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.

She is rueful of her involvement with Hernandez, who received a year sentence for the electoral fraud and four years for real estate fraud and money laundering. Despite obvious shady dealings, the handsome Hernandez was admired by the Cuban elderly. "Humbertico was loved but very stupidly," says Rubio. "He was a sweet, dear boy. I thought he was an honorable politician."

She made the same mistake with Al Gutman, convicted of federal charges of Medicare fraud, money laundering, and witness tampering. She had actively supported the state senator, who received a five-year prison sentence, in two campaigns.

Estrella Rubio's political scrapbook, take one: U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart
photo Courtesy estrella rubio
Estrella Rubio's political scrapbook, take one: U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart

Politicians don't fulfill what they promise, Estrella Rubio says. They go to the old people's centers. They ask for their votes. They give them kisses. Then they betray them and never return.

With the help of her cane, Rubio shuffles toward the converted maid's quarters where she sleeps. Increasingly both her audience and style of politics is fading. "No one will take her place," Regalado opines. "This is a dying breed. The new campaigns will be done in the media and will be more sophisticated."

Rubio's physical frailties make it almost impossible for her to collect ballots the way she did in the past. Many of her fellow exile activists, grassroots political workers, and politicians have abandoned her, she says. Rubio saw signs of their hypocrisy in the recent controversy over Cuban rafter Elian Gonzalez. The abundant gifts lavished on the boy offended her in light of the real need of so many children. Mostly she saw how people in the community eagerly embraced a symbol when their own neighbors went wanting.

"I have friends who lived a few blocks from me, and when I was ill and alone they would never come and visit," she says. "Yet they spent nights in front of [the Gonzalez] house."

She has turned down many offers to get involved with campaigns. Recently some friends contacted her to see if she would join the effort to put a new baseball stadium in Bicentennial Park. She describes these friends as working for the Marlins executive vice-president Julio Rebull, Jr., in an effort to sway public opinion. Rebull admits there is a marketing budget to promote the stadium but denies paying for citizen endorsements. "Some might think it's fabricated, but there is tremendous grassroots support," he comments.

Rubio refused to join the team and has called in to Spanish-language radio shows to argue against the proposal. "All the money of the Marlins can't buy me," she declares. "If they are so powerful, why don't they purchase the land themselves?"

As she walks toward her room, she passes a folded wheelchair leaning against a wall. She has used it on a few occasions, but Rubio is not ready to sit down for good. The world she was so much a part of continues, and its lure is strong. "She is getting into the mayor's race," confides Regalado. "I pity whoever she opposes."

Sure enough in mid-February she pitched candidate José Garcia Pedrosa on General Benitez's show.

A week later Rubio attends an Alpha 66 banquet in Little Havana with Pedrosa. She introduces the candidate to the aging warriors, some in camouflage. Rubio is a celebrity here, much more than Pedrosa. Everybody knows Estrella, comments one Alpha member as he watches her work the room. She pauses to take a furtive gulp of an admirer's beer and then continues promoting Pedrosa, lashing out at her enemies, and boasting of her exploits.

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