things that is slowly dying away," notes former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferré, who has won and lost with this form of politics. (He has had Rubio as both supporter and avowed enemy during his long political tenure.)

Despite her insistence it seems unlikely Rubio will make her final journey to Central America. If she does, there will be few possessions to sell or bring. No car. No house. No furniture. What Rubio covets most are the faded newspapers, letters, and documents -- the touchstones of a rich past. But they are a poor complement to her memories and story. Kept in binders and envelopes, the papers only hint at what she has seen and done. Much of Estrella Rubio's compelling autobiography is difficult, if not impossible, to prove. Most of her peers have died. Those who are left largely verify the tales. Still there are elements that no one but those directly involved could ever confirm.

State Rep. Marco Rubio, who is not a relation but counts Estrella as a friend and supporter, acknowledges there is a natural tendency to exaggerate but insists, as many do, she speaks the truth. He also is acutely aware that her legend will continue to grow after she is gone.

"The 300-foot home run becomes 375 feet, but if you ask people who have been around, a lot of it is true," he says. "In ten or fifteen years, we will be talking about people like Estrella Rubio."

In the end Rubio's legacy will likely be as contradictory as the woman herself. Her traits include acute insight married to willful gullibility. She can be wry, pointed, and funny one moment, and strident and inflexible the next. Rubio desires only to be remembered as a selfless patriot for the cause of Cuba. But there is a dark side to exile activities and viejo politics that will follow her to the grave.

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