Early in the morning, back in the late 1960s when I was a teenager in Miami's Little Havana, my grandfather would get up to wait for the milkman.
Miguel Martinez, my namesake, was old and sick at that time, but on the days when milk was delivered to our doorstep, he would stand guard on the porch at the crack of dawn.
It wasn't the milk that made him wait. He just wouldn't miss an opportunity to have a conversation with the aggressive and dynamic young milkman, who spoke extensively and with passion -- as did my grandfather — about the struggle to liberate Cuba from Fidel Castro's communist dictatorship.
Their front-porch conversations, outside my bedroom window, not only served as my alarm clock to get ready for school, but as the day's first lesson. When I arrived at junior high school, I felt I had already received a political science lecture — from my grandfather and the milkman.
Their discussions on world events opened my eyes to many things. They were extremely patriotic, two Cuban refugees who saw no other priority than to liberate their homeland.
They were so much alike, and agreed on so many issues that they became friends. The milkman had participated in the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion. But he had not given up. He spoke eloquently about the need to convince Washington to help Cuban refugees continue fighting for their freedom.
In the milkman, my grandfather saw a young man with tremendous political potential. He was a firm believer in free enterprise, a true democrat unwilling to accept either left or right-wing dictatorships. Grandfather also admired the milkman's business savvy. In Cuba, my grandfather had struggled from poverty to wealth, and in the milkman, he saw the same potential.
"He has the stuff that leaders are made of," my abuelo would say. "He has charisma, he's a great speaker, and he has the right ideas about restoring democracy in Cuba."
"The milkman?" Other family members were skeptical.
My grandfather died in Miami in 1979, never having seen the milkman become Jorge Mas Canosa, a multimillionaire and the most influential Cuban-American leader in the 38-year anti-Castro struggle.
Mas Canosa, 58, died of complications from lung cancer Sunday and was buried yesterday in the same Miami cemetery where my grandfather rests.
During the years when my grandfather was incapacitated by a stroke, Mas Canosa had struck gold in telecommunications. In 1981, he started the Cuban American National Foundation, now the most powerful Cuban freedom lobbying organization in Washington and throughout the world.
Grandfather never saw the milkman advise three American presidents and numerous world leaders on Cuban policy. He never saw Mas Canosa realize their common dreams.
But he would surely have applauded Mas Canosa's many achievements, including the foundation's role in formulating and passing important legislation that established Radio and TV Marti, as well as the 1996 Helms-Burton Act and the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act, both tightening the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba. He would have been proud of the foundation's many humanitarian efforts to help Cuban refugees stranded throughout the world.
Surely, he would have felt vindicated for making outrageous predictions about the milkman if he had witnessed Mas Canosa debate liberals in Congress or make minced meat out of Ricardo Alarcon, the head of Cuba's communist Parliament, in a 1996 televised debate.
When Mas Canosa was asked what assurances poor islanders had that rich exiles would not return and exploit them, his response would have made grandfather proud.
"The same assurances given us by the democratic system and the market economy when we arrived half-starved in this country," Mas Canosa replied. "[Americans] respected our dignity, gave us an opportunity to prosper in this country to the best of our ability."
Mas Canosa's death leaves an enormous void. No other Cuban-American leader commands the following he had.
His critics, including pro-Castro liberals and some Cuban-Americans who envied his power, said he was overly ambitious and utilized hefty political contributions to gain influence in Washington. But that's just what my grandfather would have admired. After all, he didn't promote terrorism or war. He modeled his organization after the typical American political action committee and delivered Cuban-American contributions and votes to politicians who stood firmly against Castro.
Some of his critics were overly concerned about whether Mas Canosa wanted to be the president of a free and democratic Cuba. But my grandfather would have considered that an honorable ambition. No doubt, he would have cast a vote for the milkman/president.
Many years later, as a journalist interviewing the most influential Cuban-American leader, many times I found myself filling my grandfather's shoes, continuing his conversations with the milkman.
On various occasions, I reminded Mas Canosa that my house had been on his milk route. He welcomed the topic because he knew I was a witness to his humble beginnings, his willingness to work hard for his family, and his long devotion to Cuba — even before he was rich and famous.
Of course, he remembered his conversations with my grandfather. "I feel so sorry Miguel died without seeing a free Cuba," Mas Canosa once told me as I interviewed him on a radio program. And that's exactly what I felt Sunday when I learned that the milkman had died.
(Published in The Record of Hackensack, NJ. Nov. 26, 1997)