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‘This is big, big stuff’: Cuban exile from La Crosse finally becomes US citizen

Citizen Erne

Ernesto Rodriguez stands holding an American flag in one hand and giving a thumbs up with the other
Ernesto Rodriguez of La Crosse, Wisconsin became a U.S. citizen on September 7, 2023 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He’s lived in the Upper Midwest since leaving Cuba in 1980 following the Mariel boatlift. His story is featured on the podcast “WPR Reports: Uprooted.” Mark Reichers/WPR

Ernesto Rodriguez of La Crosse came to Wisconsin in the summer of 1980.

That’s after making a treacherous journey on a fishing boat from Cuba to the United States during the mass exodus known as the Mariel boatlift. Quickly after arriving on shore, Rodriguez was shipped off to Fort McCoy in Sparta, Wisconsin. And it’s in the military base’s kitchen where he got a crash course in American food from a local cook.

“One day, he said, ‘Do you guys like macaroni and cheese?’” remembered Rodriguez. “What the hell is macaroni and cheese? I know macaroni, but you want cheese in the macaroni?”

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Rodriguez has lived in the Upper Midwest for more than 40 years and he’s come to love mac and cheese. And burgers. But as he first told us in the podcast, “WPR Reports: Uprooted,” he still cooks traditional Cuban food, like congri and chicken fricassee.

Rodriguez has embraced life in Wisconsin, but has never let go of his Cuban roots. He’s lived between two worlds, only able to walk in one of them: the U.S.

He’s dreamed of returning to Cuba for a visit.

“The first thing I’m going to do is go to my hometown … See if I recognize where I used to live. See if the house is still there,” said Rodriguez. “Then, I’ll go to Florida and spend time with my family. Then, maybe I take three weeks and go to Havana. Party in Havana.”

Rodriguez has been a permanent resident of the U.S. for decades. But he wasn’t able to become a citizen due to paperwork issues with his Cuban birth certificate. He had two different names on his birth certificate and Cuban I.D. That meant he couldn’t vote or get a U.S. passport to travel.

Rodriguez worked with a lawyer for years trying to straighten out the paperwork issue — and they were finally successful. He took the naturalization test in summer 2023 and passed.

“I had to study a lot of question … one question they asked me was very difficult, but I started very good,” he said. “I know (the answers) because I’ve been studying from the time I came to America. I was studying all the law, all the history. Not all of it, but some. That’s why I answered all the questions.”

Then, on Sept. 7, 2023, the moment that Rodriguez had been waiting more than 40 years for had arrived. He became a U.S. citizen.

Ernesto Rodriguez of La Crosse, Wisconsin receives his certificate of naturalization at a USCIS field office in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Ernesto Rodriguez of La Crosse, Wisconsin receives his certificate of naturalization at a USCIS field office in Minneapolis, Minnesota on Sept. 7, 2023. Mark Reichers/WPR

The naturalization ceremony took place at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services field office in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Rodriguez was one of 13 Wisconsinites to take the Oath of Allegiance that day, joining a group of people from Egypt, Denmark and Mexico.

After reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and watching a video from President Joe Biden, Rodriguez received his certificate of Naturalization.

“Finally, I’m an American citizen!” said Rodriguez with a beaming smile. “I’m happy. I’m just excited, you know? (I’ve been) waiting for 42 years. This is big, big stuff.”

The most exciting thing for the new U.S. citizen?

“I feel a release because now I can vote. I could not do it before with my resident card,” Rodriguez said. “Now I can apply to be La Crosse mayor (laughing).”

He may be joking about running for mayor, but he’s very serious about getting to vote. In his teens and 20s, he never voted in Cuba. Rodriguez keeps up with U.S. politics and the news, so it is a huge deal for him to finally be able to participate in the democratic process.

As for Rodriguez’s other lifelong dream of going back to see Cuba again — he has some mixed feelings now that he can actually do it,

“The only way I can go to Cuba is (if) the whole government is thrown away. Throw out the garbage,” said Rodriguez. “If Cuba is free, yes, I can go there. I have a dream that someday Cuba (will) be free. (It’s) not too far away.”

Rodriguez misses his family, but even his sister discourages him from visiting, partially because he’s been speaking out against the Cuban government and communism.

“In Cuba, you say, ‘I don’t like Castro.’ And there’s people watching. I don’t like that,” said Rodriguez. “(They) send us to prison for no reason.”

Michelle Pinzel and Ernesto Rodriguez
Michelle Pinzel and Ernesto Rodriguez of La Crosse have been friends for more than 20 years. They met when he worked at UW-La Crosse where she was a student. Mark Reichers/WPR

Michelle Pinzel of La Crosse attended the ceremony with Rodriguez. They’ve been close friends for two decades, so this day is emotional for her, too.

“It’s just incredible to see how patient and how diligent Ernesto has been in all of these years,” said Pinzel. “It’s just a very beautiful thing to to see him become a citizen and become a part of this nation that he deserves to be a part of having contributed so much over the course of the years he’s been here. I think it goes to show that with good moral character, you can still achieve your dreams here in this country.”

While Rodriguez waits to vote and thinks about visiting Cuba, he has other things he wants to tackle as a citizen.

“Relax and enjoy my life in this great country, America,” said Rodriguez. “I’ll work to prove my life a little more. Maybe buy a house in the future. And maybe stand (up) comedy. You know, make a joke?”

But before he launches his stand-up comedy career, Rodriguez is taking the day to celebrate. His first stop? Lunch at a Cuban restaurant in the Twin Cities. His second stop? The Mall of America so he can find a shirt or hat that features the U.S. and Cuban flags.

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