By Terrence McCoy
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A bright light illuminated this shadow-world a little more than two years ago, when police charged 65 people with a massive voter-fraud conspiracy in the Miami mayoral election, and Estrella Rubio was among them. She ultimately pleaded guilty to a one-count misdemeanor for falsely witnessing an absentee ballot. Her brush with the criminal justice system and the harsh label of electoral fraud has changed her, she insists, even though she thinks it was all overblown.
Casting a more jaundiced eye at those who received her support, Rubio claims to have retired from politics. "I don't know [anymore] who are the good ones and who are the bad ones," she complains.
There are no more expectations of returning to Cuba, either. The island of her memories is long gone, she says. If Central America doesn't work, her niece lives in San Francisco. But then later she notes there is a mayoral election approaching in Miami. Several of those who aspire to the post have asked for her help.
Mother was a rebel without a cause, Estrella Rubio relates. She was a people's idealist.
The strong-willed and politically active Guillermina Benavente de Rubio gave birth to Estrella on February 8, 1913. The daughter inherited temperament and passions from her mother, as well as a fancy for the law. Benavente's husband was a wealthy local judge who had emigrated to Cuba from Spain. Years later Rubio also would marry a judge. "I was in jurisprudence since the day I was born," she likes to say.
The year of Rubio's birth coincided with the ascension of Conservative Gen. Mario Menocal to power on the island. His party held on to the presidency through fraud and violence until 1924. The Rubios' province of Matanzas near Havana would bear its share of the strife. Cuba's politics-as-war style of governance during this period was the norm, not the exception. Under the influence of the United States, much of the island's twentieth-century pre-revolution history was marked by political gang warfare, corruption, and even ritual suicide. Despite the chaos sugar kept the country afloat, and wealth increased, subsidizing the political gangsterism.
Rubio's mother, a fierce partisan of the Liberal Party, fought Menocal, favoring in his stead the party's Gen. Gerardo Machado. The local Conservatives tried to buy Benavente's support, but she was incorruptible, her daughter remembers. "[In my] town the Conservatives always won with trickery," Rubio says. "So my mother used trickery of her own."
On occasion Benavente sneaked into the fields of the mill owners, staunch Conservative backers, and set their sugar cane on fire. Attached to this likely oft-repeated tale comes a lesson for present-day patriots. "They say that they can't do sabotage in Cuba, but my mother found materials very easily," Rubio concludes.
Benavente's marriage to the local judge kept the authorities at bay. "Her husband loved her so; he forgave her everything," Rubio explains. Estrella Rubio would demand a similar obedience from her own husband. Judge José de la Fuente Hernandez spent the first half of his married life battling his wife and the second meekly following her. "She totally dominated him," says City of Miami Commissioner Tomas Regalado, who knew the pair.
It was love at first sight when she first met the judge in 1939. Rubio was 26 years old and already had a son and a Mexican ex-husband. She had even briefly modeled as a Jantzen swimsuit girl. "My face was the least beautiful part about me," she says with a smile. They married a year later. Soon after the wedding, Rubio discovered her husband's womanizing ways. After five years in which he proved incapable of monogamy, she divorced him. Within three months she had overcome her misgivings and wed the judge again. "He didn't have to say much," she says. "I was so in love with him."
The couple would divorce once more about the time of Rubio's first exile during the Batista years. Her anti-Batista activities couldn't have sat well with de la Fuente, who had many friends in the government. Nonetheless it doesn't seem like politics had anything to do with their breakup. Later Rubio's connections would help her husband escape the island under Castro. They remarried shortly after in Panama for the final time.
By the time Judge de la Fuente arrived in South Florida in the early Sixties, many of his Havana acquaintances would be living in exile alongside him. Miami's latticework of relationships included one of Estrella Rubio's first loves. In 1929 the seventeen-year-old Rubio had found herself a boyfriend in a thirty-year-old congressman from Las Villas. In true dime-store-novel style, the relationship came to an explosive end. The congressman confessed he couldn't marry her, for he had dishonored another girl whose father happened to be a military commander. The angry father had made it clear that the young politician would wed his daughter or die.
"I said, “If you can't marry me, you won't marry her either,'" recounts Rubio. With these words the impetuous teenager grabbed a revolver from the belt of a friend who stood nearby and shot at her lover twice. "When I saw the smoke he had already dropped," she recalls. While at least one person close to the family attests to the romance, the bloodshed cannot be confirmed.