El Caballero de Santiago: A daughter, a death and self discovery

Juan Rodríguez, “El Caballero de Santiago,” around town and on the dance floor. Illustration for palabra. by Jon Williams

(Lea el español acá)

It’s an odd feeling to notice your own hypocrisy. It’s like trailing dog poo stuck in the soles of your favorite Chucks. It lingers as you turn the corner, and then, inevitably, admit that the unpleasant smell is you.

I was 12 years old and in civics class when I learned the word’s meaning. Hypocrisy means it’s wrong to do things you claim to oppose. As I’ve entered young adulthood, I’ve learned many of us exhibit hypocritical tendencies. This is something you understand over time. But for years I was unaware of my duplicitous nature. My father taught me the lesson.

Juan Rodríguez was many things. He was a chef, a hard worker, a dreamer, a smoker and “El Caballero de Santiago.” I was 14 years old when I first visited my dad’s hometown in the Dominican Republic. We took an off-road curve from the narrow city streets of Santiago and ascended a winding, dirt road that led to El Caimito, the small rural town where my father’s family resided. We stopped at the only mercado. Rodríguez was stamped on the store’s clay walls. My dad explained that our family owned this and many other commercial buildings in El Caimito. Then he handed me a couple of pesos to buy candy and pulled out his Marlboro Lights.

(This story first appeared in palabra, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ online magazine. )

To say he was a habitual smoker is an understatement. He had started at age 12 and eventually would burn through a pack of cigarettes every day. For a stretch, it was even two packs. I got the sense that visiting his home country caused tension. He’d smoke more perhaps because eyes and expectations weighed on him. He had to provide security for his girlfriend (and her children). He needed to manage the farmers who worked his land. And he was expected to give back to his community.

MAN ABOUT TOWN

My father always dressed in perfectly pressed neutral slacks and a matching beige long-sleeved button-down. But his most notable apparel item was his straw fedora, an element of style he donned only in his homeland.

Juan Rodríguez, on his ranch in the Dominican Republic.

Juan Rodríguez, on his ranch in the Dominican Republic.
Juan Rodríguez, on his ranch in the Dominican Republic.

“Oye, El Caballero! Cómo estás?” shouted a passerby from the back of a pickup truck. My father took a drag from his cigarette and casually waved.

In Miami, I had never heard my father addressed like this, but here El Caballero de Santiago (The Gentleman of Santiago) was his only title. I never directly asked him the name’s origin. Instead, I approached my godfather, Sofilio. He instructed me to watch my father’s interactions with locals. It seemed he was always exchanging money for services. He’d get his weekly haircut, and the barber would never specify an amount. My father would pull out his wad of fresh, crisp pesos and hand the man some bills. I remember the barber’s expression of gratitude and his thanking my father endlessly. Sofilio also told me that my father’s grace on the dancefloor fueled his reputation.

Once we stayed overnight in el campo, the countryside of El Caimito. Our cousin’s house was perched on the highest cliff. Near the entrance was a nicely laid out Spanish mosaic quadrant where a makeshift band and merengue dancers gathered. I say makeshift because the instruments were mostly pots and other kitchenware.

The scratch of the güira was hypnotic, a sign the tempo was picking up. My dad set aside his fedora, removed the contents from his pockets and shuffled the nearest woman to the dancefloor. Without missing a beat, he controlled every step maneuvering his partner through complicated turns. His legs moved with a speed I had never seen before. Like everyone else, I watched while appreciating his raspy laugh and the perspiration that glazed his tan skin.

In that moment, I only wanted one thing. I asked God to protect my father’s health and allow him to live well into my adulthood. I glanced over at my father’s cigarettes, which were illuminated by starlight — or perhaps by God, at my request. I grabbed the pack and chucked it over the fence and a nearby cliff. I was confident my prayer had been heard, so assured that even when I saw a cigarette between my father’s thin lips the next morning, I simply gave him a big hug.

TWO COUNTRIES, TWO LIVES
My dad assured me that I was his only reason for staying in the United States. Once I turned 18 years old he would fulfill his dream of retiring to his homeland. There were two important dates in my dad’s life: navidad and my birthday, which fell three days after Christmas.

What would be his last request to me was to spend the holidays and my 21st birthday with him in the Dominican Republic. But I was at college in Miami — so I decided to spend that special day with friends at a fancy bar where I had long been denied access.

I promised to visit him later, during spring break.

Gabriella, her papi Juan Rodríguez, and a birthday cake he had prepared.

Gabriella, her papi Juan Rodríguez, and a birthday cake he had prepared
Gabriella, her papi Juan Rodríguez, and a birthday cake he had prepared

Three months later, I received a phone call. My father’s lungs had collapsed.

He had called me several weeks before, his voice sounding raspier than usual. He said it was nothing, merely a stubborn cough. Ultimately, his dislike for doctors and frequent checkups led to his demise. Not even a tracheotomy could improve his health. Lung cancer caught up to him. Not long after his lungs collapsed, he passed away, in March 2017.

After his death, my brain filled with regret and loneliness that I tried desperately to ignore.

CLEARING THE SMOKE SCREEN

I tucked away events and images in a neat file cabinet in the catacombs of my psyche. They stayed there during years of destructive decisions and emotionless behavior that followed the loss of someone so important to me. I gave up on finishing university, on numerous life goals, on the relationship with my mother, and I gave up on myself and my self-worth.

I was 23 years old when the vaping craze hit. It started as something I would do with beer or vodka, then became a crutch I never knew I needed. One night, I sat on my balcony in Little Havana, 803 miles from my father’s grave in El Caimito, puffing at the minty flavor of the vape and noting my obvious hypocrisy. As I breathed the last remnants of the disposable vape, I thought of how my younger self would have found my addiction ironic.

For two years after El Caballero’s death, I had not allowed myself to think deeply about him. But on this night, while tasting peppermint smoke, that file cabinet in my mind blew open. “What would El Caballero de Santiago say if he were still here and witnessed me vaping?” I asked myself.

I looked intently at the vape and realized his legacy was what mattered most to him. His family. Me. So I tossed the vape over the balcony. Then I hummed a four-beat Caribbean tempo.

Today, peace in life comes from allowing myself to feel emotions surrounding the loss of my father. I’ve developed the will to be better — both for El Caballero and for myself.

Gabriella graduated from FIU in fall 2020 with a bachelor's degree in journalism and a concentration in pre-law. She enjoys creating data visualizations using Adobe illustrator (personal visual blog on Instagram @thestrugglingjournalist). In her free time (and for hire), she enjoys DJ-ing all genres of music and creating playlists for her family and friends.